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Holiday Favorites Program Notes

The first part of our Christmas program features three favorite Baroque masterpieces, starting with the “Entrance of the Queen of Sheba” from George Frederic Handel’s Solomon (1749).  This excerpt—originally the overture to Act III of the oratorio—is based on the Biblical account (1 Kings 10) of King Solomon receiving the visiting Queen of Sheba, whom other sources identify as an Ethiopian ruler.

The overture resembles a concerto in its alternation of solo and tutti passages; special prominence is given to the two oboes.  This vibrant music does brilliantly what all overtures ought to do:  arouse our expectations for more great music to follow—whether it is the rest of Handel’s oratorio or something entirely different.

 

Arcangelo Corelli was, in the words of musicologist Michael Talbot, ‟the first composer to derive his fame exclusively from instrumental composition, the first to owe his reputation in large part to the activity of music publishers, and the first to produce ‛classic’ instrumental works which were admired and studied long after their idiom became outmoded.”

Corelli’s output is relatively small, compared to other Baroque composers.  His fame rests on only six printed collections of music, five of which are sonatas.  The last one, containing the epoch-making 12 concerti grossi, was published in Amsterdam in 1714, the year after the composer’s death.  In a concerto grosso, a small group of soloists (usually two violins and a cello), called the concertino, alternates with the larger ensemble, called the concerto grosso (later known as the ripieno).  It is generally agreed that this form, cultivated later by Geminiani, Locatelli, Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel, was largely Corelli’s invention.

The twelve concertos in Corelli’s Op. 6 are in four, five, or six movements and follow no single structural model.  The work we shall hear tonight is the only one in the set to have a nickname:  ‟fatto per la notte di natale” (‟made for Christmas night”).  Commissioned by the music-loving Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, this work has all the solemnity associated with the holiday, tempered at the end by a graceful Pastorale symbolizing the Nativity.  There are six movements, but two of them (the first and the third) are further subdivided by abrupt tempo changes.  As a result, the character of the music changes frequently, and sometimes rather abruptly, in the course of the concerto.  Contrapuntal moments, as in the Grave of the first movement, are followed by lyrical episodes and dances, before the surprising turn from the minor mode to the major in the concluding Pastorale.

 

During the day, Cesar Cui, the least well-known of the group of composers known as the ‟Mighty Handful” (or ‟The Russian Five”), was an army officer who taught at several military academies in St. Petersburg while maintaining a second career as a composer and music critic.  His works include operas, chamber works and songs; the present choral piece is one in a set of six published in 1895 as Op. 53.  The original title was ‟Nocturne,” after a poem by Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841).  The English words with which the piece has become internationally known are by Miriam Chase.  An intimate, heartfelt composition with delicate harmonies, it will leave us in a peaceful and introspective mood.

 

In 1949, Ralph Vaughan Williams was commissioned by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes—a large British community organization—to compose a work to be performed by amateur singers.  Vaughan Williams, who had been at the forefront of the English folk-song revival since the beginning of the 20th century, arranged a cycle on the subject of the four seasons, representing winter by a set of four songs, three of which explicitly refer to the custom of ‟wassailing,” an old term for caroling—going door to door singing Christmas songs in hopes of receiving a little money and a little food…

Vaughan Williams knew that the extremely large group of women that would perform Folksongs of the Four Seasons consisted of singers of vastly different levels of accomplishment; therefore he carefully distinguished between simpler and more demanding vocal parts.  In the event, the work was premiered at Royal Albert Hall in London on June 15, 1950, with the Women’s Institute and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult.  RVW’s wife Ursula later recalled that ‟the audience seemed far fewer than the performers.”
Children’s Christmas Song (Yorkshire Wassail)

We’ve been a-while a-wandering
Amongst the leaves so green.
But now we come a wassailing
So plainly to be seen.

For it’s Christmas time,
when we travel far and near;
May God bless you
and send you a happy New Year.

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
We are your neighbors children,
Whom you’ve seen before;
For it’s, etc.

Good master and good mistress,
While you’re sitting by the fire,
Pray think of us poor children
That’s wandered in the mire;
For it’s, etc.

We’ve got a little purse;
Made of leathern ratchin skin;
We want a little of your money
To line it well within;
For it’s, etc.

Bring us out a table
And spread it with a cloth,
Bring us out a mouldy cheese
And some of your Christmas loaf;
For it’s, etc.


Wassail Song

Wassail, Wassail, all over the town,
Our bread it is white and ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the green maple tree;
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Here’s a health to the ox and to his right eye,
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie,
A good Christmas pie as e’er I did see.
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Here’s a health to the ox and to his right horn,
Pray God send our master a good crop of corn,
A good crop of corn as e’er I did see,
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Here’s a health to the cow and to her long tail,
Pray God send our master a good cask of ale,
A good cask of ale as e’er I did see,
In the Wassail bowl we’ll drink unto thee.

Come, butler, come fill us a bowl of the best;
Then I pray that your soul in heaven may rest;
But if you do bring us a bowl of the small,
May the Devil take butler, bowl and all!

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock,
Who tripp’d to the door and slipp’d back the lock;
Who tripp’d to the door and pull’d back the pin,
For to let these jolly Wassailers walk in.
In Bethlehem City

In Bethlehem city, in Judea it was,
That Joseph and Mary together did pass,
All for to be taxed when thither they came,
For Caesar Augustus commanded the same.

Chorus:
Then let us be merry, cast sorrow away,
Our Saviour Christ Jesus was born on this day.

But Mary’s full time being come as we find,
She brought forth her first-born to save all mankind;
The inn being full of the heavenly Guest,
No place could she find to lay Him to rest.

(Chorus)

Then they were constrained in a stable to lie
Where horses and asses they used for to tie.
Their lodging so simple the look in no scorn,
Our Saviour, Ou Saviour was born!

(Chorus)

Then God send an angel from Heaven so high
To certain poor shepherds in fields where they lie.
And bade them no longer in sorrow to stay
Because that our Saviour was born on this day.

(Chorus)

Then presently after the shepherds did spy,
Vast numbers of angels did stand in the sky;
So merry were talking, so sweetly did sing,
“All glory and praise to the heavenly King!”

Chorus:
Then let us be merry, cast sorrow aside,
Our Saviour Christ Jesus was born on this tide.
God Bless the Master

God Bless the master of this house,
with happiness beside
Where’er his body rides or walks
His God must be his guide.

God Bless the mistress of this house
With gold chain on her breast
Where’er her body sleeps or wakes,
Lord send her soul to rest.

God Bless your house, your children too,
Your cattle and your store,
The Lord increase you day by day
And send you more and more.

 

The four violin concertos known as Le quattro stagioni (‟The Four Seasons”) are not only among the most popular works of their composer, Antonio Vivaldi, but also among the best-known classical compositions of all times.  Vivaldi did more than any composer to develop and codify the Baroque concerto.  He established many of the concerto’s standard features, such as its three-movement (fast-slow-fast) structure, its orchestral ritornellos (returning melodies that punctuate that structure), lyrical (usually short) slow movements, and spirited finales (often using dance rhythms).  These rules, however, left a lot of room for variety, and Vivaldi’s melodic invention and his ingenuity in handling musical form in his more than 500 concertos seem endless indeed.

The Four Seasons—fourviolin concertos, each devoted to one of the seasons—were published in 1725 as part of a collection entitled Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione (‟The Test of Harmony and Invention”).  These early examples of program music are among the boldest musical experiments of the 18th century.  Vivaldi, displaying no mean poetic gifts, composed a sonnet about each season, and inscribed the poems into the score, indicating precisely where the events mentioned take place in the music.  At the same time, despite all the storms, singing birds, barking dogs, stumbling drunkards and more, Vivaldi managed to keep the concertos musically coherent and always preserve the basic ritornello-episode alternation characteristic of the genre.

Here is a prose translation of the sonnet accompanying the ‟Winter” Concerto, providing an outline for the program of each of the three movements:

Winter

  1. Trembling with cold amidst the freezing snow, while a frightful wind harshly blows, running and stamping one’s feet every minute, and feeling one’s teeth chatter from the extreme cold;
  2. Spending quiet contented days by the firs while the rain outside drenches people by the hundreds,
  3. Walking on ice, and moving cautiously, with slow steps, for fear of falling, spinning around; slipping, falling down, again walking on ice and running fast until the ice cracks and splits; hearing Sirocco, Boreas, and all the winds at war burst forth from the bolted doors—this is winter, but it also brings joy!

 

Mozart’s second surviving son Franz Xaver Wolfgang Mozart, who was only five months old when his father died, was a composer-pianist who suffered enormously under the weight of Wolfgang Amadé’s legacy.  He spent most of his career far from his native Vienna, in Lemberg (the present-day Lviv, Ukraine); his works—mostly songs and piano music—were neglected for a long time and have only begun to attract the interest of performers and researchers relatively recently.  The present duet was originally part of a cantata written in 1825.


Engel Gottes künden,
daß in dieser Nacht
Trost in dem wir finden,
der uns Heil gebracht.
Fern aus lichtem Schimmer
tönt es: “Fried und Freud
sei euch, wenn ihr immer
guten Willens seid!”

Arm hier unter Armen
Gott als Mensch erscheint;
reich ist an Erbarmen,
der als Kindlein weint.
Und die Hirten eilen
zu der Krippe hin,
wo sie betend weilen
mit ergebnem Sinn. 



Laß uns Christen alle
in der heilgen Nacht
froh im Jubelschalle
ahnen Gottesmacht.
Aus der Sünde Banden
ward die Welt befreit
von dem Gottgesandten:
Heil der Christenheit.
God’s angels announce
that on this night
we shall find solace
in Him who brings us salvation.
From afar, in a light glimmer,
we hear:  ‟Peace and joy
to you, if you are
of good will.”

God appears as man,
poor among poor people,
crying as a baby,
he is rich in mercy.
And the shepherds hurry
to the manger,
where they stay, praying,
full of devotion.

Let us Christians all
feel God’s power,
rejoicing with songs of jubilation
on this holy night.
The world was freed
from the bonds of sin
by Him who was sent by God,
salvation of Christendom.

 

Rutter’s Nativity Carol, published in 1967—an original poem and melody by the prominent British choral composer—quickly established itself as a favorite with singers and audiences alike.

Born in a stable so bare,
Born so long ago
Born ‘neath light of star
He who loved us so
Far away, silent he lay
Born today, your homage pay
For Christ is born for aye
Born on Christmas Day

Cradled by mother so fair
Tender her lullaby
Over her son so dear
Angel hosts fill the sky
Far away, silent he lay…

Wise men from distant far land
Sheperds from starry hills
Worship this babe so rare
Hearts with his warmth he fills
Far away, silent he lay…

Love in that stable was born
Into our hearts to flow
Innocent dreaming babe
Make me thy love to know
Far away, silent he lay…

 

Johann Sebastian Bach learned concerto-writing from Italian models, but he transformed those models almost beyond recognition, enriching the concerto form to a degree never seen before.  His six concertos, known as the “Brandenburgs” because they were dedicated to the Margrave of Brandenburg in 1721 (and probably composed a few years before that), exude a spirit of cheerfulness and joy, suggesting that the composer had supreme fun writing them.  At the same time, they represent a most serious effort on Bach’s part to increase the level of musical sophistication in the concerto genre.

The third concerto has no prominent solo instruments, but neither does it display the concertino-ripieno division of the Corellian concerto grosso.  Instead, the players are contrasted in ever-changing combinations.  Some instruments (and groups) will temporarily emerge as soloists, then make way for others.

One of the most prominent characteristic of this music is a strong rhythmic unity in all voices.  This uniformity translates into a feeling of high energy and optimism, though it doesn’t exclude moments of relative instability.  The tonality temporarily shifts to the minor, daring dissonances appear, and the instruments go their separate ways for a while until they are reunited by the periodic returns of the opening melody.  There is no written-out second movement; in its place, Bach merely notated two chords, evidently expecting the performers to improvise over them.  The last movement, then, is a perpetuum mobile in which two rhythmic figures (eighth-notes and sixteenths) are passed back and forth like balls in a game.

 

There can be no musical Christmas celebration without at least an excerpt from Handel’s Messiah, that great oratorio from 1741 which retells the entire life of Christ from Nativity (Part I) through Passion (Part II) and Resurrection (Part III).  One of the great moments of the Christmas section is the chorus ‟For unto us a Child is born,” which begins as a fugue in a very free style and ends with a jubilant proclamation that anticipates the celebrated Hallelujah chorus in Part II.

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the Government shall be upon his Shoulder; and His Name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

(Isaiah 9,6)

Hallelujah! For the Lird God Omnipotent reigneth.  The Kingdom of this World is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He shall reign for ever and ever, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.  Hallelujah!

(Revelation 19,6; 11,15; 19,16)