Hodie Christus natus est – Gregorian Chant
Hodie Christus natus est – Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525-1594)
Hodie Christus natus est – Jan Pieters Sweelink (1562-1621)
Hodie Christus natus est – Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht – Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863)
Silent Night, Stille Nacht – arr. Kira Zeeman Rugen
Lo, How A Rose – arr. Daniel E. Gawthrop (b. 1949)
Lully, Lulla, Lullay – Philip WJ Stopford (b. 1977)
Gabriel’s Message – arr. Jonathan Rathbone
Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child – Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
Silent Night – arr. Michael McGlynn (b. 1964)
– INTERMISSION –
Welcome Yule! – Douglas Wagner (b. 1952)
Angels We Have Heard on High
The First Noel
Joy to the World
I’ll Be Home for Christmas – arr. Jane Fjelsted
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – arr. Ryan Brandau
Deck the Halls – arr. James McKelvy (1917-2003)
Jingle Bells – arr. Gordon Langford (b. 1930)
Silent Night – arr. Mark Johnson (b. 1959)
Ding Dong Merrily on High – arr. Howard Helvey (b. 1968)
The traditional chant Hodie Christus natus est comes from the Vespers (or Evensong) service for Christmas Day. Included in the Roman Catholic Liber usualis, a collection of liturgical texts and plainchant melodies for every service of the church year, the joyful “Hodie” antiphon follows the recitation of the Magnificat, or Canticle of Mary. Its message of celebration has inspired composers of sacred music for generations.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525 or 1526-1594) is perhaps the best-known composer of sacred polyphony in the late sixteenth century. Palestrina’s career bound him to Rome and the Catholic Church; he was a singer and composer for the Sistine Chapel, and famously wrote music that satisfied a Tridentine decree that all text be clearly understood. Later in his career, Palestrina took up an increasingly innovative musical style that included over 70 polychoral (“many-choir”) pieces, usually for the relaxed liturgical environment of religious confraternity meetings.
Palestrina published this double-chorus setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” as part of his Motettarum liber tertius of 1575. In the piece, he passes material between the two “choirs” of singers to generate a dialogic effect and textural variety. Renowned for his careful balance of consonance and dissonance, Palestrina’s harmonies are sweet and full, punctuated occasionally by lively vocal runs and jaunty dotted rhythms. Each line of text is capped with a refrain of “Noè, Noè”; the last is in triple meter, a possible acknowledgement of the Holy Trinity seen frequently in the “Alleluias” of the Venetian tradition.
Renowned Dutch composer and organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was the last of the great Franco-Flemish composers, the undisputed masters of the early Renaissance. Sweelinck’s setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” reflects a shift in the Continent’s musical epicenter from the Netherlands to Italy. Although he did not himself travel to southern Europe, Sweelinck kept himself abreast of the innovations of composers including Andrea Gabrieli of Venice, and translated volumes by the famed Italian theorist Gioseffo Zarlino. He published this setting of “Hodie Christus” in his Cantiones sacrae, a 1619 collection of Catholic liturgical music—unusual in Calvinist Amsterdam.
Sweelinck’s setting begins with a clarion call in the tenor voices, which recurs as a unifying motive throughout the piece. The full chorus responds to the tenors in antiphonal, or call-and-response, style, setting off volleys of imitation among the voices that suggest the hubbub among a crowd of the faithful. As the motet progresses, Sweelinck uses the madrigalian technique of text painting, in which the music almost pictorially represents the words: for example, he writes low notes for the text “on Earth,” and florid vocal lines as the angels sing out. The piece builds to a joyous interweaving of cries of “Alleluia” and “Noe,” or Noël.
A member of the twentieth-century Parisian avant-garde circle Les Six, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) sought to create novel sounds without an overly complex harmonic language, or, as he put it, “new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords.” Poulenc’s 1952 setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” is the fourth of his Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël, Christmas pieces that reflect his deep Catholic heritage. Poulenc opens his “Hodie” with a bold, chant-like incipit, then bringing in the ensemble for an ebullient jubilee characterized by playful yet worshipful contrast: sound and silence, angles and smoothness, consonance and dissonance, chords and counterpoint.
Like many works by Franz Schubert, Franz Xaver Gruber’s “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” [“Silent Night, Holy Night”] so successfully incorporates the folksong traits of his native Austria that it was assumed to be a folksong within twenty years of its composition. Gruber (1787-1863), a composer and organist, wrote the piece at the behest of an assistant priest at St. Nikolaus’s Church in Oberndorf for Christmas Eve, 1818; the priest, Josef Mohr, himself penned the poetic text in 1816. Originally performed with guitar accompaniment, Gruber’s simple Christmas song features a lilting meter and pastoral harmonies based on thirds, both contributors to its widespread appeal. One side effect of its popularity is that the “Stille Nacht” tune was almost immediately altered from Gruber’s original; here, it is presented in its prime form.
Composer, conductor, and Phoenix Chorale singer Kira Zeeman Rugen faced the challenge of arranging Franz Gruber’s “Stille Nacht” anew by looking to its lesser-known, original form. Of her setting, “Silent Night, Stille Nacht,” the composer writes: “The heart of the composition honors the original melody and harmony, and incorporates the accompanimental guitar as singers mimic the plucking with their voices. The song encircles each verse with a tonal conversation of plaintive chords, which are then answered by a haunting soprano melody. Each verse juxtaposes German and English text, and original musical elements against the newly composed chords and ethereal soprano melodies. The arrangement conveys a sense of longing and nostalgia, closing with the simplicity of ‘Silent Night’ in an angelic soprano duet.”
The text of “Lo, How a Rose” is a gloss on Isaiah’s prophecy in the Old Testament, “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” Medieval theologians used the image of a tree to illustrate Jesus’ royal bloodline, tracing his lineage to Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David. The original melody and German text of “Lo, How a Rose” were first published in the 1599 Speyer Hymnal, a collection of hymns for German Catholic worship. Theodore Baker’s English translation of the text, used here, appeared in 1894.
Arranger, composer, and organist Daniel E. Gawthrop, an Indiana native, sets this Marian hymn deferentially, preserving the original melody in its entirety. Opening with women’s voices, the first verse evokes the tenderness and intimacy of the manger scene; the men respond, recounting Isaiah’s prophecy. Throughout, Gawthrop enfolds the melody in close, colorful harmonies, illuminating the hymn tune as subtle moving lines within the choir suggest the wafting sweetness of the Christmas Rose.
Gawthrop’s “Lo, How a Rose” appears on the Phoenix Chorale’s 2011 release, Of a Rose: A Chorale Christmas.
Miracle plays, a staple of medieval drama, were pageants on religious subjects that occupied a space between worship and entertainment. The text now known as the Coventry Carol, “Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child,” comes from a cycle of Coventry miracle plays that originated in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. One of only two surviving Coventry plays, Herod and the Slaying of the Innocents dramatizes Herod’s killing of male infants after the birth of Jesus and contains this forlorn lullaby, sung by the women of Bethlehem. Both our settings of this iconic text feature the soprano voice, the embodiment of the mothers’ tender femininity.
A chorister at Westminster Abbey in his youth, British composer Philip Stopford trained as an organist and choirmaster at several vaunted British institutions, including Oxford’s Keble College and the Canterbury Cathedral. Now based in Bronxville, NY, Stopford serves as composer in residence and music director at Christ Church. His setting of “Lully, Lulla, Lullay”—recorded in 2015 by the St. Paul’s Cathedral Choir—juxtaposes the intimacy of the mothers’ lullaby with frequent, cutting dissonance.
Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988) studied classics at Oxford and went on to become a celebrated composer and professor of music. His background in history offers insight into his setting of “Lully, Lulla, Thou Little Tiny Child,” in which he carefully preserves the musical idiom of the original Coventry Carol, first transcribed in 1591. Leighton’s setting integrates romantic lyricism in the soprano line with bittersweet cross relations—a Renaissance technique contrasting raised and lowered tones—giving the piece a sense of deep mournfulness.
The Annunciation, the angel Gabriel’s revelation to Mary that she will bear the Son of God, comes from Luke’s Gospel. Gabriel’s visit, as well as a brief portion of Mary’s Magnificat, are paraphrased in the Basque carol, “The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came.” Originating in northwestern Spain, the tune and text—part of a rich but diffuse Basque tradition—were “collected” by French ethnographer Charles Bordes; the text was later translated and paraphrased by Sabine Baring Gould, an English priest and scholar.
Jonathan Rathbone, a GRAMMY-nominated composer, arranger, and conductor, trained at the historic Coventry Cathedral, Christ’s College at Cambridge, and the Royal Academy of Music. From 1984 to 1996, he sang with and music-directed the Swingle Singers, the renowned vocal chamber ensemble. His arrangement of “Gabriel’s Message (The Angel Gabriel)” is a dramatic reading of the Basque carol, combining musical intellectualism with the visceral excitement of the angel’s news. Rathbone masterfully uses key changes, shifts of meter, and cascading, chromatic voice lines to serve the message of the text.
Irishman Michael McGlynn is hailed as one of the foremost choral composers active today. His music, which integrates historical compositional techniques, the cultural influences of the British Isles, and jazz harmonies, has a vehicle in Anúna, McGlynn’s wildly popular Irish choral ensemble. Founded in 1987, the group has recorded over 16 albums, and has included numerous current and past Phoenix Chorale singers in its corps of—as McGlynn describes them—“the finest choral singers on the planet.” McGlynn’s arrangement of “Silent Night” haloes Franz Gruber’s melody with atmospheric harmonies in the treble voices. In a nod to the folk instrumental traditions of Ireland and Scotland, the bass voices sing sustained pedal tones, giving the piece a timeless quality as the upper voices weave an ethereal tapestry of sound.
Douglas E. Wagner’s “Welcome Yule!” is an exhilarating invitation to share in the joy and fellowship of the Christmas season. Wagner’s multifaceted output includes works for concert band, symphony orchestra, and handbells, in addition to his choral works. His experience in instrumental music is manifest in this fanfare-like piece, in which rhythmic vitality and bright harmonies enliven the tidings of Jesus’ birth. Wagner draws the text of “Welcome Yule!” from an early fifteenth-century carol written by English poet John the Blind Audelay, clothing it in a quasi-medieval musical language that includes a traditional verse-refrain form, modal scales, and characteristically English harmonies in which the voices rise and fall in similar motion.
Wagner’s “Welcome Yule!” appears on the Phoenix Chorale’s 2011 release, Of a Rose: A Chorale Christmas.
The French text “Les Anges dans nos campagnes”—or “Angels We Have Heard on High,” in James Chadwick’s 1862 translation—comments on the angels’ annunciation of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven.’” The anonymously written carol tune features a florid “Gloria” refrain, or burden, after each verse.
“The First Noel” is a Cornish carol dating from the seventeenth century. British antiquarian William Sandys first published the tune and lyrics together in 1833. The carol is in bar form, a common musical structure in English and German folk music, which features a repeated melody followed by a refrain. In this case, the refrain is an effusive and moving proclamation of Jesus’ birth.
The melody of “Joy to the World,” a hymn tune known as Antioch, is of disputed authorship. American hymn composer Lowell Mason (1792-1872) claimed to have arranged the hymn in 1836 from fragments of G. F. Handel’s Messiah—specifically, motives found in “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates” and “Comfort Ye”—thus inspiring the popular notion that Handel originated the tune. However, scholars have identified similar melodies in English collections dating from 1833. The jubilant text is by Isaac Watts, a hymn writer active in the early eighteenth century.
The 1943 top-ten hit “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was made famous by Bing Crosby, who earned a gold record with his recording of the wartime ballad. Penned by songwriter/lyricist duo Walter Kent and James “Kim” Gannon, the song has since been recorded by acts as diverse as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Kelly Clarkson, and Pentatonix. Arranger Jane Fjeldsted, a University of Utah-educated composer and the conductor of the Salt Lake Singers, honors the innocence of the original with a straightforward presentation tinged by wistful jazz harmonies.
Songwriting team Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for MGM’s 1944 Judy Garland feature, Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland herself pressed Martin to alter the original lyrics to be more hopeful, and the resulting version appears in the film and subsequent recordings. Ryan James Brandau, a New York-based conductor, composer, and singer, bathes the song in jazz-inflected dissonances that make each consonance the sweeter. Also a Cambridge-trained musicologist, Brandau nods to the Christmas carol tradition by incorporating melodic flourishes evocative of tunes like “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Ding Dong! Merrily on High.”
The popular carol “Deck the Halls” was originally a Welsh air celebrating the New Year, with text by the bard Talhaiarn. Englishman Thomas Oliphant translated the text and published the song, harmonized, in the second volume of his 1862 Welsh Melodies: With Welsh and English Poetry. Variants on the text more specific to Christmas appeared in American editions as early as 1877. James McKelvy’s lively arrangement, “Deck the Halls (In 7/8),” maintains the carol’s signature tune and madrigalian fa-la refrain. In a departure, however, McKelvy sets the carol in 7/8 meter, meaning that the pulses in a measure may be grouped either 3+4 or 4+3. The resulting asymmetrical romp is a standard of American holiday choral music.
American songwriter James Lord Pierpoint (1822-1893) published the secular carol now called “Jingle Bells” as “The One-Horse Open Sleigh” in 1857. Gordon Langford’s playful arrangement fuses the charming original with the colors and nimble rhythms of vocal jazz. Langford’s penchant for mixing popular and classical styles is clear in his greater oeuvre, which ranges from film orchestrations and choral arrangements to new works for brass band and symphony orchestra. His long association with the King’s Singers, which began with five arrangements for their 1971 debut album, has resulted in a wide and devoted audience.
Mark Johnson’s intimate setting of “Silent Night” opens with a transparent duet for women’s voices, the soprano line ringing repeated tones like the shimmering constancy of the Star of Bethlehem. The full, luminescent harmonies of the middle verse underscore the loving message of Christ’s redemption. As it began, the piece closes with an introspective duet in the men’s voices, inviting all to contemplate the Christmas message of peace.
Howard Helvey’s arrangement of the traditional French carol “Ding Dong! Merrily on High” has something of Stravinsky and something of Sleigh Ride. It features a relentlessly shifting metrical underpinning that confounds expectations, punctuated by exuberant refrains of “Gloria,” each one a reimagining of the traditional carol descant. Helvey’s close, jazzy harmonies give the piece a lush, euphoric feel and a decidedly modern update.
Allegedly composed on a sweltering summer day, “The Christmas Song” resulted from a collaboration between beloved jazz singer and arranger Mel Tormé and lyricist Bob Wells. Originally entitled “Merry Christmas to You,” the song is ranked first on ASCAP’s top 25 most-performed Christmas songs, and Tormé playfully referred to it as his “annuity.” The present arrangement is by Peter Knight, a British film composer and orchestrator who is also famous for his work on pop-symphonic amalgamations, including The Moody Blues’ iconic 1969 album, Days of Future Passed.
© Program notes by Dr. Kerry Ginger; edited by Ryan Downey.