Winter Concert 2016

Candlelight Christmas - Program Notes

by Gary Boerkel


One of the many joys of Christmas is that it is the season when the music and poetry of past ages live once more. Our program includes melodies that are more than 600 years old, with some texts almost as ancient, and several works that are younger than the youngest members of the Susquehanna Valley Chorale. Some works on our program were originally folk music, arranged by some of the finest choral arrangers of the last century, and others were the creation of some of Europe’s greatest composers. Christmas has made human hearts sing for many centuries, and we hope it will do the same for you.

Every Christmas Eve since 1919, Once in Royal David's City has been the processional hymn of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at the King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The text, by Cecil Frances Alexander, was published in a hymnal for children in 1848. It was set to music a year later by the English organist Henry John Gauntlett. Mrs. Alexander also wrote the words to the popular children’s hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful.

Michael Praetorius [1571-1621] was an excellent organist and one of the most prolific and esteemed German composers of his time. Praetorius’ music for the most part was written for use in Lutheran churches, Praetorius being the son of a Lutheran pastor, and is based on the chorale melodies collected by Martin Luther. Both the words and music of In dulci jubilo date from the late Middle Ages. Praetorius made his arrangement in 1607. The English title Good Christian Men, Rejoice was applied to the ancient melody in 1853.

Festival First Nowell  is one of two arrangements on this program by Dan Forrest [b. 1978], a graduate of Bob Jones University, where he has since served as chairman of the department of music theory and composition. The First Nowell appeared in print in Carols Ancient and Modern [London, 1833], although it may have been first sung in Cornwall more than a century earlier when the word nowell was a synonym for Christmas in many parts of England.

Greensleeves, the original title of the tune What Child is This, was well-known in Shakespeare’s time. Falstaff mentions it in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But, as some believe, the lovely English melody was almost certainly not written by King Henry VIII. Vaughan Williams composed a Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ in 1934. The Christmas text “What Child is This” was published by William Chatterton Dix in 1865. Chatterton’s other lyrics include Alleluia! Sing to Jesus and As With Gladness Men of Old.

After St. Francis of Assisi [1182-1226] introduced the nativity scene as a Christmas tradition, singing hymns at the crèche became popular in France. Noël, Nouvelet, with its Dorian melody and simple harmony, is a fine example of this age-old custom in which participants often dressed as shepherds.  Sing We Now of Christmas is an English translation of the original French. The arranger, Fred Prentice, was a choral director at the University of Alabama.

Ding Dong! Merrily on High is an English Christmas song based on a 16th c. French tune. The melody first appeared in Thoinot Arbeau’s guide to social dancing, Orchésographie [1589] that was well-known throughout Europe for centuries (it is still available in a Dover edition). George Ratcliff Woodward published his lyric with Arbeau’s melody in The Cambridge Carol-Book: Being Fifty-two Songs for Christmas, Easter, and Other Seasons [1924].

Sweet Songs of Christmas was composed for Canadian Brass in 1994 by Chris Dedrick [1947-2010]. Dedrick was a founding member of The Free Design, a New York-based pop group that achieved great success with a handful of devoted friends. After the band disbanded in 1972, he moved to Toronto where he pursued a career as an arranger and composer for film and television, as well as the internationally-renowned brass quintet Canadian Brass. Dedrick composed the lyrics as well as the music of Sweet Songs of Christmas.

The Norman Luboff Choir was one of the leading American choruses from the 1950s to the 1970s. The Choir’s recording of Still, Still, Still in 1958 was an instant hit, and Luboff’s arrangement has not lost any of its popularity. The melody probably originated in the region around Salzburg, Austria, which was Mozart’s birthplace and the setting for The Sound of Music, and was first published in a collection of folk songs in 1865.

Charles Bordes [1863-1909] was one of France’s greatest musical scholars, a pioneer in the collection and performance of medieval and Renaissance vocal music. Bordes made the first transcription of the carol Gabriel’s Message from the original Basque, a language spoken in the border area between France and Spain. Sabine Baring-Gould, distinguished English author and folklorist, translated the text into English.

Mariae Wiegenlied (Mary's lullaby) has a long history. It was originally a 14th c. Latin carol which was given a German text, Joseph lieber, Joseph mein, in the 15th c. Later, Praetorius arranged it in the 17th c., and Brahms used the melody in a lovely song for voice, viola, and piano entitled Geistliches Wiegenlied. In 1912, Max Reger [1873-1916], one of Germany’s most distinguished composers, made this setting with a new lyric by Martin Boelitz.

Randol Alan Bass [b. 1953] is a Midland, Texas, native who studied music at The University of Texas [Austin] and the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. He conducts the Metropolitan Winds in Dallas, Texas, and has composed music for prestigious musical ensembles. His Gloria was written in 1990 for the New York Pops Orchestra and was subsequently recorded by the Boston Pops and Keith Lockhart.

William Mathias [1934-1992] was a Welsh composer, pianist, and conductor, who was the head of the music department at the University College of North Wales. Although he composed in many genres, including an opera and three symphonies, most of his music was written for the Anglican Church. Wassail Carol, using an anonymous 16th c. text, was composed in 1969.

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