PROGRAM NOTES by Donald Draganski
“At Christmas play, and make good cheer,
For Christmas comes but once a year.”
Thomas Tusser, 1580
The earliest reference to carol singing at Christmastime dates from
1020. On Christmas eve of that year, according to one Theodoric, twelve
revelers gathered at the Church of St. Magnus in Saxony and proceeded
to dance and sing in the churchyard. When the priest asked the group
to stop their “profanations” they refused and the overly
pious father invoked the wrath of the Lord upon them. The merrymakers
discovered that they could not break out of the circle, and thus they
danced for one full year, neither drinking nor sleeping, until the curse
was lifted the following Christmas Eve.
Nowadays singing and merrymaking at Christmas have happily triumphed
over these earlier dour dicta (with some backsliding during the Puritan
ascendancy), and our midwinter festivities would be bleak indeed without
the singing and conviviality that lie at the very heart of the holidays.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote his first cantata, Saint Nicolas,
for the centenary celebrations of Lancing College, England, in 1948.
With a craftsman’s practical eye trained on the resources available
for the occasion, he scored the work for a four-part chorus of boys,
a girls’ school chorus, and an instrumental ensemble drawn from
the student body. The Golden Legend, a thirteenth century collection
of legends and lives of the saints, provides the story on which the
text is based. This St. Nicolas is quite different from the Santa Claus
into which he evolved, but they both share the same propensity for gift-giving.
The INTRODUCTION tells how the saint miraculously appears to a congregation
assembled on his feast day. The chorus pleads with the saint to tell
his story. THE BIRTH OF NICOLAS describes his baptism, while in the
next section, NICOLAS DEVOTES HIMSELF TO GOD, the saint expresses his
shock at the miseries of mankind. HE JOURNEYS TO PALESTINE is a vivid
tone-painting of his pilgrimage by sea and the violent storm which he
quells. NICOLAS COMES TO MYRA AND IS CHOSEN BISHOP features an elaborate
chorus as he receives his episcopal staff. This section closes with
the congregation joining the chorus in the singing of Old Hundredth.
NICOLAS FROM PRISON depicts an agitated saint as he speculates on the
Roman persecution of the Christians. NICOLAS AND THE PICKLED BOYS, the
most noteworthy section of this cantata, relates the story of three
mothers who mourn their missing sons. The boys have been killed, pickled
in brine, and are to be sold as meat to the hungry. (Shades of Sweeney
Todd?) The saint, discovering the boys’ predicament, calls them
back to life and his prayers are accompanied by an exuberant “Alleluia.”
The next section, HIS PIETY AND MARVELOUS WORKS, relates several additional
legends associated with Nicolas, including the famous story of the three
poverty-stricken daughters who are saved from a life of prostitution
by Nicolas’s timely gift of gold for their marriage dowry. The
cantata closes with THE DEATH OF NICOLAS, a prayful Nunc Dimittis to
the accompaniment of bells.
The North Shore Choral Society has performed Britten’s Saint
Nicolas on several occasions, most recently in November 1994.
The other piece by Britten on today’s program, A Boy was born,
for unaccompanied mixed chorus, represents one of Britten’s earliest
successes. Written when the composer was only twenty-one, it was broadcast
with great success over the BBC in 1934, as it heralded the arrival
of a bright new star on the English musical scene. The text is adapted
from the German hymn “Ein Kind geboren zu Bethlehem,” perhaps
better known by the Latin, “Puer natus.” The entire work
consists of the hymn followed by six variations. Today’s concert
presents only the hymn.
Randall Thompson (1899-1984), often referred to as the dean of American
choral composers, received his schooling at Harvard and received his
doctorate from the University of Rochester School of Music. During his
long and distinguished career he taught at a number of institutions,
including Wellesley College, the University of California, the Curtis
Institute of Music, the University of Virginia, Princeton University,
and finally at his alma mater, Harvard. He always felt that composing
and teaching were equally important in his pursuit of music as a vocation.
He wrote his Alleluia for the opening exercises of the Berkshire Music
Center near Lenox, Massachusetts, and there it received its first performance
in July 1940. NSCS last performed this lively and popular work in 1992.
The Welsh composer William Mathias (1934-1992) studied at the Royal
Academy of Music in London and eventually assumed the post of Professor
of Music at the University College of Bangor in Wales. Although his
musical output encompasses a wide variety of forms, his principal concentration
has been on choral music, no doubt influenced by the rich tradition
of choral singing among his Welsh countrymen. He died all too soon in
his 58th year.
Mathias wrote his Salvator Mundi as a commission for the Cheltenham
Ladies’ College in association with the Welsh Arts Council. First
performed in 1982, it is scored for women’s voices, with a small
instrumental ensemble with a piano duet at its core — including
same instrumentation as Britten’s St. Nicolas. All the poems that
make up the text are concerned with the Nativity and most are drawn
from anonymous sources. However, the second and third movements derive
from a manuscript dated 1492 (housed at Cambridge University Library).
The manuscript consists of some 270 carols and lyrics relating to Christmas.
It was assembled by James Ryman (fl. 1476), a Franciscan friar at Canterbury.
Phillis Margaret Tate (1911-1987) was already composing at an early
age, although, like so many other composers, she subsequently destroyed
most of her juvenalia. She studied at the Royal Academy of Music in
London and enjoyed her first public success in 1947 with a sonata for
clarinet and cello. Throughout her professional career she always tried
to direct her art to as wide an audience as possible, as evidenced by
the large number of her works designed for both amateurs and children.
Carol, with Lullaby, for mixed chorus and piano, was originally included
in a collection of carols published by Oxford in 1961; since then the
piece has taken on an independent life of its own among choirs throughout
the English-speaking world. The words were adapted by the composer from
the 15th century Coventry Carol, which relates the slaying of the innocents
by King Herod.
Copyright © 2003 by Donald Draganski
Donald Draganski was born in Chicago and received his Bachelor’s
degree in music from DePaul University where he studied composition
privately with the late Alexander Tcherepnin. He is now retired, after
having served as Music Librarian at Roosevelt University for twenty-five
years. He holds the chair of first bassoonist with the Evanston Symphony
Orchestra and is also composer-in-residence for the Pilgrim Chamber
Players. His musical compositions include works in all forms, vocal
and instrumental, including his Geometry of Music, a choral piece written
in 1985 to mark the 50th anniversary of the North Shore Choral Society.
He has been writing program notes for the Society since 1980.
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