A Ceremony of Carols

“A Ceremony of Carols—Wolcum Yule” by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) (Notes by Jeffry A. Jahn)

Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten of Aldeburgh, was a native of Suffolk, England. Britten was an outstanding pianist, conductor and a prolific composer of hymns, song cycles, choral works, orchestral pieces and operas – including the well-known Peter Grimes. He is considered a giant of 20th century British classical music. Britten was influenced by British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and was a close friend of Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich. He wrote many pieces for his musical collaborator and lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears. A Ceremony of Carols, composed in 1942 during a sea voyage from the United States to England, contains text from a Middle English work entitled ‘An English Galaxy of Shorter Poems’ by Gerald Bullett. Although Britten originally wrote the pieces as a series of unrelated songs, he later framed them as one work with unifying motifs played by solo harp and other motifs from Wolcum Yule.

Brightest and Best

“Brightest and Best” by Shawn Kirchner (b. 1970) (Notes by Ryan Phillips)

The well-known melody to Brightest and Best is drawn from William Walker’s 1835 compilation “The Southern Harmony, and Musical Companion.” This shape-note hymn and tune book was made up of 335 songs to be learned on solfège; a triangle represented ‘fa’, a circle ‘sol’, a square ‘la’, and a diamond ‘mi’. Together, these syllables were part of a system that helped bring music literacy and a new singing tradition to the Americas. Songs in “The Southern Harmony” were meant for all singers who wanted to sing. Tone was harsh and bright while conducting was simple; a jagged up and down motion strictly meant for tempo.

Shawn Kirchner’s contemporary arrangement maintains the original melody of the song while including a bluegrass-style instrumentation. In blending bluegrass and southern harmony, he emboldens the musical roots of North America. He also applies compositional techniques, such as canon, that would also have been used nearly two centuries prior. Novice choral singers would have utilized this technique to create harmonies without the need to learn different parts. Finally, Kirchner’s theme and variations arrangement of this old hymn-tune provides harmonic interest to sustain the listener through the ‘strophic’ verses.

Sweeter Still

“Sweeter Still: A Holiday Carol” by Eric William Barnum (b. 1979) (Notes by Thomas E. Lerew)

Barnum’s 2007, “Sweeter Still: A Holiday Carol” exhibits his mature mastery over the tools of the musical trade as well as a text from his own hand. A truly modern American carol, “Sweeter Still: A Holiday Carol” is illuminated by a nostalgic melody that pilots us over and around the outdoor aura that surrounds softly falling snow, gently blowing wind, brightly shining lights, and ringing Christmas bells. The carol then hones in on the indoor spectacle of children silently dreaming, and being awakened by what they think could be Saint Nick’s footsteps on the housetop: “They rush down the stairs hoping to see the bright smile of Santa before he disappears.” But, for Barnum and for us, what is even sweeter is the singing of a carol, the glow from a fire, and the family gathered together around the Christmas tree. What joy! What “sweet joy it brings to me.”

Ndikhokhele Bawo

“Ndikhokhele Bawo” – arr. Michael Barrett

The text of Ndikhokhele Bawo comes from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and is in the Xhosa language. This Bantu language falls into the category of Nguni languages, the same umbrella that contains Zulu; Xhosa is one of the most widely spoken languages in South Africa. Michael Barrett, Director of Choral Music Studies at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, sets this sacred text in a large-scale ‘ternary’ form, ABA. A solo soprano voice brings in the choir with a serene sense of hope and wonder. The women join in with the same soloistic style and the men accompany them in widely voiced homophony. The piece continues to grow in dynamics with a celebratory declaration.

Oh My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose

“Oh My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns (1759-1796)

Eighteenth-century Scottish poet Robert Burns composed the text for “Oh My Luve’s Like a Red, Red Rose” to depict the immense longing and passion of romantic love. Rene Clausen’s setting of this text would have ended our spring program’s set of love songs. The arrangement begins with obbligato violin and cello imitating the heart’s flutter. A sweeping piano accompaniment drives a dance-like 3/4 meter to encapsulate the meaning of Burns’ text, while the chorus stays in strict homophony to bring all hearts to one beating pulse.