A Ceremony of Carols - December 2018 - Program Notes

Adam Lay Ybounden

Boris Ord was organist and choirmaster at King’s College, Cambridge, from 1929 to 1957. He has written this one published piece of music, which was a fixture of the Lessons and Carols Service at King’s. There is a wonderful digitally re-mastered film of a 1954 BBC broadcast of Lessons and Carols at King’s available on YouTube, wherein one can observe the very restrained Mr. Ord barely conducting at all. Barry Rose is a well known organist/choirmaster, having served such illustrious institutions as St. Paul’s and St. Alban’s Cathedrals. He got his start, however, as the organist/choirmaster at the newly created Guildford Cathedral at the age of 25.

As I Outrode this Enderes Night

Gerald Hendrie is an active organist and harpsichordist as well as a composer. This work was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for Lessons and Carols.

O magnum mysterium

Cristóbal de Morales is universally considered to be the most important Spanish composer before Victoria. His work, which consists entirely of vocal music (and nearly all of it sacred), was widely distributed throughout Europe and the New World. Morales’ style is based always on a concern for careful expression of the text. His music strikes the listener as mysterious, emotional, yet transcendent. The clear, utterly perfect polyphonic style of Palestrina is mixed with this almost exotic emotionalism – a characteristic on which many have commented in the music of the Iberian peninsula.

Pueri concinite

Jacob Handl mostly used the Latin form of his name all his adult life: Jacobus Gallus, and often appended the adjective form of the name of his hometown in Slovenia, Carniola. Jacobus Gallus Carniolus became a monk, traveled across Eastern Europe, became a member of the Viennese Court Chapel, then later Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Olomouc. He left behind a sizable body of motets, masses, and secular songs. He was called the “Bohemian Palestrina” because of his beautiful counterpoint. I found an interesting tidbit on Wikipedia: apparently an image of Gallus appears on the Slovenian 200 Tolar bill along with an excerpt of one of his mass settings.

The Blessed Virgin's Cradle Song

Sir Edward Cuthbert Bairstow worked most of his life in Yorkshire, holding the post of organist at York Minster from 1913 until his death in 1946. When offered the position at Westminster Abbey he refused and instead recommended his pupil, Ernest Bullock, who then quickly received the appointment. Francis Jackson, also a former pupil and successor to Bairstow at York, quotes Bairstow in an address to the Church Music Society in July of 1986:

I was born in the West Riding, and I know the Yorkshire-man with his fearlessness, his energy, his rather material outlook, and his straightness which sometimes develops into rudeness. That is the main reason why I stayed —because I believe I am more useful here than in London. But, naturally, there was also the pull of the Minster and the beautiful City of York. Usefulness and a life amidst beautiful surroundings are of far more importance to one’s happiness than notoriety and a large income.

Ave Maria

Several years ago when Bella Voce last performed this work, I wrote:

It seems that very little information can be found regarding Jean Collot. I have researched the databases of Grove Music and Oxford Music Online to no avail. From the website of his publisher, Schott Music, I was able to determine his birth and death years and that he was born in Belgium, but nothing else. I came across this little motet in the library of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and found it utterly charming. So, we have a little mystery! If you can help I would love to hear from you.

Thankfully I did indeed hear from an audience member, Gaylord Brynolfson, who was able to track down some additional information: Collot was born in 1907 in Florée, Belgium, studied with Flor Peeters and Charles Hens, was organist at St-Pierre-de-Jette, Brussels, and titular organist of the Saint Michael College Church organ in Brussels until 1978.

O regem coeli / Natus est nobis

Tomás Luis de Victoria wrote sacred music exclusively. Born in Àvila, Spain, he traveled to Rome, joined St. Ignatius Loyola’s monastery in the struggle against a surging Lutheranism, and probably studied with Palestrina. At the time, Victoria was considered the second best composer in Europe, after only Palestrina, the undisputed benchmark of quality and stylistic wholeness. But of course, these judgments and rankings are subjective and need not restrain us as we listen to the music of Victoria. Many listeners and singers of Victoria’s music experience a more direct and immediate emotional stimulation, as well as sensing a mystical quality – much like his fellow Spaniard, Morales.

I Sing of a Maiden

In the waning days of World War I, Patrick Hadley suffered an injury that led to the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Though he never quite recovered emotionally from this injury, he was nevertheless able to study composition with Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams and conducting with Adrian Boult and Malcolm Sargent. His compositional output is quite small but marked with brilliance. We perform what is considered his most famous piece.

Andrew Lewis

A Ceremony of Carols, op. 28

On a return voyage to England following a stay in North America from 1939 to 1942, Britten composed seven of these carols.   At a stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia he purchased a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems.  Five of the anonymous medieval poems (numbers 3, 5, 6, 8, and 10) in this collection were set to music on this voyage.  The use of harp accompaniment was the result of his having studied two harp manuals on the voyage. Upon arrival in England, he completed the cycle with settings of texts from the sixteenth century and added the plainsong chant which serves as the Procession and Recession (Numbers 1 & 11).

There is some confusion over whether the work was composed for boys’ voices, probably due to the fact that in correspondence as early as September 1942 Britten referred to the work as being written for “children’s voices.” In fact, it was conceived for women’s voices and harp and was premiered in Norwich Castle in December,1942 by the Fleet Street Choir and soprano Margaret Ritchie, and dedicated to the singing teacher Ursula Nettleship. Only later did he seem to become enamored by boys’ voices when Britten wrote:

[the carols] have had a series of thrilling shows by a choir of little Welsh boys (from a school in the poorest part of Swansea) and a great Russian harpist, Maria Korchinska. This has meant many journeys to Wales to rehearse, & then they all (35!) came up to town & sang the piece many times, & to record it […] People seem to love the piece, & altho’ it has been only printed about a month, the 1st edition is just on sold out.

The popularity of the work prompted the publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, to commission the composer Julius Harrison, with Britten’s blessing, to make an SATB arrangement.  Of course we perform it this evening in its original guise.

Melodies alternate between modal, major, and minor tonalities. Vocal textures are mainly homophonic or chordal, with the exception of some counterpoint in movements five, six, eight, and nine. “Wolcom Yole” (Number 2) is a good example of this chordal technique, with harp ostinato chords forming the accompaniment.  The medieval practice of using more than one language at the same time is utilized in a few movements, particularly Numbers 3 and 10. “Balulalow” (Number 4b) is a lullaby and the rhythm of the voices invokes a gentle rocking of a cradle. “As Dew in Aprille” (Number 5) is in three sections; the first and third sections are chordal while the middle section uses a 2-part canon split between all of the voice parts.  “This little Babe” (Number 6) begins with a unison melody but subsequent verses utilize canons first with two voices and then with three in close succession to create excitement; in the climax of this movement the melody is augmented and rhythmic tension is created by the use of hemiola (duple voice patterns against the underlying triple meter). The interlude for harp (Number 7) provides contrast and uses the plainsong melody of the opening Procession floating over an ostinato pattern.  “In Freezing Winter Night” (Number 8) utilizes imitative writing while the “shivering” harp ostinato accompaniment suggests the response to extreme and pitiless cold. “Spring Carol” (Number 9) is set for two solo voices which provides a contrast to the four-part texture of the previous movement. “Deo Gracias,” as the penultimate number of the work, provides rhythmic excitement as the ending invokes the sound of bells. The work concludes with the repetition of the plainsong chant ‘Hodie Christus natus est” which began the work.

—Robert Acker and Alison Bleick, with additional notes by Andrew Lewis.
Courtesy of the Elgin Master Chorale, www.elginmasterchorale.org