Welcome, Yule! Program Notes

Come join us for our holiday concert series, with traditional hymns, carols, and other songs that celebrate this season of light and the coming of the New Year.

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Program Notes

As days grow shorter and the world colder, people of many faiths throughout the Northern Hemisphere turn gratefully to celebrations of light, faith, family, and music. Our music for this concert spans at least six centuries. Thank you for coming to share old favorites, many in fresh new arrangements, to warm and cheer us through these wintry days.

“Welcome Yule” dates from the reign of Henry VI in the early 15th century and may have first been performed by professional minstrels at noble residences during the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany. The song alternates religious and worldly references, so it isn’t exactly a carol but more like a general holiday song. Many composers have set the words, including Benjamin Britten in his Ceremony of Carols and Libby Larsen in her Ringeltänze. This setting is by Sir Charles Hubert Parry (1848-1918), an English composer, educator, and scholar who is probably best know for his setting of William Blake’s “Jerusalem.”

“In Dulci Jubilo” may be the oldest song on this evening’s program. According to legend, in 1328, a German mystic named Heinrich Seuse heard angels singing the words and joined them in their dance. The tune first appeared in a manuscript around 1400 but is probably older; it was printed in German Lutheran songbooks by the mid-1550s. As befits its origins, early versions alternate lines of German and Latin, while our version uses English and Latin. Composer and antiquarian Robert L. Pearsall (1795-1856) wrote the first choral version in 1838, originally for double choir. For our performance, we will alternate choir parts with a small ensemble.

Early in his career, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) had conflicts with Soviet cultural authorities over his compositions, and in the 1970s he began a study of medieval and Renaissance music that influenced his later work. In 1980 he and his family emigrated from the Soviet Union to Western Europe, around the same time that he converted from Lutheranism to Russian Orthodoxy. He has developed a unique minimalist style partly inspired by Gregorian chant. His setting of the Magnificat, Mary’s song of grateful wonder and joy, embodies this style. Unlike other settings, his feels more like an internal meditation than something public. The soprano soloist chants all her words on a single note, while the hushed voices beneath tenderly examine each phrase of the well-known text, almost like Mary after the shepherds depart, pondering these things in her heart.

Giovanni Gabrieli (1555-1612) became principal organist at San Marco’s Basilica in Venice in 1584 and composed with San Marco’s peculiar acoustical properties in mind – the architecture there made the use of double choirs, whether of voices or brass instruments, especially exciting. He was the first composer to specify exactly where musicians should stand and at what volume they should perform. Composers from all over Europe flocked to Venice to learn from him. Imagine a Christmas Eve service with his “Hodie Christus Natus Est” echoing through the vast, golden space of that amazing church.

Joshua Shank (b. 1980) says he became a composer almost by accident, led by one nourishing experience with music after another. His website describes him as a composer-teacher-collaborator, and he considers himself a collaborator with everyone who brings his music to life. In 2002 he became the youngest composer ever to win the Raymond W. Brock Student Composition Award from the American Choral Directors Association for a piece he wrote at age twenty. Many of his works start with a very simple idea, then suddenly open and bloom with emotion. He has written that his setting of the Basque carol “Gabriel’s Message” envisions a scene of Mary sitting alone in a darkened space. The opening depicts Gabriel slowly unfolding his wings before he announces his amazing news. The music grows richer and more complex, with eight overlapping vocal lines all calling the word “Gloria,” like the generations that will call Mary blessed.

Indiana-born Craig Courtney began composing and arranging sacred choral music during a music ministry with the Salzburg International Baptist Church in Austria. While many of his compositions focus on sacred texts and new settings of hymns, this “Musicological Journey through the Twelve Days of Christmas” matches the song’s origins as a party game at Twelfth Night (Epiphany) celebrations in 18th-century England. Like children’s games in many cultures, this one involved each successive player—or singer—adding a new item to a growing list of things to remember and paying a forfeit if you forgot or got mixed up. Courtney’s light-hearted setting, with even more things to remember, adds a whole new layer of historical fun.

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American Libby Larsen (b. 1950) studied Gregorian chant as a young girl, and, though its connection to her own work isn’t immediately obvious, she loved the freedom of chant’s flexible setting of words to text; her eclectic approach to vocal music reflects this. She earned a doctorate in composition from the University of Minnesota in 1979, but several years earlier, she and her late colleague Stephen Paulus (d. 2014) co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum (later the American Composers Forum) to encourage the creation and performance of new music. The six pieces that make up Ringeltänze (circle dances) all have texts from medieval French carols, translated by Larsen herself. She chose the collective name for the set because early carols, in France and elsewhere, often began as dances at seasonal celebrations, especially Christmas; the sacred texts—and bells—were added only later when the celebrations moved into the churches. The tune of the fourth carol eventually became part of the Gloria of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Midnight Mass for Christmas.

Choral Arts Ensemble first encountered the works of Irish composer Michael McGlynn (b. 1964) through our long-time director, Roger O. Doyle, who met and worked with McGlynn during a sabbatical in Ireland. Best known as director of Anúna, a choral group he founded in 1991 to explore and redefine aspects of Celtic music, McGlynn has composed everything from folk song arrangements to classical orchestral works. This gentle setting of “Silent Night” has aspects of traditional Irish music as well; note, for instance, the drone in the bass line that continues under the melody.

In his setting of passages from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Joshua Shank again envisions a scene—almost a mini-opera. He uses something like recitative for the words that Scrooge’s nephew Fred speaks early in the book as he contemplates what he thinks about Christmas. But after the words“ God bless it!” the music warms up, becoming almost an aria as thoughts become feelings toward the end of the book, for Fred and Scrooge himself—feelings that transform Scrooge’s life.

CAE tenor Patrick Rooney (b. 1992) studied music at the University of Northern Colorado and will continue his composition studies at Portland State University this January. He got hooked on choral music after singing Eric Whitacre’s “Sleep” in high school and has never looked back. The American author of the poem, Sara Teasdale (1884-1933), ended her own life at age forty-one. Patrick has written of “Winter Stars” that “Her tragic story inspired me and I tried to paint this text with as much attention to the meaning and sound of the words as I could….this piece was my first experiment with true dissonance in a consonant context….the emotion in this text helped propel me to finish it almost entirely in just two weeks.” “Winter Stars” was awarded the Ars Nova Singers prize for the 2012 Colorado Composers Competition, premiering in June 2013.  We are proud to introduce Patrick’s work to the Northwest.

Norwegian-born composer and pianist Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) will be familiar to CAE audiences, for we have performed many of his works, twice with the composer himself at the piano. We have even commissioned him to compose a new work for our 50th anniversary season! Gjeilo moved to the United States in 2001 to study composition at Juilliard and film music at USC. This evening we perform his setting of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” with a double chorus. The original carol probably dates back to the 16th century, making it one of the older English Christmas carols. First published in 1760, the song even gets mentioned in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when it inspires Scrooge to threaten a singer with a ruler!

But we are sure the reformed Scrooge would join us in wishing you “tidings of comfort and joy.” Happy holidays, and a peaceful New Year to all!

— Susan Wladaver-Morgan