CAE Yuletide: To Friends Old & New Program Notes

Holiday Favorites, Old and New

When we polled our members last spring about favorite pieces to sing in our anniversary season this year, we were pleased that so many on the list fit perfectly into our holiday program. As in our fall concert, the selections reflect many traditions, from Middle English lyrics to a Basque carol to Russian liturgical music, with texts ranging from Latin chants to Japanese haiku to Victorian poetry. Along with old favorites from years past, we are delighted to present two new works from Cascadia Composers. Together they all help us explore the beauty of the season.

We begin with “A Winter Carol.” Poet Samuel Longfellow (1819–1892), brother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was an American Unitarian pastor and hymn writer greatly influenced by Transcendentalism, a philosophy that holds that both humanity and nature are inherently good. Longfellow’s words illustrate this beautifully. English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) collected the tune, “Danby,” in Northern Yorkshire and included it under the name of a nearby village in his English Hymnal. This carol does not mention Jesus but reflects how God’s love remains present in even the bleakest seasons of our lives.

Arguably the greatest British composer of the 20th century, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) drew on an astonishing array of sources all his life, from Japanese Noh dramas to World War I poetry to medieval miracle plays. The inspiration for A Ceremony of Carols came from a collection of verse titled The English Galaxy, which he read as Europe was descending into war. Britten and his partner Peter Pears had moved to the United States in 1939, intending to take U.S. citizenship, but after Britain came under German attack, they decided that they could not abandon their homeland. He composed the Ceremony of Carols on their return voyage to England, crossing the dangerous North Atlantic by ship. Anonymous Middle English lyrics provide the texts for most of the full work, but “This Little Babe,” the most dramatic section, comes from a passionate polemic titled Newe Heaven, Newe Warre by Robert Southwell, an English Jesuit executed for proselytizing the Catholic faith in Protestant England. Perhaps the prospect of a new war here on earth made the text especially relevant to Britten.

Born in Colfax, Washington, in 1943, Morten Lauridsen grew up here in Portland and studied composition at the University of Southern California, where he now teaches. We first performed his “O Magnum Mysterium” in 2010 and fell in love with it, so we have sung it and his other compositions often ever since. This amazing piece softly ponders the holy mystery that the first to see the long-promised savior were the animals; by the last verse, the music seems to glow with warmth and impossible light. Musicologist Nick Strimple has described Lauridsen as “the only American composer who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered.”

The Choral Arts Ensemble has a commitment to presenting work by contemporary artists, so this year we again put out a call to Cascadia Composers for its members, all of whom live and work here in the Pacific Northwest, to submit compositions. Originally trained as a stage actress, Portland-based Lisa Neher (b. 1985) teaches, composes, and performs as a mezzo soprano soloist. She is also the creator of the One Voice Project, a one-woman performance combining contemporary poetry and new musical works for unaccompanied voice. In “Three Basho Haiku,” however, she has chosen distinctly un-contemporary poetry. Born in Edo (now Tokyo) in 1644, Matsuo Basho became an undisputed master of the haiku form. Here Neher has set three brief pieces that capture the changing seasons in a minimum of words. Even as “first winter rain” compares the dying of the old year to the waning of life, “this fragrance” hints at the rebirth of spring.

Last spring, we enjoyed performing an entire concert of inspiring music by Jake Runestad (b. 1986) under his direction. We first encountered his music several years ago with “Sleep, Little Baby, Sleep,” a gentle lullaby that brims with protective tenderness. English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote the original poem, which, like many of her works, has a strong religious flavor. The poem’s title, “Holy Innocents,” refers to the baby boys killed by Herod in his desire to rid himself of a “newborn king.” But Runestad emphasizes Mary’s loving and steadfast resolve to keep her child safe, encircled by angels and “the love which doth not sleep.”

Joshua Shank (b. 1980) says he became a composer almost by accident, led by a series of nourishing musical experiences, the most recent leading him to Gonzaga University where he directs the men’s vocal ensemble. Many of his works begin with a seemingly simple idea and then suddenly open and bloom with emotion. He has written that his setting of this Basque Annunciation carol “Gabriel’s Message” envisions a scene of Mary sitting alone in a darkened space. The opening depicts the angel Gabriel slowly unfolding his wings and bringing light as he announces his amazing news. The music becomes richer and more complex, with eight overlapping vocal lines all calling the word “Gloria,” like the heavenly host on Christmas night or the future generations who will call Mary blessed.

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we close the first half with the breathless fun of “The Sleigh (A la Russe),” written in 1926 by lyricist Richard Kountz (1896-1950) and composer Ivor Tchervanow, who often collaborated. In addition to frequent appearances in winter concert programs, the song has the distinction of having Woody Woodpecker sing it in a 1944 cartoon called Ski for Two. The cartoon was later released under the title Woody Plays Santa Claus.

We open the second half with the rousing “Wassail Song,” set by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), who produced works in nearly every musical genre, including symphonies, operas, choral music, film scores, and settings of folksongs. Around the turn of the 20th century, traditional folksongs were disappearing, due to mass literacy and the greater availability of commercial entertainment. To counteract this, Vaughan Williams and others began collecting folksongs from all over Britain, arranging and performing them to make them more widely available in all their diversity. In Vaughan Williams’ case, he included several when he edited the English Hymnal in 1906, including the tune of the first carol on our program. This version of “Wassail” comes from Gloucestershire, and the word itself brings us back to the Middle English of A Ceremony of Carols: “Waes Hail,” like any proper toast, literally means “good health.”

William Whitley, a music professor, composer, and native Northwesterner, wrote Ecclesia, our second piece from Cascadia Composers, and it too makes use of very old texts. The work was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary in 2001 of the church building of First Presbyterian Church in Cottage Grove, Oregon—a building designed by famous architect Pietro Beluschi. Combining Latin and English texts, Ecclesia (meaning the Church) mulls the idea of design itself and the mystical point when form coincides with spirit, when carefully shaped stones move human hearts. The three movements mirror different parts of a church service. The first movement, based on the chant “Veni creator spiritus” (Come, creator spirit), represents an introit. The second, an anthem, sets the entire text of “The Altar” by George Herbert (1593-1633), an Anglican priest and poet; on the page, the poem visually resembles an altar, and the music has a similar symmetry. The final movement, using the Latin text “Ubi caritas” (Where charity and love are), serves as a choral benediction.

Though born and educated in the United States, Stephen Chatman (b. 1950) has lived in Canada since 1976 when he began teaching at the University of British Columbia; his adopted country awarded him the Order of Canada in 2012. His early works embody musical modernism, including atonality, but since 1982, his compositions have grown ever more lyrical. “Voices of Earth” (2004) reflects his newer style and his interest in showcasing the work of Canadian authors, in this case Archibald Lampman (1861-1899). Lampman played a key role among Canadian nature poets who were equally inspired by Wordsworth and by the landscapes of their own country. We first sang this song last Christmas in a concert that focused on images of the maternal, including Mother Earth. “Voices of Earth” perhaps best sums up the idea of “Terra Mater” as joyous voices tumble over each other, caroling of “Earth’s secret soul” and the multitude of sounds that inhabit our world.

Benjamin Britten based “Hymn to the Virgin” on another anonymous Middle English text, with alternating Latin and English phrases, a technique popular in many Middle English lyrics. He used a similar approach in “There is no Rose” from A Ceremony of Carols, but here he has two separate groups of singers responding to each other. The larger group, singing in English, addresses the Virgin Mary as though she is a living person who might intercede for us, while a quartet, singing in Latin and as though from far away, lends the work an otherworldly quality.

Famed for his Enigma Variations and large ceremonial pieces like Pomp and Circumstances, Edward Elgar (1857-1934) composed a wide variety of music, including quiet, subdued songs like “The Snow,” based on a poem by his wife, Alice Roberts Elgar (1848-1920); he set several of her other poems as well. Although he was eventually knighted, Elgar always considered himself an outsider in English musical circles because of his working-class background, his Catholic faith, and the fact that he was self-taught. At the time they married, Alice Roberts was already a well-connected published author and was able to aid her husband’s professional prospects both artistically and socially. Reflecting Victorian moral concerns, “The Snow” contrasts the transient loveliness of snow with the enduring strength and true beauty of the soul.

The next two works come from the Russian Orthodox tradition, though neither composer is originally from Russia or that faith tradition. Early on, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) had conflicts with Soviet authorities, so he and his family emigrated from the Soviet Union to Western Europe in 1980; around the same time, he converted from Lutheranism to Orthodoxy. “Bogoroditse djevo” is a Slavonic setting of a text similar to the Ave Maria of Western tradition. Pärt’s version buzzes with joyous energy. In contrast, “Mother of God, Here I Stand,” by Englishman John Tavener (1944-2013), draws on the Orthodox tradition of venerating icons. Tavener converted to Orthodox Christianity from Presbyterianism under the influence of Mother Thekla, an Orthodox nun who counseled him after the death of his mother. This work sets a verse by Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). In hushed contemplation, every earthly concern falls away in awe of Mary. This anthem comes from Tavener’s major work called The Veil of the Temple, which runs 7 hours and presents aspects of many world religions “like a gigantic prayer wheel.”

Bogoróditse Djévo

Norwegian-born Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978) has long been a favorite of our singers and audiences. We have performed with him twice, and hardly a season goes by without our singing at least one of his thoughtful compositions. This time we present his setting of “The First Nowell.” The French word for Christmas (Noel) and the fact that the song first appeared in Cornwall, just across the English Channel, imply that this carol may have originated in France. In any event, the words and tune likely originated in the 15th century. The inclusion of the Magi makes this an Epiphany carol as well.

We close with “Peace” by Martin Åsander (b. 1987), a young Swedish singer, instrumentalist, and composer of both choral and orchestral music; he now directs the choir and plays the organ at Immanuel Church in Stockholm. This short anthem sets a verse from the Gospel of John, in which Jesus promises peace to his disciples beyond the peace of this world. Åsander wrote it in 2014 partly in tribute to Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt who died that same year. But we can’t think of a better wish in this holiday season, for all of us here, for our country, and for the world, than Peace.

Susan Wladaver-Morgan