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Christmas with Winchester College Chapel Choir

The music for Christmas presented by Winchester College Chapel Choir and the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra starts with unaccompanied works performed by the singers. The first of these offers verses from an English version of the hymn of St Ambrose, Veni, Redemptor gentium (Come, thou Redeemer), sung to the melody Puer nobis nascitur (A boy is born to us) adapted by the Wolfenbüttel organist and Kapellmeister Michael Praetorius, an important figure in the development of Lutheran church music in the early seventeenth century.

There follow three twentieth-century compositions. The first, by the versatile English composer Richard Rodney Bennett, is a setting of an anonymous fifteenthcentury poem, one of a set of five carols published in 1967. After this comes a setting of William Blake’s poem The Lamb composed in 1982 by the contemporary English composer John Tavener. Music of relatively simple structure, written for the composer’s young nephew, matches the seeming simplicity of the text. The group of unaccompanied choral works ends with a 1985 setting of Illuminare Jerusalem, a fifteenth-century Scottish poem, by the British composer Judith Weir, at one time a pupil of John Tavener. O come, all ye faithful, a familiar carol stemming from the eighteenth century, equally well known in its Latin version, Adeste fideles, has become an inevitable musical concomitant of Christmas.

Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musical dynasty in Eisenach in 1685 and trained, after the death of his musician father, by an elder brother to embark on a career that demanded a great degree of musical versatility. Early appointments as an organist and at the court of Weimar, led to the prestige of a position as director of court music to Prince Leopold of Anhalt- Cöthen, a happy period, brought to an end by the young Prince’s marriage to a woman without musical interest. After six years or so at Cöthen, he moved to Leipzig as Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas, with duties that involved him in the provision of church music and humbler occupations as a schoolmaster, some of which, at least, could be delegated. He remained in Leipzig in the same employment, subject to the demands of the city council, until his death in 1750.

The first Leipzig years found Bach busy with the composition of cycles of cantatas for the Lutheran church year. The cantata Am Abend aber desselbigen Sabbats, BWV 42 (On the evening of the same Sabbath) was written for the first Sunday after Easter, known as Quasimodo Sunday from the opening of the Introit to the Mass on that day, or, familiarly, as Low Sunday. It was first heard on 8th April 1725 and is scored for two oboes, bassoon, strings and continuo, opening with the present Sinfonia.

Bach, like other composers of the period, was in the habit of making additional use of earlier compositions. His settings of the Lutheran Mass, which, by his time, could preserve the Kyrie eleison and Gloria of the traditional Catholic Mass, were made in the late 1730s. For the four-part fugal Kyrie of the Lutheran Mass in G major, BWV 236, Bach had recourse to his cantata Siehe zu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, BWV 179 (See that your fear of God be not feigned), written for performance in August 1723, soon after his arrival in Leipzig.

The cantata Meine Seel’ erhebt den Herrn, BWV 10, (My soul magnifies the Lord) was written for the Feast of the Visitation in July 1724. The second movement is the soprano aria Herr, Herr, der du stark und mächtig bist (Lord, Lord, who is strong and mighty). The group of works by Bach included here ends with the familiar closing movement from the cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147, (Heart and Mouth and Deed and Life), Jesus bleibet meine Freude, generally interpreted in English as Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, known from a variety of arrangements. The cantata was written for the Feast of the Visitation in July 1723.

Born in Halle in 1685, George Frideric Handel, as he later became, worked at the opera in Hamburg, spent time in Italy, and then was appointed to the court of Hanover. Thence he took almost immediate leave of absence, finally settling in London, where he was closely involved in the business of Italian opera. His position in English musical life was dominant, remaining so for very many years after his death in 1759.

Handel’s oratorio Messiah, a remarkable summary of Christian doctrine in three parts, was first performed in Dublin in April 1742. It represents the great achievement of the composer in a form for which he was largely responsible, the English oratorio, a genre which coupled Italianate operatic melodic invention with skilful choral writing, a successful musical synthesis of drama and religion, well calculated to appeal to English audiences of the time. From Part I comes the Christmas chorus For unto us a child is born. This is followed by the instrumental Pastoral Symphony, in the conventional form of a siciliano, a shepherd dance that had come to be essentially associated with the season. The secco recitative There were shepherds abiding in the field is followed by the accompanied recitative And lo! The angel of the Lord, continued without orchestral accompaniment in And the angel said unto them. The following section of recitative, And suddenly there was with the angel is accompanied, leading to the celebratory chorus Glory to God in the highest. The soprano solo continues with the air Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, with its contrasting central section, promising peace.

Excerpts from Messiah continue with movements taken from Part II, concerned with Passiontide and Easter. These start with the urgent dotted rhythms of the chorus Surely he hath borne our griefs. The text is drawn from the prophet Isaiah, as is that of the fugal And with his stripes we are healed. With words drawn from the same source, the chorus All we like sheep have gone astray, graphically suggests the straying animals of the comparison. The soprano air I know that my Redeemer liveth, its opening words taken from the Book of Job, starts Part III of the oratorio, celebrating the resurrection, but the present group of excerpts from Messiah returns to Part II of the work for its rousing final Hallelujah Chorus.

A Christmas postscript is offered in Joy to the world, the work of the American Lowell Mason, a figure of some importance in the early progress of music education in schools in the United States. He published a number of hymn tunes, many allegedly derived from the work of famous European composers, and he advertised Antioch, the tune to which he set the words of Isaac Watts, Joy to the world, as derived from the work of Handel, to whom it has by some since been wrongly attributed.

Keith Anderson

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