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8.573421 - Choral Concert (Christmas): Elora Festival Singers (The Wonder of Christmas)

The Wonder of Christmas


The art of the Christmas carol extends back to the Middle Ages producing a rich and complex tradition over the centuries which continues to the present day. The carol genre covers a variety of styles, involving poetic forms both popular and courtly. The international nature of the carol brings together a vast array of diverse characteristics, each expressing similar religious sentiments and beliefs but created in a wide spectrum of musical idioms ranging from polyphony to simple straightforward melodies.

The hymn, Once in royal David’s city [1], was written by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–95) from County Tyrone, Ireland, who wrote more than 400 hymns throughout her life. She was profoundly influenced by John Keble and other members of the Oxford Movement, the High Church Anglicans who wished for a return to the traditional liturgy, symbolism and theology. Her hymns for children, published in 1848 and reprinted some seventy times by the end of the nineteenth century, also included such favourites as All Things Bright and Beautiful, and There is a Green Hill Far Away. In 1850 she married the Revd Williams Alexander, who became Bishop of Derry and later Archbishop of Ireland. This version was partly harmonised by Arthur Henry Mann (1850–1929), English organist and composer of hymn tunes who lived in Cambridge, England, for most of his life. The final verse was arranged by Sir David Willcocks (b. 1919), the distinguished British choral conductor, organist, and composer and Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge (1957–1974) and later Principal of the Royal College of Music, London.

In contrast, My Dancing Day [2] is a traditional carol, possibly from as early as the fourteenth century. Its first published appearance was in William B. Sandys’ anthology, Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (1833). The fascinating tune has attracted many composers to make arrangements of it, including Holst, Stravinsky, Willcocks, and Rutter. The arrangement here is by Bob Chilcott (b. 1955), one of the world’s most widely performed choral composers and an eminent conductor of choirs. The verses tell the story of the Incarnation, characterised as a ‘dancing day’ and may have been sung at the beginning of a medieval mystery play (which would explain the third line of the first stanza):

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance.

Another popular nineteenth century carol, is What Child Is This? [3] written by William Chatterton Dix during a serious illness aged 29 in 1865. The carol is sung to the traditional melody of Greensleeves. This arrangement is by Paul Halley (b. 1952), an English-born composer who undertook early musical training in Ottawa, Canada, before becoming organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge. Since 2007, he has been based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he is Director of Chapel Music at the University of King’s College.

A Boy Was Born [4], composed by Benjamin Britten between 1932 and 1933 when he was a student at the Royal College of Music in London, stands in the catalogue as his Opus 3. The work received its first performance on the BBC on 23rd February, 1934. In this performance only the theme is sung, omitting the six variations that follow in the original version.

The holly and the ivy [5], a traditional carol at least as old as the seventeenth century, was included in a modernised version in Cecil J. Sharp’s collection of songs, hymns and carols of 1911. The religious symbolism of the holly and the ivy in terms of Christianity has been much discussed but the emblematic use of these images extends back to Druidic and Roman times. The popularity of decorating households with holly for Christmas goes back several centuries. The words of the carol are however rich with mystical, poetic, and religious connotations, referring to the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The setting is by Stuart Thompson, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music who became Director of Music for the Cathedral and Diocese of Leeds, England, and later Director of Music at Caterham School. His arrangement of The holly and the ivy won The Times carol competition in 2011.

Who is He in Yonder Stall? [6] was written, both words and music, in 1866 by Benjamin R. Hanby (1833–67), from Rushville, Ohio. He became principal of an academy in Seven Mile, Ohio and later worked for music publishers. Altogether Hanby composed over five dozen songs. In his carol the question posed in the verse is answered each time in the refrain:

Who is He in yonder stall
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
’Tis the Lord! O wondrous story!
’Tis the Lord, the king of glory!
At his feet we humbly fall,
Crown Him! Crown Him, Lord of all!

This arrangement is by Dr Robert H. Young (1923–2011), the prolific American composer and conductor, who founded the Baylor Chamber Singers and was on the faculty of Baylor University between 1962 and 1993.

Nesciens mater virgo virum [7], composed by Jean Mouton (c.1459–1522), is one of the masterpieces of the era, a quadruple canon based on a plainchant. After an early career in the priesthood and master of the chapel in Amiens, Mouton became principal composer for the French court where he joined the chapel of Queen Anne of Brittany and her husband, Louis XII, and was later in the service of François I. In this capacity he wrote a number of works and Masses for state occasions.

A particular favourite among traditional Christmas repertoire throughout the world is Away in a Manger [8]. This piece appeared in an anthology of hymns, The Little Children’s Book for Schools and Families, edited by James R. Murray (1841–1905), published in Philadelphia in 1885. It is not known who originally wrote the words, though at one time it was believed the carol was based on a hymn by Martin Luther. The music was written by William J. Kirkpatrick (1838–1921), originally from Pennsylvania, and later settled in Philadelphia where he became closely associated with the Grace Methodist Episcopal Church. Throughout his life he was a prolific writer of hymns. The arrangement is by Bob Chilcott.

Ding dong! Merrily on high [9] was originally a secular dance melody of the sixteenth century. But the carol as we know it first appeared in 1924 in The Cambridge Carol Book with words by George Ratcliffe Woodward (1848–1934), an Anglican priest who for many years lived in Little Walsingham in Norfolk. The tune was harmonised by his friend, the Irish composer, organist, and teacher, Charles Wood (1866–1926), who became Professor of Music at Cambridge University in 1924. The arrangement is by Mack Wilberg (b. 1955), eminent composer, pianist, and conductor, a former Professor of Music at Brigham Young University, and Music Director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Temple Square Chorale.

O Holy Night [10] goes back to the nineteenth century when in 1847 Adolphe Adam composed the music of Cantique de Noël to the French poem Minuit, chrétiens by Placide Cappeau (1808–77), a wine-merchant and poet. The carol was given its first performance in 1847 by Emily Laury, the opera singer. In 1855 John Sullivan Dwight (1813–93), a Unitarian minister, teacher, and music journalist from Boston, Massachusetts, translated the carol from the French, and it is his version which is performed here.

The next carol, Adam lay y-bounden [11], goes back to the fifteenth century and its source is Sloane MS 2593 in the British Library. It was printed in The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) with a melody by Peter Warlock and is sung each year by King’s College Choir on Christmas Eve immediately following the First Lesson. The theme of the carol is that though Adam’s sin in taking the apple led to thousands of years of spiritual bondage, if the apple had not been taken the glories of Christianity would not have been revealed. The setting is by Howard Skempton (b. 1947), composer and accordionist, born in Chester, England. He studied in London with Cornelius Cardew and has written in excess of 300 compositions. His output includes orchestral works, concertos, chamber music, choral pieces and instrumental writing.

Ecce concipies [12] was written by the Slovenian composer Jacobus Handl (1550–91), who wrote some 500 sacred works. The Latin text is Ecce concipies et paries filium et vocabis nomen eius Jesum. In Luke 1: 31–33 the angel Gabriel says to Mary, And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb and bring forth a son and shall call his name JESUS. This version is by Mark Sirett (b. 1952), Canadian composer and conductor, who founded the Cantabile Choirs of Kingston in 1996. His compositions have been performed across Canada, and he has received many commissions from eminent choirs.

Rocking [13] is a carol that often has other titles such as Little Jesus or Rocking Song. Originally of Czech Origin, it was collected in the 1920s by Miss Jacubickova as Hajej, nunjej, and translated by Percy Dearmer (1867–1936), Anglican priest and liturgist, for The Oxford Book of Carols (1928). This version, arranged by the esteemed British composer John Tavener (1944–2013), was commissioned by the BBC for the 2006 BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year, Chantage, and first performed by them at the British Composer Awards in Glaziers Hall, London, on 5th December 2007.

Gabriel’s Message [14] comes from a Basque carol which paraphrases the account of the Annunciation in St Luke 1, 26–38 and Luke 1, 46–55. The verses were rendered by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924), a priest and scholar in the Church of England, who wrote a number of hymns including Onward Christian Soldiers and Now the Day is Over. The arrangement is by Gerald Brown.

The composer, singer, and folklorist from Louisville, Kentucky, John Jacob Niles (1892–1980), renowned as ‘the dean of the American balladeers’, first heard I Wonder as I Wander [15] at a meeting of Evangelicals in Murphy, North Carolina:

A girl had stepped out to the edge of the little platform attached to the automobile. She began to sing. Her clothes were unbelievably dirty and ragged, and she, too, was unwashed. Her ash-blond hair hung down in long skeins… But, best of all, she was beautiful, and in her untutored way, she could sing. She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly, and sang only a single line of a song.

The girl, named Annie Morgan, sang the song several times, being paid for each repetition. From this impromptu performance Niles retrieved ‘three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material, and a magnificent idea’, and went on to compose the familiar version of I Wonder as I Wander popular today. The first performance of the work took place on 19th December, 1933, at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. The carol was published in his anthology, Songs of the Hill Folk, the following year. The setting heard on this recording is by Leonard Enns (b. 1948), the eminent Canadian composer, teacher and choral director, founder of the DaCapo Chamber Choir.

There is a Flower [16] is a poem by John Audelay (d. 1426), and has been set to music by John Rutter (b. 1945), one of the most gifted composers of carols in the twentieth century. The simple, straightforward words are charged with beauty and religious intensity.

There is a flow’r sprung of a tree,
The root thereof is called Jesse,
A flow’r of price;
There is none such in paradise.

Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming [17] is taken from the German poem of the sixteenth century, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen. Theodore Baker (1851–1934), a musicologist and organist from New York who later lived in Germany, wrote a translation in 1894. The tune most often performed nowadays, published in the Speyer Hymnal (Cologne, 1599), was harmonised by Michael Praetorius in 1609 The setting is by Jan Sandström (b. 1954), the prolific Swedish composer of a vast catalogue of orchestral and choral works. Born in Vilhelmina, Lapland, Sandström studied in Stockholm and northern Sweden before being appointed Professor of Composition at the University School of Music, in Pitea. His arrangement of this carol has become an international success.

Finally, The First Nowell [18], one of the best loved of all carols, is presented here in a further setting by Paul Halley. The original date of this is uncertain and probably goes well back before the eighteenth century. The first published version was in Carols Ancient and Modern (1833), edited by William Sandys (1792–1874), a lawyer by profession. In 1871 Sir John Stainer (1840–1901), the English composer and organist produced a four-part arrangement which has established itself as the most popular setting.

Graham Wade

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