About this Recording
8.573715 - WHITBOURN, J.: Missa Carolae / Choral Music for Christmas (Westminster Williamson Voices, James Jordan)

James Whitbourn (b. 1963)
Carolae – Music for Christmas


Carolae is a fusion of two great Christmas traditions from England and America. The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, begun in 1918, has proved one of the most influential liturgical events of the twentieth century with iterations being mounted in churches, chapels and cathedrals around the world. When James Jordan first established Westminster Choir College’s An Evening of Readings and Carols in 1992, it too was based on the King’s service. But when the new event found its eventual home in the Princeton University Chapel, the connection grew deeper; for when Princeton University’s 1920s chapel was complete, it had stood as the second largest collegiate chapel in the world, sitting behind only King’s College Chapel in its dimensions, its choir stalls hewn from English oak and its design clearly set in the Gothic tradition of medieval English architecture. John Finley Williamson founded Westminster Choir College at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, in 1926. The college moved to Princeton in 1932, and it is now a college of Rider University.

The 1920s also saw the emergence of a truer understanding of the carol, especially with the publication of The Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw in 1928. They recognised its medieval form (the ‘carole’) as a dance. They recognised the simplicity of the carol, which had been overlaid by the Victorians in England with pomp and grandeur. The carol began to emerge again as a fresh and vital form and one associated with movement. Much of my own Christmas music stems from this rich medieval heritage and even my new melodies, such as that in Hodie [13], reflect my love of medieval musical language.

Almost all of the music on this recording links either to King’s College, Cambridge or to Westminster’s Readings and Carols in Princeton, and much of it has clear links to dance and the spirit of the medieval carol. Two works were premiered by the Choir of King’s College at their televised Christmas service: the arrangement of A great and mighty wonder [15] and Winter’s Wait [6], the latter a setting of words by former King’s College choral scholar and international tenor Robert Tear. Tear was a long-time friend and collaborator of mine and a prolific and insightful writer of poems. As one of the world’s great lyric tenors he understood all too well how to write words that could be sung. He is also the author of the texts for Hodie, also sung at King’s College, Cambridge, and of The Magi’s Dream [9]. In 2005, I was asked to write a Festival setting of the Evening Canticles for King’s College that would include a solo tenor part to be sung by Tear. The two canticles—of Mary and Simeon—stand at the beginning and conclusion of the Christmas story. Mary’s song, uttered during her visit to her pregnant cousin Elisabeth, is full of anticipation of the divine issue from her own womb. Simeon’s song marks the end of the Christmas period: the Feast of the Purification. While all these works emanate from the King’s tradition, the newer tradition of Westminster’s Readings and Carols sees its representation in the inclusion of the Missa carolae, part of which forms the soundtrack to the event’s opening spectacle, and the two carol arrangements by Steve Pilkington.

Veni et illumina (2015) [1], commissioned by J. Reilly Lewis and the Washington Cathedral Choral Society, begins with the opening notes of the plainchant antiphon, O Oriens, the ‘O Antiphon’ for December 21, played quietly on the horn. The subdued opening with its sustained chords briefly gives way to the lively interjections of a smaller choir, bringing sudden shafts of light before the dance begins. A blazing F sharp major chord returns to the mysticism of the opening and the transcendent words of the Magnificat antiphon.

I wonder as I wander (1994) [2] is one of the two arrangements on this recording by Steve Pilkington and is entirely of American origin. John Jacob Niles collected the melody while in the town of Murphy in Appalachian North Carolina. Fragments were sung to him by a girl named Annie Morgan, though Niles later constructed his own version of the melody for his words. ‘She smiled as she sang, smiled rather sadly,’ Niles later recalled. Steve Pilkington’s arrangement was written for James Jordan and his 1994-1995 Westminster Chapel Choir at Westminster Choir College and has established itself as an annual part of the college’s Readings and Carols.

Missa carolae was commissioned by Rochester Cathedral for the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 2004, the year of the 1400th anniversary of the cathedral’s foundation. It uses popular European Christmas carol melodies throughout and includes an introit [3] (based on Patapan), which was written for the candlelit procession round the darkened cathedral, led by a solo chorister with pipe and drum. The Kyrie [4] uses the French carol Noël Nouvelet; in the Gloria [5] we hear the opening chords of Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen followed by a rhythmic and dance-like variant of God rest ye merry gentlemen; the Sanctus [7] and Benedictus [8] employ the melody of the German carol In dulci jubilo, together with the old English carol Remember [10] Thou Man; the Agnus Dei 0 borrows the Polish carol Infant Holy for its thematic idea. There is a rising progression of keys throughout the Mass, each movement beginning on a note one degree higher than the last (D-E-F-G).

The mass is interpolated with two carols written to fit into the key structure of Missa carolae, Winter’s Wait (2010) [6] and The Magi’s Dream (2011) [9], both settings of words written for me by Robert Tear. Although better known as a singer, Robert Tear was also an artist and writer, and he captures beautifully in both these poems the mixture of naivety and sophistication that is so often found in medieval carol texts. His words were always fun and rewarding to set to music, and his inventive language offers possibilities for descriptive effects. Winter’s Wait shares its tonality with Noël Nouvelet which is quoted in the mass, but it bursts into the major key for the final stanza.

The Coventry Carol (arranged by Steve Pilkington, 2003) [11] has origins thought to date back to medieval times, although the first notated music comes a little later, in 1591. Steve Pilkington’s arrangement skilfully encapsulates the original character of the words and music while adding his own character in the colourful and inventive harmonic nuances, playing especially on the original’s famous ‘false relation’.

Of one that is so fair and bright (1992) [12] takes its text from two thirteenth-century manuscripts found in Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Library. The music is written in the Locrian mode (B - B), the theoretical medieval mode never used because of its characteristic augmented fourth. To the modern ear, though, there is a strange beauty about the mode, which lends itself to a carol recalling the great mystery of the Incarnation, to the intense joy of the coming of Christ to earth and the brooding sorrow of the eventual crucifixion.

Hodie (1999) [13] is a setting of words written by Robert Tear on June 5, 1999 during a trip to Hong Kong. I set it to music a few days later. The music, after its slow introduction, becomes a lively dance, reflecting the original meaning of the word carol. The exuberance of Hodie affirms the Divine gift of Love that was present on the first Christmas Day.

Magnificat (2005) [14] is the song of a young Jewish girl, Mary, after an angelic revelation that she is to be the mother of God (and uttered at the occasion of The Visitation). This setting is both in Latin and English; the Latin deals with the universal significance of the message in all its enormity, while the English setting portrays the personal significance for the young girl in a reflective and intimate way. The work, commissioned for performance in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge with tenor Robert Tear, was premièred by Stephen Cleobury.

Praetorius’ setting of Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen quoted at the beginning of the Gloria from the Missa carolae also appears in the form of A great and mighty wonder (2002) [15]. This arrangement was also written for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and was premièred there.

Nunc Dimittis (2005) [16] is the song of an elderly Jewish man, Simeon, after a divine revelation that he has seen the child born to the virgin. It is the companion to the Magnificat written for King’s College Chapel, Cambridge and, like it, sets the whole of the text both in Latin and in English.

Garth C. Edmundson was an American organist and native of Pennsylvania. His Toccata on Vom Himmel Hoch [17] was played by Daryl Robinson at his first Westminster Choir College Readings and Carols in Princeton University Chapel.

James Whitbourn

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