CHRISTMAS WITH WINCHESTER COLLEGE CHAPEL CHOIR
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Christmas with Winchester College Chapel Choir
The music for Christmas presented by WinchesterCollege Chapel Choir and the Hong Kong PhilharmonicOrchestra starts with unaccompanied works performedby the singers. The first of these offers verses from anEnglish version of the hymn of St Ambrose, Veni,Redemptor gentium (Come, thou Redeemer), sung to themelody Puer nobis nascitur (A boy is born to us)adapted by the Wolfenb??ttel organist and KapellmeisterMichael Praetorius, an important figure in thedevelopment of Lutheran church music in the earlyseventeenth century.
There follow three twentieth-century compositions.
The first, by the versatile English composer RichardRodney Bennett, is a setting of an anonymous fifteenthcenturypoem, one of a set of five carols published in1967. After this comes a setting of William Blake'spoem The Lamb composed in 1982 by the contemporaryEnglish composer John Tavener. Music of relativelysimple structure, written for the composer's youngnephew, matches the seeming simplicity of the text. Thegroup of unaccompanied choral works ends with a 1985setting of Illuminare Jerusalem, a fifteenth-centuryScottish poem, by the British composer Judith Weir, atone time a pupil of John Tavener. O come, all yefaithful, a familiar carol stemming from the eighteenthcentury, equally well known in its Latin version, Adestefideles, has become an inevitable musical concomitantof Christmas.
Johann Sebastian Bach was born into a musicaldynasty in Eisenach in 1685 and trained, after the deathof his musician father, by an elder brother to embark ona career that demanded a great degree of musicalversatility. Early appointments as an organist and at thecourt of Weimar, led to the prestige of a position asdirector of court music to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cothen, a happy period, brought to an end by the youngPrince's marriage to a woman without musical interest.
After six years or so at Cothen, he moved to Leipzig asCantor at the Choir School of St Thomas, with dutiesthat involved him in the provision of church music andhumbler occupations as a schoolmaster, some of which,at least, could be delegated. He remained in Leipzig inthe same employment, subject to the demands of the citycouncil, until his death in 1750.
The first Leipzig years found Bach busy with thecomposition of cycles of cantatas for the Lutheranchurch year. The cantata Am Abend aber desselbigenSabbats, BWV 42 (On the evening of the same Sabbath)was written for the first Sunday after Easter, known asQuasimodo Sunday from the opening of the Introit tothe Mass on that day, or, familiarly, as Low Sunday. Itwas first heard on 8th April 1725 and is scored for twooboes, bassoon, strings and continuo, opening with thepresent Sinfonia.
Bach, like other composers of the period, was in thehabit 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 thetraditional Catholic Mass, were made in the late 1730s.
For the four-part fugal Kyrie of the Lutheran Mass in Gmajor, BWV 236, Bach had recourse to his cantata Siehezu, dass deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, BWV179 (See that your fear of God be not feigned), writtenfor performance in August 1723, soon after his arrival inLeipzig.
The cantata Meine Seel' erhebt den Herrn, BWV 10,(My soul magnifies the Lord) was written for the Feastof the Visitation in July 1724. The second movement isthe soprano aria Herr, Herr, der du stark und machtigbist (Lord, Lord, who is strong and mighty). The groupof works by Bach included here ends with the familiarclosing movement from the cantata Herz und Mund undTat und Leben, BWV 147, (Heart and Mouth and Deedand Life), Jesus bleibet meine Freude, generallyinterpreted in English as Jesu, joy of man's desiring,known from a variety of arrangements. The cantata waswritten for the Feast of the Visitation in July 1723.
Born in Halle in 1685, George Frideric Handel, ashe later became, worked at the opera in Hamburg, spenttime in Italy, and then was appointed to the court ofHanover. Thence he took almost immediate leave ofabsence, finally settling in London, where he wasclosely involved in the business of Italian opera. Hisposition in English musical life was dominant,remaining so for very many years after his death in1759.
Handel's oratorio Messiah, a remarkable summaryof Christian doctrine in three parts, was first performedin Dublin in April 1742. It represents the greatachievement of the composer in a form for which hewas largely responsible, the English oratorio, a genrewhich coupled Italianate operatic melodic inventionwith skilful choral writing, a successful musicalsynthesis of drama and religion, well calculated toappeal to English audiences of the time. From Part Icomes the Christmas chorus For unto us a child is born.
This is followed by the instrumental PastoralSymphony, in the conventional form of a siciliano, ashepherd dance that had come to be essentiallyassociated with the season. The secco recitative Therewere shepherds abiding in the field is followed by theaccompanied recitative And lo! The angel of the Lord,continued without orchestral accompaniment in And theangel said unto them. The following section ofrecitative, And suddenly there was with the angel isaccompanied, leading to the celebratory chorus Glory toGod in the highest. The soprano solo continues with theair Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, with itscontrasting central section, promising peace.
Excerpts from Messiah continue with movementstaken from Part II, concerned with Passiontide andEaster. These start with the urgent dotted rhythms of thechorus Surely he hath borne our griefs. The text isdrawn from the prophet Isaiah, as is that of the fugalAnd with his stripes we are healed. With words drawnfrom the same source, the chorus All we like sheep havegone astray, graphically suggests the straying animalsof the comparison. The soprano air I know that myRedeemer liveth, its opening words taken from the Bookof Job, starts Part III of the oratorio, celebrating theresurrection, but the present group of excerpts fromMessiah returns to Part II of the work for its rousingfinal Hallelujah Chorus.
A Christmas postscript is offered in Joy to theworld, the work of the American Lowell Mason, afigure of some importance in the early progress of musiceducation in schools in the United States. He publisheda number of hymn tunes, many allegedly derived fromthe work of famous European composers, and headvertised Antioch, the tune to which he set the words ofIsaac Watts, Joy to the world, as derived from the workof Handel, to whom it has by some since been wronglyattributed.Keith Anderson