A Cathedral Christmas 2012
Gaudete! | Rejoice!
Creating an arrangement of a preexisting melody is a complicated task for a composer. Should the style, tone, and emotion of the original tune be amplified, altered, contradicted, or ignored Should the arrangement present the tune front and center, or use it as a jumping-off point for the composer’s own ideas? The task becomes more complex when the melodies in question are familiar Christmas carols. The Seattle Choral Company’s 2012 A Cathedral Christmas program presents a broad spectrum of different approaches, from the opening Wexford Carol, which Dale Warland transforms into an engulfing fantasy, to Ola Gjeilo’s intimate, haunting version of Away in a Manger. In each case the melody is transformed—sometimes into something unrecognizable, and sometimes seemingly into what it always should have been.
Anders Öhrwall wrote Gaudete in 1962 for the Youth Choir of the Swedish Radio, and it was originally performed as a sort of Christmas pageant, with carols interspersed with narration from the Bible. It is not, however, children’s music; rather, he intended the work to introduce, in a modern context, treasured melodies from one of the most significant musical publications in the history of Scandinavia, the Piae Cantiones, first printed in 1582.
Piae Cantiones Ecclesiasticae et Scholasticae Veterum Episcoporum (“Devout Church and School Songs of the Old Bishops”) was assembled in the university at Åbo, which was then ruled by the Kingdom of Sweden but is now part of Finland, and printed in Greifswald, in the then-Swedish Duchy of Pomerania, now in Northern Germany. The first edition contains seventy-four songs, mostly single melodies with Latin words, although a few are printed in two-, three-, or four-voice harmony. They are organized by topic, with the first twenty-four songs headed “De Nativitate”—songs about Christmas. The title page of the collection claims that the melodies in the collection are “in use throughout the entire Swedish Kingdom,” but since the collection originated in the cosmopolitan setting of the sixteenth-century university, it contains songs from throughout Europe—for example, the tune for “Now the Word Becomes the Flesh” (number five in Öhrwall’s suite) appears in a Spanish manuscript from before 1100. It has been suggested that the collection was published specifically in an attempt to preserve and adapt musical traditions of the pan-European Latin church that were then in the process of being discarded in Sweden, since it had converted to Protestantism a few decades earlier.
Unlike many important sixteenth-century printed sources, the subsequent publication of the Piae Cantiones is as interesting as its genesis. In 1625 a new edition was published which eliminated some of the less singable numbers and added thirteen additional songs. Also, early in the seventeenth century the entire collection was translated into both Swedish and Finnish, and the bare melodies were harmonized in a “modern” harmonic style. In this form, in Finland especially, these songs then became a foundation stone of Scandinavian Protestant hymnody.
The collection has enriched English-language hymnody as well. In 1853, a copy of the first edition ended up in the hands of Rev. J. M. Neale, the great poet of the Oxford Movement within Anglicanism. Leaders of this movement were already looking for alternatives to what they saw as excessively sentimental and insufficiently reverent church music in use in the Church of England of the Victorian age. The austere and medieval-sounding yet tuneful and accessible melodies of the Piae Cantiones fit their vision perfectly. Neale produced English translations for over twenty of the carols, a few of which have become standard hymns throughout the entire English-speaking world, including “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” and “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine.” In one case, a “school song” from the Piae Cantiones with a completely nonreligious text was given entirely new lyrics by Neale, becoming famous as “Good King Wenceslas.”
This brings us to Anders Öhrwall’s arrangements of tunes that were already adaptations and appropriations when they were first printed in 1582. Rather than simply an arrangement of Renaissance music, Öhrwall’s suite is one more link in a four-hundred-year chain of continuous reinterpretation of these beloved melodies. To six melodies from the Piae Cantiones, some famous and some more obscure, Öhrwall has added two tunes drawn from Michael Praetorius’s Musae Sioniae of 1609—the famous “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and the less-well-known “Psallite”— and an instrumental “Sinfonia.” The style of his arrangements is neither self-consciously archaic nor self-consciously modernist, but rather elegant, colorful, and contemporary. Öhrwall’s harmonizations and instrumental accompaniments are like fine midcentury Swedish furniture, with their simplicity and directness concealing their flawless craftsmanship and refined artistry.
Kirke Mechem’s Seven Joys of Christmas was written with an altogether different strategy. This suite, by the man called “the dean of American choral composers,” is a showpiece for choral virtuosity from beginning to end. From the solemn, mysterious mood of the opening carol, “This Is the Truth,” to the breakneck counterpoint of “Fum, Fum, Fum!” and “Patapan,” the suite showcases a choir’s artistry and skill. The haunting and unusual fifth carol, “New Year Song,” is based on a Japanese “counting song,” or kazoe-uta, about the changing seasons. The final carol in the collection, “God Bless the Master of This House,” begins as a rousing “wassail song,” but then becomes something quite different; Mechem has a delightful final surprise in store.
Of the four carols on tonight’s program by the young Minneapolis-based composer Stephen Paulus, only one is an arrangement of a traditional carol: How Far Is it to Bethlehem. But Paulus takes the simple, almost childlike melody and unexpectedly transforms it with rich, thick harmonies into something quite dark. Paulus’s original composition A Savior from On High has a similarly shadowy tone. But Snow Had Fallen; Christ Was Born—a newly composed carol to fragmented and recombined lines of the familiar carol “In the Bleak Midwinter”—alternates moody darkness with eruptions of bright light. The Ship Carol, set to an anonymous sixteenth-century lyric, is all sunshine throughout, with the choir’s spiky harmonies uncannily mimicking the raucous clanging of bells.
Jackson Berkey, famous as a member of the group Mannheim Steamroller, originally wrote his Anniversary Carols as anniversary gifts to his wife, Almeda. These exuberant, unexpected, and utterly delightful arrangements of Christmas tunes, including O Come, All Ye Faithful and Joy to the World have become favorites of the Seattle Choral Company in recent years. In these arrangements, Berkey’s startling shifts in rhythms and harmonies keep members of the audience continually on their toes, letting them hear these most familiar of melodies with fresh ears, encountering the great joy in “Joy to the World” as if for the first time.