Program Notes

Joyeux Noël   2018

Procession: Candle Lighting Blessings (traditional)…arr. A. Binder

On each of the eight nights of Chanukah, candles are lit in the home. The form and text of the blessing’s dates from the Mishnaic times. The melody to which the blessings are traditionally sung in America is probably several hundred years old. The emotional impact of these blessings is particularly poignant, given recent events in Pittsburgh.

Messe de Minuit pour Noël avec Noëls sur les instruments…Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704)

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of the most outstanding musicians in late seventeenth-century France. His output of sacred music was prodigious, comprising some thirty-five oratorios, eleven settings of the Mass, over two hundred motets and the well-known Te Deum. Charpentier was particularly drawn to writing Christmas music, producing instrumental carols, Latin oratorios on Christmas themes, French pastorales and a Christmas mass - the delightful Messe de Minuit pour Noël. This piece dates from around 1690 and was probably composed for the great Jesuit church of St. Louis in Paris, where Charpentier held the important post of maître de musique.

The use of popular carols in church music had long been an accepted practice. In England, carols were more often sung than played, but in France noëls figured prominently in the substantial French organ repertoire. The liturgy of Midnight Mass permitted the singing and playing of these Christmas folksongs, and by Charpentier’s time quite complex instrumental arrangements were commonplace. However, Charpentier’s idea of basing a whole mass on these songs was completely original. Very little of Charpentier’s music was published during his lifetime and only in the late twentieth century has Charpentier’s music seen a substantial revival, with a consequent re-assessment of his true place in French music.

Gloria (1959) for soprano solo, mixed choir and orchestra…Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)

Even now, the importance of Poulenc’s choral and religious music is not generally recognized, despite the fact that it formed a substantial part of his output and one to which the composer himself attached great importance. The Gloria was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation of the Library of Congress and had its world premiere in Boston on January 20, 1961, to great acclaim. The work soon became absorbed into the standard choral repertory—a rare achievement in the twentieth century. The ingredients of this well-merited success are not hard to discern; first and foremost, Poulenc’s abundant and appealing melodic gift is evident everywhere, supported by apt colorful writing. Second, perhaps less obvious, the work makes a convincing whole. Finally, the essentially affirmative, optimistic nature of Poulenc’s personality and faith is apparent, speaking to the listener with a directness, eloquence and clarity not often found in twentieth-century music of such high quality.

Today’s performance of the Poulenc Gloria is a satisfying arrangement for strings, harp, organ and timpani, prepared by Anthony Sbordoni in 1999.

*Quelle est cette odeur agréable…arr. David Willcocks

This 17th-century traditional French Christmas carol, thought to be from Lorraine, expresses the shepherds’ wonder at their encounter with the Christ child. The melody has such a unique, sweet quality and shape, it is as if you can feel the “odeur agréable” stealing our senses away!

from Oratorio de Noël, op. 20…Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921)

Late in 1858, the Church of the Madeleine in Paris commissioned twenty-three-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns to write an oratorio for that year’s Christmas celebration. He set to work on December 4, and by December 15 had finished a ten-movement work telling the Christmas story. The Oratorio de Noël, op. 12 (1858), is an intimate work that requires solo singers, a chorus, and small instrumental forces—an organ, a harp, and strings. As in most of Saint-Saens’ works, the organ figures prominently. His conservative style is striking, especially as he was a champion of modern music in his youth, campaigning for the works of Wagner and Liszt at a time when they were ridiculed in France. However, this conservative nature remains part of the charm of Oratorio de Noël, as it conveys great feelings of joy and hope.

O Come, Emmanuel…Peter Paul Olejar (b. 1937)

The words and the music of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” developed separately. The Latin text is first documented in Germany in 1710, whereas the tune most familiar in the English-speaking world has its origins in 15th-century France. The English text is a translation of a Latin hymn, “Veni, veni, Emmanuel” and Peter Paul Olejar’s arrangement draws the listener into the mystery of this ancient hymn with effective use of just nine handbells.

from Messe Solennelle (St. Cecilia)…Charles Gounod (1818-1893)

This year we celebrate the 200th Anniversary of Gounod’s birth. His Sanctus and Benedictus are from the Messe Solennelle de Sainte-Cécile, which represented a stylistic point of departure for the young composer. Previously his sacred music reflected the archaic polyphony of past eras making them suitable for liturgical use. The Messe Solonnelle, with its fuller texture and operatic style shifts away from the austerity of Gounod’s past writing to become one of his most memorable works. Upon its premiere, Saint-Saëns was in the audience and very aptly exclaimed: “The appearance of the Messe Saint-Cécile caused a kind of shock. This simplicity, this grandeur, this serene light which rose before the musical world like a breaking dawn, troubled people enormously… at first one was dazzled, then charmed, then conquered.”

*Ding, Dong Merrily on High…Charles Wood

This16th century French tune first appeared as a secular dance melody known under the title Branle de l’Official in Orchésographie, a dance book written by Jehan Tabourot (1519–1593). The lyrics are from English composer George Woodward (1848–1934), and the carol was first published in 1924 in The Cambridge Carol-Book. The song is particularly noted for the Latin refrain: Gloria, Hosanna in excelsis! where the sung vowel sound “o” of “Gloria” is fluidly sustained through a lengthy rising and falling melismatic melodic sequence.

Ave Maria, op. 93…Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924)

Gabriel Fauré will always be primarily associated with his magnum opus, Requiem in D minor. He wrote no symphonies and only a few orchestral works and his attempts at opera fell flat to the ground. His strength lay mainly in chamber, keyboard plus choral and vocal music. Fauré admired Wagner and had a detailed knowledge of his music, but he was one of the few composers of his generation not to come under Wagner’s musical spell. Neither did he fall for the nationalistic style in music that was fashionable at the time. Fauré was possibly the last French romantic but never an impressionist.

Although Fauré wrote several settings of the Ave Maria text, his op. 93 is particularly beautiful for its accompaniment of Violin, Cello, Harp and Organ, supporting the purity of two treble voices.

*Adeste Fideles…arr. David Willcocks

“O Come, All Ye Faithful” (originally written in Latin as Adeste Fideles) has been attributed to various authors, including John Francis Wade, John Reading and King John IV of Portugal! The familiar arrangement by Willcocks and the accompanying descant has become standard fare at many a holiday concert.

Il est né le divin enfant…arr. John Rutter

Il est né le divin enfant (He is born, the divine Child) is a traditional French Christmas carol, published for the first time in 1862 in a collection of carols entitled “Airs des Noëls lorrains.” The text of the carol, which is written in four stanzas, details the birth of Jesus and the wait of 4000 years for the event, as told by the prophets. John Rutter’s arrangement charms us with its simplicity, capturing the delicate, but sparkling quality of this traditional tune.

We Wish you a Merry Christmas…arr. David Willcocks

The early history of the carol is unclear. It is absent from many collections and anthologies until well into the 20th century! It is often described as English traditional, but no source is really known. The greeting “a merry Christmas and a happy New Year” is recorded from the early eighteenth century and closely related variations can be found, including the rather humorous endings: “A pocket full of money,

And a cellar full of beer” or “A pantryful of good roast-beef, And barrels full of beer.” In any case, Willcocks catches the humor of the text, particularly the demand for “figgy pudding”!


*denotes audience participation

We wish you a Merry Christmas

And a Happy New Year!