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ClassicsOnline Home » CHRISTMAS ANTHOLOGY (A) - In Terra Pax (Doyle, Williams, City of London Choir, Bournemouth Symphony, Wetton)
Performances of carols both ancient and modern have become central to the celebration of Christmas. The choral music on this disc includes Holst’s surprisingly neglected Christmas Day, as well as music by Leighton, Joubert, Mathias, Gardner and Rutter. The nostalgic mood of Howells’s evergreen carol-anthems is echoed in Finzi’s In terra pax, which recalls the pealing of bells at midnight on a frosty Christmas Eve. The City of London Choir, which enjoys an enviable reputation as a ‘leader among nonprofessional choruses’ (The Times), makes its Naxos début with this delightful recording.
By John Allison
In Terra Pax: A Christmas Anthology
Christmas music is almost as old as celebrations of the festival itself. Yet, like those celebrations, it has had a more erratic history than might be imagined today, so we should not be surprised to find that all the pieces gathered together here, though many trace centuries-old roots, were actually composed during the twentieth century.
Originally suppressed by the medieval church, which favoured monastic chant, in England the carol went on to suffer the double blow of the Reformation and Cromwell’s Protectorate. During this latter period the pursuit of fun became a risky business; by 1647 Christmas Day had been abolished by parliamentary decree and carols were among the many musical targets, surviving best of all in deeply rural communities. A different situation prevailed on the Continent, even in Protestant countries, where Luther was among the reformers who actually composed carols and encouraged their use in worship. Some of the most popular carols in nineteenth-century England were thus imports, as, for example, the fourteenth-century German In dulci jubilo, introduced in an English version by the Victorian composer Robert Lucas Pearsall.
Though nineteenth-century English literature contains some celebrated references to the carol, it also highlights the extent to which Christmas music was still languishing on the fringe. Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is itself credited with helping to revive the concept of Christmas ‘spirit’. In Under the Greenwood Tree, Thomas Hardy’s Mellstock Quire adheres to the tradition of singing carols outside the church. Hardy’s rural vision was part of a wider yearning for pre-Industrial Revolution landscapes, and in the great carol revival of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries composers often drew on old manuscripts for their arrangements of earlier tunes and, especially, settings of ancient texts; their nostalgia may also have taken a cue from the paintings of the pre-Raphaelites. Like so many developments in music, which have often lagged a little behind other artistic movements, the carol, however, arrived definitively only in the aftermath of World War I, when the form of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols was first instituted at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, on Christmas Eve 1918.
Central to this Christmas music renaissance was the Gloucestershire-born, Cambridge-educated Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), whose work as musical editor of The English Hymnal (published in 1906) helped enshrine such now well-loved carols as Christina Rossetti’s In the bleak midwinter, set to music by his friend Gustav Holst. Though one of the most cosmopolitan of all English composers—he studied with Bruch in Berlin and Ravel in Paris—Vaughan Williams found creative inspiration in the regenerative use of
traditional and folk-music. He arranged countless carols, and used Christmas themes for such bigger works as his Fantasia on Christmas carols and late masterpiece Hodie. Despite being an atheist who (according to his second wife, Ursula Vaughan Williams) ‘later drifted into cheerful agnosticism’, he remained drawn throughout his life to the pantheistic possibilities of Christmas music. His Folk songs of the four seasons, a cantata that had its première in 1950, scored for female chorus and orchestra, uses four carols as the basis for its broad and stirring Winter segment: the Children’s Christmas song, Wassail song, In Bethlehem city and God bless the Master.
When Gustav Holst (1874–1934) and Vaughan Williams met at the Royal College of Music in London in 1895, it was the beginning of a lifelong friendship based on shared musical ideals. Holst’s deep interest in Hindu spiritualism did not preclude his own rediscovery of English folk-music, and several of his choral works—he was a much more varied and prolific figure than his reputation as composer of The Planets suggests—were inspired by Christmas tradition. Christmas Day, subtitled A choral fantasy on old carols, dates from 1910 and is written in a sturdy, diatonic vein. It takes the form of variations on In dulci jubilo (better known in the English-speaking world as Good Christian men, rejoice), and interweaves portions of God rest you merry, gentlemen, The first Nowell and a lively old Breton melody to which Holst sets the text Come, ye lofty, come, ye lowly.
Herbert Howells (1892–1983), who also enjoyed a close friendship with Vaughan Williams, was far more conventional in his religious outlook. Beginning his musical career as an organ pupil at Gloucester Cathedral, he went on to compose a distinguished body of music for the Anglican liturgy. The Carol-Anthems of 1918–20 are early works, often and deservedly referred to as gems, giving notice of the spiritualised sensuality that was to mark out Howells’s reflective style. They are set for unaccompanied choir, but A
spotless Rose also floats a solo baritone line.
A miniaturist now best remembered for his distinctive songs, Peter Warlock (1894–1930) was an enigmatic composer who pursued a reckless life and death (by suicide) in London’s Bohemia. In mid-1923 he responded to a request from Vaughan Williams for carols with soprano solo, chorus and orchestra for a concert that December. Adding to a newly composed
setting, As I sat under a sycamore tree, he reworked his earlier Tyrley, tyrlow and (as the middle panel between two extrovert carols) Balulalow which, with its muted string accompaniment and mystical, quasi-medieval atmosphere, shows the composer at his haunting best.
This programme’s most substantial work, In terra pax by Gerald Finzi (1901–56), is subtitled Christmas scene and finds the composer near the end of his life recalling the experience he had as a young man of hearing bells ringing out across the Cotswolds on a frosty midnight at Christmas Eve. The Christmas story is transplanted into an English pastoral scene, as if envisioned by Samuel Palmer, and the text mixes St Luke with Robert Bridges. Proudly English in character but cosmopolitan by birth—Jewish of German-Italian descent, and able to trace his roots to a prominent and learned Sephardic family in Padua—Finzi was a pastoralist with a fierce love of English lyrical poetry.
Engaging with the story from an agnostic, rationalist point of view, Finzi conjured up some of his most visionary music here.
Perhaps because he belonged to a slightly separate tradition, Kenneth Leighton (1929–88) remains an underestimated composer. Whether based on Baroque models or serial principles, his works are always tautly written. Leighton’s early musical experiences as a chorister at Wakefield Cathedral left him with a strong feeling for the choral idiom (he was even an early patron of the City of London Choir), which he displays in A hymn of the Nativity (1960) for solo soprano and unaccompanied chorus, dating from the first decade of his career.
John Joubert (b. 1927) and William Mathias (1934– 92) have composed in most genres, including opera, but are best known to the public for their choral music. Though born in Cape Town into a family of Afrikaner descent, Joubert has since 1950 been an important figure on the British musical scene. Based on a fifteenth-century Advent text, his gentle There is no rose (1954) is the antithesis of his even more popular carol, Torches. Mathias’s Sir Christèmas and A babe is born are both written in the typically vigorous style that made Mathias perhaps the best-loved Welsh composer of his generation.
A one-man Christmas music industry, John Rutter (b. 1945) has composed and arranged carols for choirs around the world, but the gently flowing What sweeter music was written in 1988 for the place most celebrated for its Lessons and Carols: King’s College, Cambridge. A more senior composer, John Gardner (b. 1917) is also best known for a carol, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, based on traditional English words mingling divine and human love and using dance as both rhythm and metaphor. Originally scoring the piece for women’s (or girls’) voices, Gardner wrote it during his time as Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls’ School. It completes a thread running through this programme: Gardner’s predecessors at St Paul’s included Howells and Holst, and his successor was Hilary Davan Wetton, artistic director of the City of London Choir. This recording of Gardner’s popular carol, albeit in its revised form for mixed chorus, was made at the Hammersmith school where it was first heard.
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