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NOTE:  These program notes are published here for patrons of the the Madison Symphony Orchestra and other interested readers.  Any other use is forbidden without specific permission from the author.

Madison Symphony Orchestra Program Notes
December 5-6-7, 2014
89th Season / Subscription Concert No. 4
  by Michael Allsen


“A Madison Symphony Christmas” is our ever-popular collection of both traditional and new, classical and popular—music that can’t help but help you get in the holiday spirit. Concerts like this thrive on traditions, and the features you’ve come to expect are here: the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Hallelujah chorus that closes the first half, and our closing sing-a-long. We also welcome back longtime favorites, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, and two vocal soloists, soprano Alyson Cambridge and tenor Harold Meers.

 

Among the most famous hymns of Christmas, Joy to the World may also the most famous case of misattribution among Christmas hymns. It has traditionally been credited to Handel, and indeed one of its first publishers, the hymn writer William Holford printed it with Handel’s name in the early 1830s, probably because of its close resemblance to a few bits from the ever-familiar Messiah. Hymn tunes were generally given shorthand titles, and Holford in fact titled the tune Comfort. The great Methodist hymn writer Lowell Mason cemented the association with Handel when he revised the tune in 1839 (retitling it Antioch) and used it to set a Christmas hymn text by Handel’s contemporary Isaac Watts.  This familiar hymn is heard here in an appropriately joyous arrangement by Mack Wilberg.

 

For nearly two decades, George Frideric Handel was the most successful impresario in England, but by the 1730s, Handel’s Italian opera had gone out of fashion, and he turned increasingly to the English oratorio. His oratorios—dramatic renderings of Biblical stories familiar to his English audiences—were enormously successful, and their popularity endured and grew long after Handel’s death. Messiah of 1741 is, of course, Handel’s most enduring “hit,” but it is somewhat unusual among his oratorios in that his text is a pastiche of direct quotes from the St. James version of the Bible. We hear three excerpts from this work, beginning with the famous tenor aria Every Valley Shall Be Exalted and the chorus And the Glory of the Lord, both from the opening of Part I of Messiah, the “Christmas” section. Every Valley is a Baroque aria in Handel’s best operatic style, allowing for some virtuoso vocal display, while And the Glory is one of Messiah’s grand fugal choruses. As always, the finale to our first half is the concluding Hallelujah chorus from Part II. And if you feel like following the lead of King George III and standing for this great choral acclamation, go right ahead!

 

Franz Schubert composed his song Wiegenlied (“Lullaby”) in 1816. The song, which remained unpublished until after his death may have been composed as a sentimental response to the death of his own younger brother Theodor in infancy. Its anonymous German text is a gentle lullaby that speaks of angel voices. The Italian text, Mille cherubini in coro (“A choir of a thousand cherubs”) and the choral refrains were added even later in the 19th century. This version with its sweet imagery and sweeter voices has become a Christmas standard.


The acclaimed English choral conductor and composer John Rutter has explained that Christmas music has “…always occupied a special place in my affections, ever since I sang in my first Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols as a nervous ten-year-old boy soprano.  For me, and I suspect for most of the other members of the Highgate Junior School Choir, it was the high point of our singing year, diligently rehearsed and eagerly anticipated for weeks beforehand.  Later, my voice changed and I turned from singing to composition, but I never forgot those early Highgate carol services...” We have heard several of Rutter's Christmas works over the years, and on this program, he is represented by his Star Carol, an alternately playful and solemn song on the birth of Jesus.

 

Though he was respected in his day as composer of operas and ballet scores (including the well-known Giselle) Adolphe Adam is known to American audiences almost exclusively for his Christmas carol Cantique de Noël. Written in 1847 as a setting of a two-verse Christmas poem by Mary Cappeaux, this carol was later adapted by J. S. Wright as a three-verse English carol, O Holy Night.

 

When the Romantic composer Charles Gounod set a lovely cantabile melody above a keyboard prelude by Johann Sebastian Bach, he created one of the best-loved sacred songs of all time. The Latin text of Ave Maria, drawn from the Annunciation story in the Gospel of Luke, is one of the most familiar prayers of the Catholic Church.

 

Francis Poulenc, known most often as a musical humorist, was also a deeply religious man. He rediscovered his Catholic faith while in his late 30s, and many of his choral works were settings of Latin religious texts. Poulenc’s religious vision reflected his own joie de vivre, and his religious music is never pompous or conventional. The Gloria, one of Poulenc’s last completed works, was written in 1959-60, for a commission from the Koussevitsky Music Foundation, and first performed in Boston in 1961. [NOTE: The Madison Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, then under the direction of Maestro Roland Johnson, gave the first Midwestern performance of this now-standard work in 1963. - M.A.] Poulenc divides the traditional text of the Gloria, part of the Latin Mass, into six sections, the first three of which are heard here. The music reflects both a deep understanding of the text and Poulenc’s own joyful spirituality. The opening movement begins with delicate orchestral textures, but soon gives way to exuberant calls of Gloria—a word returns constantly throughout this movement. Nowhere in the Gloria is Poulenc’s sense of humor more evident than in the witty Laudamus te. Only in the central section (Gratias agimus tibi gloriam tuam), does the mood become sober, but even here, there is a sense of tongue-in-cheek dignity that lets us know that Poulenc’s praises are offered with a cheerful spirit. The next section, Domine Deus, is a series of invocations to God is sung primarily by the soloist, with responses by the chorus. Near the end, Poulenc subtly works in the word Gloria.

 

Handel’s oratorios of the 1730s and 1740s mark the beginning of a long English love affair with the oratorio. Handel’s Messiah and works such as Haydn’s The Creation were revived countless times in 19th-century England, and many English composers turned to the form in earnest. William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast, completed in 1931, is his contribution to this formidable series. True to the tradition, Walton’s oratorio is based on a biblical text, in this case the story of the captivity of the Israelites in Babylon, and he terrible downfall of the Babylonian king. There is nothing Handelian about Walton’s music, however: it is harmonically adventurous and highly rhythmic, particularly in the closing Alleluia heard on this program. This section, the final few minutes of this enormous work, represents the rejoicing of the Israelites at being freed from bondage.

 

Our second half opens with a trio of old carols from the British Isles. Deck the Halls is one of the oldest Christmas songs generally heard today—a 400-year-old Welsh carol that features the “fa-la-la” refrains popular in 16th-century madrigals and balletts.  This orchestration is by Carmen Dragon, a Los Angeles-based arranger and conductor whose music was a fixture at the great Hollywood Bowl concerts of the late 1950s. The Holly and the Ivy is a traditional English carol that first appeared in its modern version in an 1871 collection. The carol dates from at least the fifteenth century, and the association of holly and ivy—plants that stay miraculously green and fresh even during the coldest weather—with the celebration of the winter solstice is much earlier than that, dating to pre-Christian England. It is heard here in an arrangement by John Rutter. I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In is also an old English carol, dating from at least the 17th century. The notion that ships could somehow sail into the city of Bethlehem is geographical wishful thinking, but the text is metaphorical and joyous, possibly relating to the three wise men who visited the baby Jesus.

 

The most familiar of all Christmas songs, Jingle Bells, was written in the 1850s by James Pierpont: a Unitarian minister, organist, photographer, and sometime songwriter who worked in Massachusetts California, Georgia, and Florida. Jingle Bells, published in 1857, was not intended as a “Christmas song” at all, but rather a “sleighing song”—a popular genre at the time. It was not really popular until the later 19th century, when it gained its exclusive association with the Holiday season. The lively arrangement heard here is by the eminent English choral director and arranger Bob Chilcott.

 

The well-known Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), with all of those cozy wintertime images, was actually written during the roasting heat of a California summer. In his autobiography, Mel Tormé related the story how in July 1945, he drove to the home of his lyricist and collaborator Robert Wells in Toluca Lake. He found the lyrics lying on the piano, and when Wells finally appeared sweating and hot even in shorts and a t-shirt, he told Tormé: “It was so damn hot today, I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” Tormé replied: “You know, this just might make a song.” The Christmas Song was written in about 45 minutes later that day. He quickly showed the song to his friend Nat Cole, whose 1946 hit recording is now a beloved holiday classic.

 

The familiar classic Silver Bells was written in 1950 by the Hollywood team of Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, for the now-forgotten movie The Lemon Drop Kid, as a duet for Bob Hope and Helen Marilyn Maxwell. Most movie Christmas songs of the time were nostalgic songs about snowy country scenes, but Evans later remembered Silver Bells as “...practically the only song about Christmas in a big city, with department store lights, window displays, shoppers and all the rest.”

 

dIn the Guinness Book of World Records, White Christmas by Irving Berlin long held the title of largest-selling record in history. (It was not edged out until 1997, when Elton John’s Goodbye English Rose—his tribute to Princess Diana—topped the charts.) The song was an immediate hit in 1942, when millions of war-weary Americans heard Bing Crosby croon it for the first time in the movie Holiday Inn. The song won an Academy Award, and Crosby’s recording made him a wealthy man.

 

The Mt. Zion Gospel Choir will raise the Overture roof with music arranged for the choir and the Madison Symphony Orchestra by its director Leotha Stanley. We end with combined choirs, singing Stanley’s arrangement of Let There Be Peace on Earth (And Let It Begin With Me), written by the husband-wife team of Sy Miller and Jill Jackson, as they were at a weeklong retreat on a California mountaintop. Miller later recalled: “One summer evening in 1955, a group of 180 teenagers of all races and religions, meeting at a workshop high in the California mountains locked arms, formed a circle and sang a song of peace. They felt that singing the song, with its simple basic sentiment—’Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,’ helped to create a climate for world peace and understanding. When they came down from the mountain, these inspired young people brought the song with them and started sharing it...” This inspirational song has developed an association with the Christmas season, but its appeal and intent are much wider—it became, for example a widely-heard anthem of peace amidst the anger and sadness following the 9/11 attacks.

 

And then it’s your turn to sing!

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program notes ©2014 by J. Michael Allsen