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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 4-5-6, 2015
90th Season / Subscription Concert No.4
Michael Allsen


If great choral music was on your wish list this year, wish no further:  this program features both the Madison Symphony Chorus and the Madison Youth Choirs.  If you asked Santa for bit of wonderful solo singing, we have two fabulous voices: mezzo-soprano Emily Fons and bass-baritone David Govertson.  If you were hoping for a little Gospel music in your stocking, we end with selections by the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir.  And if singing familiar carols is part of your holiday tradition, we’ve got that too.  We hope you enjoy what has become a beloved Madison tradition—this year’s edition of A Madison Symphony Christmas!  

 

John Rutter’s works are nearly always part of our holiday concert, and here we begin with his setting of the Christmas hymn that has the most ancient roots of all, O Come, O Come Immanuel. This hymn has its origins in the series of “O antiphons” (O sapientia, O radix Jesse, and several others) that were chanted as early as the 8th century at Vespers on the days leading up to Christmas—each one invoking an aspect of Jesus. In 1851, an English clergyman, John Mason Neale, adapted these ancient texts as an English poem, O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and it was later set to the melody of a 15th-century hymn, Veni, Veni Emmanuel. Rutter’s arrangement is straightforward and effective, beginning with an unadorned version of the hymn in its beautiful simplicity.

 

There is a bit of mystery about the origins of Johann Sebastian Bach’s four orchestral suites—their precise dates of composition cannot be determined, but they were probably written during the years 1717-1723, when Bach served as the Kapellmeister to the Cöthen court of music-loving Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Cöthen: half of the the famous “Brandenburg” concertos were written for the Cöthen court, as was the lion’s share of Bach’s surviving orchestral music.  The orchestral suites reflect popular French style, with a series of French courtly dances.  Three excerpts from the second suite appear in this program.  Here, Bach treats the flute as a soloist, in the manner of a concerto.  Though the Polonaise, a Polish dance, was not often found in French-style suites, it was a favorite of Bach’s, and here he uses it in the manner of a short theme and variations.  After a brief Menuet, the suite closes with a light, quick-footed Badinerie (from the French badiner: “to jest” or “to banter”).

 

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written in Leipzig for the Christmas season of 1734-35.  Not really an “oratorio,” in the dramatic sense of contemporary works by Handel, Bach's Christmas Oratorio is instead a series of six self-contained cantatas for Christmas Day and the feasts that follow it.  Like many of the numbers in the Christmas Oratorio, the aria Grosser Herr, O starker König (“Great Lord, O mighty king”) from the first cantata, is in fact a reworking of an earlier piece.  In this case, Bach borrowed from an occasional piece of about a year earlier, the aria Kron und Preis gekrönter Damen (“Crown and praise of exalted ladies”) from a birthday cantata for Maria Josepha, Electress of Saxony.  The aria is transformed here to an emotional song to the baby Jesus. It is set in the three-part form of contemporary operatic arias.  The opening section begins with a trumpet solo that winds sinuously around the baritone's aria.  This music is suitably exultant in style, but the second section, focusing on the humble circumstances of Jesus’s birth, is more restrained.  The aria ends with a repeat of the opening section, allowing both soloists to ornament their lines.

 

We continue with three works that feature the Madison Youth Choirs, beginning with Rutter’s Donkey Carol—a lively galumphing accompaniment, brightly orchestrated, that continues beneath more lyrical lines in the voices.  It ends—of course—with an orchestral hee-haw.  Bob Chilcott is among Britain’s leading contemporary choral composers.  His 1994 anthem Mid-Winter, written for children’s voices, is a setting of the well-known Christmas poem “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Christina Rossetti’s poem has received may attractive settings since it was published in 1904, including the famous version by Gustav Holst, but Chilcott’s musical reading of the poem is wonderful in its childlike directness.  Randol Alan Bass’s Christmas Ornaments is lushly-orchestrated fantasia on several familiar holiday tunes.  Heard here is a section labeled “Bell Carols”—a witty combination of Ding, Dong, Merrily on High and the traditional Ukrainian Carol of the Bells

 

One of the great ironies in the career of Ralph Vaughan Williams is that this composer—a professed atheist for much of his life who later drifted into what his wife described as a “cheerful agnosticism”—seems so much to have embodied modern English sacred music.  Beginning with his edition of The English Hymnal (1906), he composed a huge body of hymn tunes, anthems Christmas carols, and larger sacred works.  In his Magnificat, he turned to one of the most traditional of liturgical texts, one of the Biblical canticles (Luke 1: 46-55).  This prayer, in the voice of Mary, is her response to the Annunciation that she had conceived a child by the Holy Spirit.  The Magnificat was sung during the Vespers (Evensong) service in both the Catholic Church and the Church of England. Vaughan Williams’s Magnificat was composed for the mezzo-soprano Astra Desmond in 1932, and is among the most innovative settings of this text.  He was careful to place a note in the score that his version “is not intended for liturgical use”—recognizing that both the spirit and the form of this work made it unsuitable for the staid ritual of the church.  He wrote to his friend Gustav Holst that this was an effort to “lift the words out of the smug atmosphere which had settled on them after being sung at evening service for so long…” Here we have not merely a prayer, but a dramatic scene with three characters.  While the soloist sings the canticle, a chorus of women plays the role of the Angel of the Annunciation, inserting new Biblical text.  A third character appears in the guise of a solo flute, described by Vaughan Williams as “the disembodied visiting spirit”—that is, the spirit that enters Mary’s womb.  The choral music of the Angel is ethereal throughout, while the flute’s line is unabashedly sensuous.  Mary's part is operatic in both its style and in its breadth of emotion, from her ecstatic opening phrase to the power—and even warlike anger—in the line “He hath shewed strength with his arm.”  After a great moment of choral rapture on “and of his Kingdom there shall be no end,” the ending is quiet and understated, with a passionate duet between the soloist and flute, and a hushed prayer by the chorus.

 

Felix Mendelssohn considered the oratorio Elijah to be one of his crowning achievements: a huge sacred work that was in many ways his tribute to Handel.  Like Handel’s enduring Messiah, Elijah is a series of quotations from the Bible—in this case passages from Luther’s German version assembled by a Lutheran pastor named Julius Schubring, and translated into English by William Bartholomew.  The premiere, at the Birmingham festival in August 1846, was an astounding success.  One reviewer wrote:  “The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long-continued, unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening … never was there a more complete triumph—never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art.”   And here you’ll hear that “last note”—the magnificent final fugue, Lord, Our Creator.

 

In 1717 George Frideric Handel moved to England to compose and produce opera.  For nearly two decades, 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. The baritone aria The Trumpet Shall Sound, comes from Part III.  It opens with a brilliant trumpet obbligato, and when the bass enters it is with sweeping fanfare motive of his own.  Baritone and trumpet weave counterpoint around one another in the opening section. The baritone is left alone for the more pensive second half, before a joyful ornamented repeat of the opening. The finale to our first half 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!

 

John Rutter’s Gloria, composed in 1974, was one of his first works to gain wide attention.  The work was commissioned by a chorus in Omaha, Nebraska, but in relatively short order it became a favorite of choruses throughout the United States and England.  The Gloria text is drawn from the Latin liturgy, and it has proved a fertile source of inspiration to composers from the Middle Ages onwards.  Rutter provides the following description of his Gloria:  “The Latin text, drawn from the Ordinary of the Mass, is a centuries-old challenge to the composer:  exalted, devotional, and jubilant by turns.  My setting, which is based upon one of the Gregorian chants associated with the text, divides into three movements roughly corresponding with traditional symphonic structure.” He describes the first movement, heard here, as making “quite a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

 

Canadian composer Stephen Hatfield created the version of the traditional English Apple-Tree Wassail heard here.  We tend to associate wassailing with Christmas, but its origins predate the introduction of Christianity to England.  According to the composer:  “Wassail comes from the Anglo-Saxon wes hael—to be healthy.  Originally, wassails were taken seriously as blessings on farms and farmers that would help ensure the health of the coming year.  The Apple-Tree Wassail comes from the cider country of Devon and Somerset, where it might be sung in the orchards or at the farmer's  door.  The references to ‘lily white pins’ and ‘lily white smocks’ are meant to flatter the farmer's family by listing the fine clothes and ornaments they could supposedly afford to wear.  The twelfth day of Christmas (Epiphany) was thought to be a perfect time to bless the orchards, in part because it was believed that evil spirits did their best to confound Christmas piety in the twelve days following Christ's birth.”

 

Our soloists then join for a medley of Holiday favorites, in settings by the noted “Pops” arranger Lee Norris.  Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! was written in 1945 by the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne—it became a No.1 hit the next December and remains one of the most popular and often-covered Holiday standards.  Jingle Bell Rock was written in 1957, and was a huge hit that year for singer Bobby Helms, whose Rockabilly version of the song remains the most familiar recording, despite well over 100 later “covers” by other singers.  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.  Tormé quickly showed the song to his friend Nat Cole, whose 1946 hit recording is now a beloved holiday classic.  Bing Crosby had a huge hit in 1943 with the sentimental holiday song, I’ll Be Home for Christmas.  This song by the team of Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, struck a deeply emotional chord for the millions of Americans serving overseas in wartime and their families back home—and is just as appropriate in 2015. 

 

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town was written in 1932, a collaboration between composer J. Fred Coots, and lyricist Haven Gillespie.  The song was not introduced until the Holiday season of 1934 by radio star Eddie Cantor, but it was popular as soon as it hit the airwaves, undoubtedly lifting the spirits of Americans in the depth of the Great Depression.  This durable song sold millions of records for singers from Bing Crosby to Gene Autry to Perry Como to the Andrews Sister, and even inspired an animated television special in 1970.  Fast forward to 1995...  For one of its early “Holiday Spectacular” concerts in 1995, the Madison Symphony Orchestra commissioned Jazz arranger Frank Mantooth to create an updated version of the song for that season.  Mantooth's arrangement, building on a choral arrangement by Kirby Shaw, was premiered in December 1995 by the Madison Boychoir.  Mantooth later adapted the piece for the larger Madison Symphony chorus, but it is the 1995 version heard tonight: young voices in a swingin' take on this Holiday classic!

 

Our program ends with the welcome return of Madison’s Mt. Zion Gospel Coir in three brand new arrangements by its co-director, Leotha Stanley.  First in the set is This Christmas, a 1970 song by the Soul superstar Donny Hathaway, has a great funky groove (with sleighbells!) and a series of snug and romantic images of a Christmas spent with someone special.  The well-known Amen had its roots in a traditional call-and-response spiritual, but in 1963 Jester Hairston wrote a new version for the Sidney Poitier’s film Lilies of the Field.  The song became a hit for the Soul group The Impressions in 1967, and remains one of the best-known Gospel choral songs.  We end with a Gospel arrangement of Winter Wonderland, another cheerful holiday song that came out of the Great Depression.  It was a 1934 collaboration by lyricist Richard Smith and composer Felix Bernard, and was a No.2 hit that year for the Guy Lombardo orchestra.  The song, with its cozy, sentimental imagery of snowmen and cold winter walks—and warming by the fire afterwards—had tremendous staying power and has never left the list of holiday standards.

 

And then, its your turn to sing…

________

program notes ©2015 by J. Michael Allsen