Seasonal favourites: Morten Lauridsen – O magnum mysterium

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The last of my seasonal favourites uses one of the oldest texts heard at Christmas. ‘O magnum mysterium’ has been used as a chant on Christmas morning for well over a millennium, and may date from as far back as the 6th century. As so many Christmas-related texts do, it explores the immense contrast of sacred and secular, here between the great mystery of God born as a human being and the fact that He lies in a manger, watched around by animals—the profound and the prosaic, cheek by jowl. Throughout the last 500 years, many composers have been drawn to this text—the settings by Palestrina, Victoria and Poulenc are among the most well-known—but the setting by Morten Lauridsen, composed in 1994, has become not only the most celebrated in recent times, but also one of the most-performed contemporary Christmas pieces of the last two decades. One doesn’t need to listen to much of Lauridsen’s music to realise that he has a decidedly single-minded approach to composition. Lauridsen has, it seems, little time or interest in the drama and dissonance of life, opting instead for untroubled subject matter and an indefatigably tonal palette. Heard in large quantities, i find Lauridsen’s music to be both stifling and disingenuous; but taken in small doses, as in O magnum mysterium, there’s much that rings true, much to celebrate. Read more


Seasonal favourites: Jan Sandström – Det är en ros utsprungen

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One of the composers most strongly associated with this time of year is Michael Praetorius. His music dates from the early 17th century, and he is particularly well-known for his prolific treatments of Protestant hymns and songs. He harmonised numerous Christmas carols too, and there’s a kind of bold swagger to Praetorius’ approach that has no doubt helped to keep his music so beloved and oft-performed down the centuries. Composers have frequently arranged Praetorius’ music, and my fifth seasonal favourite is an impressive reimagining of one of the carols most associated with Praetorius, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

Swedish composer Jan Sandström will perhaps forever be known best for his wild and wonderful Motorbike Concerto, but his reworking of Praetorius’ material, known by its Swedish name Det är en ros utsprungen, is no less impressive. Composed in 1990, Sandström divides the singers into two choirs and then sets to work, seemingly stretching the original to infinity. Surrounded by voices that are static, Praetorius’ chords steadily make progress through what quickly becomes a vast ambient soup, a mystical cloud of notes hovering at the boundary between familiarity and strangeness. i wonder whether Sandström was influenced by the resurgence of ambient music that began in 1990, but regardless, the soundworld of his setting remains current, even prescient (today, bedroom composers would simply put Praetorius’ original through sound-stretching software for not dissimilar results). In such a highly immersive and intense atmosphere as this, the temptation is to linger, but Sandström bravely restricts himself to just one of the carol’s three verses; admittedly, its four-minute duration never feels enough, but each one of those minutes restores a badly-needed sense of wonder back to Christmas choral music. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Kenneth Leighton – Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child

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As the text in Paul Edwards’ No Small Wonder intimates, there’s more to the Christmas story than just stables, angels and presents, and perhaps the best-known carol to tap into the dark side of the narrative is “Lully, lulla, Thou little tiny child”, often referred to by its nickname, the Coventry Carol. It originates in the city’s renowned mystery plays, from the section that would have been performed on the feast of Corpus Christi by its sartorial tradespeople. The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors focused on one of the New Testament’s blackest episodes, the so-called Massacre of the Innocents, when the ruler of Judea, Herod, ordered the execution of all male infants in Bethlehem, with the aim of killing the child claimed by the Magi to be the prophesied ‘King of the Jews’. This is the ghastly subject of my fourth seasonal favourite. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Paul Edwards – No Small Wonder

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It’s a curious and rather sad phenomenon that the majority of carols being composed in recent times don’t really have much to do with congregations. For the most part, composers these days write for the choir rather than the flock, but i’m sure that many of the most popular new carols attain their popularity in part due to how ‘singable’ they seem to listeners. That can’t always be true, of course; Judith Weir’s piece needs a choir (and a good one), but Peter Warlock’s exquisite melody would be perfectly singable by the average singer, and that’s also the case in my third seasonal favourite.

Composed in 1983, Paul Edwards‘ carol No Small Wonder has become well-known over the years, and is heard regularly today in more forward-thinking Christmas services and concerts. Like the Peter Warlock i wrote about yesterday, Edwards’ setting is focused on its melody, which is both restrained and straightforward, using simple repetitions through its first four bars, not doing anything dramatic. But again like the Warlock, it’s in the conclusion of the melody that Edwards allows himself to be more adventurous. Beginning low, an ascending sequence leads to the titular refrain, the simplicity of the tune countered by highly chromatic harmonies in the organ. The opening verse is given just to the sopranos, but the second is for the full choir unaccompanied, and Edwards cranks the chromaticism of this closing chord sequence a notch further; as the text (by Paul Wigmore) has at this point veered into darker territory—”but God gives his life on a cross”—it’s both effective and very striking. The mood brightens in the final verse, the choir beginning in unison, the organ building to a forte climax, but the text casts another shadow on the light; “and all to redeem my poor heart” sings the choir, and Edwards in response pushes this chord progression further, made more poignant by the organ once again dropping out. Despite starting relatively brightly, the sudden major key of the coda quickly solemnifies to a minor shade, providing a fittingly haunting end to what is a beautiful but bittersweet carol. Read more

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Seasonal favourites: Peter Warlock (arr. Andrew Carter) – Lullaby my Jesus

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The second of my seasonal favourites is an arrangement. Peter Warlock’s Capriol Suite is a somewhat humdrum affair, but the fifth movement, ‘Pieds-en-l’air’ (the melody of which began life in a 16th-century book of Renaissance dances), stands out for the quality of its high lyricism. Some years ago, composer Andrew Carter made this music the vehicle for a delicate Christmas text of his own devising:

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my king,
Lullaby my lording whom I sweetly sing.
Slumber softly, slumber on your mother’s arm;
She will rock you, she will keep you safe from harm.

Lullaby my Jesus, lullaby my son.
Lullaby my child in whom God’s will is done.
Be at peace, soft dreams beguile you as you lie;
I will rock you, I will sing a lullaby.

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Seasonal favourites: Judith Weir – Illuminare, Jerusalem

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Despite being a time of year deeply entrenched in tradition (and not necessarily the worse for it), composers do from time to time bring a flash of innovation to Christmas. So, in the week leading up to the day itself, i’m going to explore a few of my seasonal favourites.

The first is Judith Weir‘s short carol Illuminare, Jerusalem, which dates from 1985. It was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for their annual service of Nine Lessons and Carols, and has remained a regular item in their repertoire. The work combines two of Weir’s strongest qualities, simplicity and succinctness, taking as its subject a joyous mediæval Scottish text exhorting Jerusalem to be—in every sense—illuminated by what is taking place above and around it. Anyone familiar with the language of mystery plays will recognise something similar here, and Weir emphasises the quirky contours of the text in her music. The three verses are distributed to different sections of the choir; the opening verse, announcing both star and angels, is given to the trebles; the closing verse, detailing the supplanting of Herod by the more “richtous king” falls to the men alone. They’re combined in the central verse that delightfully describes the Magi as “Thre kingis of strenge regionis to thee ar cumin with lusty rout”—i doubt Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar have ever been depicted quite like that before. Each of these verses follows a similar pattern, a triplet-laden melody that begins low and gradually rises to a climax; but what follows is a stroke of genius. The refrain “Illuminare Jerusalem” is sung softly but pointedly, the second word drawn out, but the first delivered staccato and momentarily underpinned by deep organ pedal notes. It’s a totally unexpected way to set such a word, but it’s a compositional triumph, lending a weird and unsettling numinosity to the refrain, perfectly capturing the sentiments its ancient words are seeking to convey. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Annunciation (World Première)

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Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and with it comes the first carol service of the new Church year, once again from St John’s College, Cambridge.

This year’s newly-commissioned carol came from Jonathan Harvey, who explored the Annunciation through words by the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. It’s a stunning text, and Harvey clothes it in an emphatically melodic music, passing it between solo voices, creating an intimate effect. Read more

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