Marc-Antoine Charpentier was one of the most outstanding musicians in late 17th-century France. As a young man he had spent three years in Rome studying with one of the leading Italian composers of the day, Giacomo Carissimi, with whom he acquired valuable first-hand experience of opera and oratorio—both relatively new forms at that time. On returning to his native Paris he put these skills to effective use, composing a number of theatrical works and bringing the dramatic oratorio to France for the first time. Charpentier’s output of sacred music was prodigious, comprising some thirty-five oratorios, eleven settings of the Mass, ten Magnificats, four Te Deums and over two hundred motets.
Charpentier was particularly drawn to writing Christmas music, producing instrumental noëls or carols, Latin oratorios on Christmas themes, French pastorales and a Christmas mass, the delightful Messe de Minuit pour Noël (Midnight Mass for Christmas). 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 Master of Music.
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 the 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. Altogether there are eleven noëls, most of which are dance-like in character, reflecting the carol’s secular origins. In addition to the carol melodies that he adapted to fit various parts of the mass text, Charpentier also composed new material, such as the slow sections ‘”Et in terra pax” at the beginning of the Gloria and “Et incarnatus est” in the Credo. It says much for the composer’s craftsmanship that these quite different idioms are so seamlessly and convincingly blended together.
Very little of Charpentier’s music was published during his lifetime. Like a number of his colleagues, he suffered greatly from the stranglehold exerted on Parisian music by his illustrious but unscrupulous contemporary Jean-Baptiste Lully. Only in the late 20th century has Charpentier’s music seen a substantial revival, with a consequent re-assessment of his true place in French music.
Note © John Bawden
The tune of the carol “Once, as I remember” was first published in an Italian collection of 1689. The Irish-born composer Charles Wood, best known for his Anglican church music, included this harmonized version in his collection of 1920 called An Italian Carol Book, with a new text by G. R. Woodward, his frequent writing partner.
Tom Shelton’s “A Spotless Rose” sets Catherine Winkworth’s beautiful translation of the 15th– or 16th-century German carol Es ist ein Ros, which in its most extended version of 23 verses narrates the entire Christmas story. The two verses here foretell the birth of Jesus (“a spotless rose”) from the Virgin Mary (“a tender root”), descended from Jesse, the father of King David. The composer floats a solo flute above the choir, playing the familiar German tune most often associated with Es ist ein Ros, which in turn is best known in English through another translation as “Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming.”
“A virgin unspotted” is one of the most widespread of all English folk carols, first printed in 1661, sometimes seen in versions that begin “A virgin most pure.” The text has been set to many different tunes over the centuries, most of anonymous origin. The American composer and sometime tanner William Billings set the carol to his own tune, “Judea,” published in The Singing Master’s Assistant in 1778.
Jester Hairston had a long career as both an actor—Amos and Andy, To Kill a Mockingbird, In the Heat of the Night—and a choral conductor, composer and arranger, getting his first break as an arranger for Hollywood film composer Dimitri Tiomkin. His grandparents were slaves, a fact that inspired his lifelong interest in preserving the rural black musical voice. He composed or arranged more than 300 spirituals. “Mary’s Little Boy Child” is an original composition, based on West-Indian rhythms, though its best-known recorded renditions, by Harry Belafonte and others, take a simpler, more lyrical approach.
The work of British composer Will Todd encompasses choral works large and small, opera, musical theatre and orchestral pieces, as well as jazz compositions and chamber works. His 2003 mass setting Mass in Blue has been performed extensively worldwide. “Softly,” small and quiet, a cappella, asks the “sleeping savior” to “bring me out of darkness and waken my soul.”
“White Winter Hymnal” was written by Robin Pecknold, lead singer and songwriter for the American indie folk band Fleet Foxes. It’s not particularly a Christmas song but simply, perhaps, a winter song. Pecknold himself has said variously that the song is “lyrically fairly meaningless,” “something to hum along to as you do the dishes” and “about loss of innocence.” Take your pick, or devise your own meaning!
Associated most closely with Elvis Presley, “Blue Christmas” was first recorded by country-western singer and actor Doye O’Dell in 1948 and made a hit a year later by country singer Ernest Tubb, one of Elvis’s childhood heroes. Elvis first recorded the song—reluctantly—in 1957, with The Jordanaires and Millie Kirkham on background vocals. That recording was released 12 more times over the next 30-some years, reaching the top 10 nearly every time.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” was one of three original songs by Mariah Carey and her writing partner, Walter Afanasieff, on her first Christmas album, Merry Christmas, in 1994. The song itself would become Carey’s biggest international success and, with covers by many other artists, one of the best-selling modern-day Christmas songs.
Just a few years later, in 1997, Melissa Manchester released a comparatively quiet Christmas album called Joy, which included the original song “There’s Still My Joy,” written with lyricist Beth Nielsen Chapman and producer Matt Rollings. Manchester said “it’s about the resurrection of hope in the midst of grief and stress.”
“See Amid the Winter’s Snow” is a 19th-century English carol by the writer-poet-priest Edward Caswall, set to the tune “Humility” by Sir John Goss. It’s also known as “Hymn for Christmas Day.” Tonight’s arrangement, written in 2016 by American composer Dan Forrest, with piano, strings and percussion, is simply stunning.
Notes by Kevin Kelly