Of all the holidays in our western culture, Christmas, more than any other, transcends its religious origins and implications. It has become for almost all of us a time to celebrate; an opportunity to rejoice. Thus it is not surprising that Christmas is the inspiration for an unequalled wealth of musical composition, both vocal and instrumental, secular and non-secular. This body of literature spans all periods of musical history, from the Middle Ages to the present. The “spirit” of Christmas has become such a part of our lives, that the month of December sees easily twice as many concerts as any other month of the year, for the inherent festive quality of music-making has become synonymous with celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. It is in this “spirit” that we offer “IN DULCI JUBILO”, a concert of vocal and instrumental works from the 16th to 18th-centuries, some with obvious references to the Holiday, others with less direct connections, and one work (Concerto in D major) by Vivaldi , that has nothing at all to do with Christmas and with which we open our program.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) lived in Venice and earned his living teaching at the Ospedale della Pieta, a foundling home for girls. His duties, in addition to teaching the violin, consisted of organizing the spectacular concerts presented by the Ospedale. For these concerts Vivaldi composed hundreds of concerti which ultimately gained him an international reputation as a composer, and which helped crystallize the concerto form throughout Europe. Although smaller in number than his solo concerti, Vivaldi explored the idiom of the “chamber concerto”, where instead of a “ripieno” or “back-up band” the soloists themselves function as the orchestral “tutti” and then take turns playing the solos. These works are in the traditional three movement mold (fast-slow-fast) with the middle movement typically allowing a certain freedom for improvisation. In the concerto we present tonight, this movement will be familiar to many because of its resemblance to the slow movement of the “winter” concerto from the Four Seasons.
The Carols on tonight’s program all date from between 1500 and 1700 (thus some predate the theoretical beginning of the Baroque period and belong in that historical period known as the Renaissance). These works come to us in a variety of sources, and we have chosen to “orchestrate” them, using our baroque instruments, according to our tastes, attempting to capture the “affect” of each piece in an appropriate manner. Similar performing decisions have been made regarding texts and number of verses, since there are no definitive answers as to the authenticity of any particular version. A recurring characteristic of these carols is the harmonic feature of the drone commonly associated with the bagpipe or musette-instruments that evoke the images of shepherds that have come to be identified with Christmas.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) needs no introduction to any of us. We all have our favorite Bach works and each of us has different reasons for regarding him as one of history’s greatest composers. It is interesting to note, however, that this universal acclaim was not accorded Bach during his lifetime, and that he spent most of his career (and made perhaps his most significant contributions) as a church composer at Saint Thomas’ Church in Leipzig, where he composed a cantata for each Sunday of the year. It is from this body of works that we choose the arias to close the first half of this evening’s concert. These works were never intended as “concert” pieces, but rather as part of a religious observance (Bach saw himself as a true “servant” of God) and although only one of the three arias is specifically about Christmas, all share in the spirit of love and devotion that is associated with this holiday. “Bereitet die Wege” (from the Christmas Cantata 132) is an exuberant aria that features a solo part for oboe d’amore filled with 16th-note runs. The text states “Make ready the pathways And make ev’ry byway In faith and in living Now smooth for the Highest, Messiah shall come!” “Süsser Trost, mein Jesus kommt” (from Cantata 151-written for Christmas) states “Sweet comfort, my Jesus comes, Jesus is now born.” It is a gorgeous lullaby, sung “instrumentally” at first by the oboe d’amore, crowned with a flowing flute obbligato representing the holy spirit.” In “Mein Glaubiges Herze” (from Cantata 68), the text speaks of “My believing heart, be glad, sing, make merry, for thy Jesus is near.” The aria begins with a virtuosic obbligato for solo cello and when the soprano is finished, the cello is joined by oboe and violin for a fully worked out “quartet” movement which brings the aria to its joyous conclusion.
Michel Corrette was a church organist for most of his long life, but that doesn’t begin to give an idea of his indefatigable and multifaceted activities on behalf of French music. He was the author of countless treatises and tutors for just about every instrument played in his time, from the flute to the double bass. He was a leader in furnishing simple music to bourgeois homes and in supplying brilliant concerti for the burgeoning public concert business. In short, he was France’s leading “popularizer” of music. Perhaps his best known works were his “Concerto Comiques”, in which the tunes all Paris hummed–many of them first heard at the Opera Comique (hence the name)–were paraphrased in vivaciously embellished instrumental settings. In a similar vein is a group of six compositions entitled “Symphonies en Quartuor contenant les plus beaux Noëls François et Etranger avec des Variations”. The work we perform tonight includes many of the most lovely and most recognized French carols of the period, along with their dazzling variations.
The French, with their attraction to all things pastoral and their predilection for dance music, made an especially colorful contribution to this literature. We close our program with several musette settings and rigaudons interspersed with French Christmas carols, or noëls. The musette was a type of French bagpipe that gave rise to an entire genre of pastorally evocative pieces that were very popular in the 18th century. The Rigaudon was a quick and lively dance, originally from Provençe, danced by “peasants and sailors,” according to Johann Mattheson. French noëls, some lively, some serious, were meant not only to tell the Christmas story, and to give insight into the events leading up to the birth of Jesus, but also to provide moral instruction. Thus, in “Grâce soit renduë,” the text informs us that Adam put us in danger of eternal damnation by eating the apple, but God sent us salvation in the form of His son. “Vous qui désirez sans fin” tells us that God will always listen to our songs of praise and is always ready to pardon our sins. “Chrétiens qui suivez l’église” shows the importance of being a practicing Christian. This grand closing group of interwoven vocal and instrumental pieces is designed to show a French 18th -century Christmas in all its facets: dances, poignant melodies, pastoral elements, and an exquisite moral rendering of the Christmas story.