Program notes for Festival of Carols concert on December 10, 2014 at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir with the Canadian Staff Band. Notes by music reviewer and lecturer Rick Phillips.
One of the joys of Christmas is its predictability. Every year, we associate the Christmas season with familiar images, tastes, activities, objects and sounds. Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge, Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, roast turkey and cranberry sauce, mistletoe and eggnog…….. brass instruments and choral voices. They all provide a joyous, festive and warm mood to which we enjoy returning year after year.
Brass instruments appeared in many ancient cultures, originally made from animal horns, seashells or tree bark and blown into to produce a sound. Today, they are the family of instruments made from brass or other metals that use a cup-shaped mouthpiece, often defined as lip-vibrated aerophones. In other words, the sound is produced by the vibration of the player’s lips acting like a reed inside a metal mouthpiece. The length of metal tubing combined with the pressure between the player’s lips and on the mouthpiece produces a selection of notes. On modern brass instruments, the length of the tube can be altered by the use of valves.
The brass band dates back to the early 19th century and usually consists of cornets, flugelhorns, tenor horns, baritones, euphoniums, trombones and tubas with percussion. At first, it was associated with the military, but quickly became popular in civilian life. Brass bands are especially prevalent in Great Britain where they became an important part of recreational and educational programs offered by industry, religious groups and schools. Where in Canada, companies and schools feature hockey and sports teams, in Britain, it is often the brass band. At the peak of their popularity in the early 20th century, it’s estimated that there were over 20,000 brass band members in the U.K. Regular festivals and competitions have only added to the success of the movement and its repertoire.
Here in Canada, the British-style brass band existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but our vast distances between communities made travel for festivals and competitions next to impossible. Salvation Army brass bands have existed since the 1870s, ranging from small church bands to the top level of staff bands, the latter made up of the finest Salvation Army players in the area. The Canadian Staff Band, based in Toronto, is one of the few British-style brass bands still active in Canada, consisting of men and women in a variety of occupations – from university students to teachers to corporate executives, who come together over their love of music for brass. As well as regular visits to Salvation Army centres across the country, the Canadian Staff Band has performed on tour in countries like England, Germany, Italy, Norway, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand.
As well as arrangements of traditional carols, other suitable Christmas fare and selections by the Canadian Staff Band, this festive concert also features two items by Giovanni Gabrieli (1556 -1612). Music in the 17th century was significantly influenced by Gabrieli and he played an invaluable role in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Like his uncle and teacher, Andrea Gabrieli (c.1515 -1586), Giovanni worked for the influential St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice and the church’s unique design contributed to his imagination and creativity. St. Mark’s has two choir lofts facing each other, each with its own organ. Andrea Gabrieli, Giovanni and later Claudio Monteverdi (1567 -1643) all took advantage of the space, architecture and acoustics, creating antiphonal calls and answers across the sanctuary in a dramatic, colourful style. Multiple choirs and instrumental ensembles created constantly shifting textures of sound. It is both the culmination of the Venetian Renaissance musical style, and the beginning of the Baroque.
One of today’s most popular choral music composers is the Grammy-award winning American Eric Whitacre (b.1970). After studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Whitacre went on to earn a Master’s degree in composition from the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Lux Aurumque, composed in 2000 and one of his most popular works, is set to a short Christmas text by Edward Esch (b.1970). Whitacre had the English text translated into Latin because he felt the vowel sounds and ancient quality of Latin had more appeal.
Canadian composer Healey Willan (1880 -1968) was in charge of the music at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Toronto from 1921 until his death. Although he composed in other genres, like opera, symphonic and orchestral music, over half of Willan’s output is sacred choral music for use in church, like the Christmas motet Hodie Christus Natus Est, written in 1935.
For more on the history of carols, read Rick’s Christmas Carols notes.
Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher and music tour guide. www.soundavice1.com