Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Festival of Carols concert on December 9, 2015 at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Notes by writer and lecturer Rick Phillips.
“The typical carol gives voice to the common emotions of healthy people in language that can be understood, and music that can be shared by all.” Percy Dearmer (1867-1936)
The singing of Christmas songs and carols with music for brass instruments goes hand-in-hand – like mistletoe and eggnog, or turkey and cranberry sauce. Christmas carols date back to pagan times, originally used to mark the end of one season and the start of the next. As Christianity grew, carols gradually developed a link to the birth of Jesus, but the association to paganism remained in the shadows and the singing of carols was prohibited at times. In the 19th century, the Victorians reinvented Christmas as a sentimental festival of good cheer with families and friends and the carol enjoyed a renaissance. Many new carols and songs, in a pseudo-traditional style, were written, and there was a conscious shift from the nativity story to a focus on the more secular, festive pleasures of Christmas like the winter solstice, eating, drinking and Santa Claus. By the end of the 19th century, small English parish churches began the Christmas Eve practice of lessons, prayers and a short sermon mingled with a variety of carols. It was later expanded to a festival of nine lessons and carols, made popular around the world in the 20th century by King’s College, Cambridge in England. Although the traditional Christmas carols are always a hit, the arranging and composing of new carols is an ongoing tradition – as illustrated by this 2015 TMC Festival of Carols programme.
Arranging is the art of reworking and adapting a composition for a medium, or in a style different from that for which it was originally written. The goal is to leave the basic musical substance essentially intact. Arranging or transcribing occurs throughout music history – from vocal music like motets and madrigals, to J.S. Bach’s keyboard transcriptions of concertos by Vivaldi, to Franz Liszt’s piano arrangements of popular operatic scenes of the day. Carols were fair game for arranging and even the texts were occasionally altered. When King Edward VIII abdicated the British throne in 1936 to marry the American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson, one of the most popular carols was changed to, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing/Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our King!”
Noel Edison, now in his 19th season as TMC Artistic Director and Conductor, instigated the annual TMC Festival of Carols in the early years of his tenure. His goal has not wavered – to present a festive evening of celebration containing a wide variety of seasonal music from around the world, old and new, original compositions as well as arrangements. “The variety of material reflects our current TMC audiences,” Noel says. He explains that although there is a massive Christmas choral repertoire from which to choose, not all of it is good. “Although it’s subjective, the weaker arrangements tend to detract from the melody and the meaning of the text, ending up like a gaudy tree ornament, with little sincerity.” Some of the most popular carol arrangements today were created by Sir David Willcocks, the renowned British choral conductor, organist, composer and arranger, who directed the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge from 1957 to 1974. Sir David passed away in September 2015 at the age of ninety-five. It was for the annual service of nine lessons and carols at King’s College that Sir David wrote his now-popular descants and arrangements. Today, they are so well known that carol arrangements by others can often sound foreign and strange. “The Willcocks arrangements are the gold standard – difficult to compare,” claims Noel, who knew and worked with Sir David. “He was the epitome of a gentleman – friendly, noble, distinguished and gracious. He had impeccable ears, able to hear an individual voice within a choir of a hundred, and pursued a very hard work ethic, dedicated to producing the best performance of the music at hand.”
Also on tonight’s programme are two different treatments of the ancient text O Magnum Mysterium, originally a responsory from the Matins for Christmas Day telling of the infant Jesus in the manger. We’ll hear one version from the 16th century by the great Spanish Renaissance master Tomás Luis de Victoria, capturing the solemnity and reverence of Christmas. The other setting, by the U.S. composer Morten Lauridsen, presents a magical, awestruck view of the birth of Jesus. Noel enjoys comparing the two different approaches of the same text, composed over 400 years apart.
The First Nowell, in an arrangement by the Halifax-based composer, conductor and arranger Paul Halley closes the 2015 TMC Festival of Carols. “It’s one of the best,” claims Noel. “Paul’s harmonic beauty and his sense of tension and release are second to none.”
Tidings of Comfort and Joy!
Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide. www.soundadvice1.com
You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.