Festival of Carols 2021 Program Notes

The program notes are written by musicologist and PhD student Rena Roussin.

Welcome to the 2021 Festival of Carols! 

This concert, a time-honoured tradition of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, is an opportunity to begin the holiday season by hearing, reflecting on, and singing carols. The 2021 edition of the Festival of Carols is bringing this sense of history into the present, featuring a number of carols in their traditional musical settings, new arrangements of traditional carols by contemporary composers, and several twentieth and twenty-first century compositions that reflect on the meaning and messages inherent to the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In Maestro Jean-Sébastien Vallée’s words, these numerous works join together to allow us to “celebrate and hold onto the memories and nostalgia of the traditional music we love, while leaving room to discover new things, new stories, and new voices.” 

As carol scholar William Studwell has observed in The Christmas Carol Reader, Christmas carols form an enormous wealth of musical repertoire, spread across various cultures, time periods, and musical styles, with their only definitive linking factor being “their distinct tendency to be performed around Christmastime, year after year after year, by diverse segments of society.” Carols are joined together, in other words, by their history in communal singing. While the lingering pandemic means we cannot all share in the experience of singing together tonight, as is the typical practice at this concert, the choir’s ensemble performance nevertheless reminds us of the beauty of this tradition. In addition to the numerous other well-known carols being performed tonight, several recently-composed works also interact with historic texts and images of the holiday season: Hyo-Won Woo’s 2016 “O Magnum Mysterium” sets the traditional Latin text, joining it to twenty-first century musical language. Sally Beamish’s 2007 “In the stillness,” on the other hand, captures a modern-day moment of reflection, recreating a moment of tranquility while gazing at a church in a snowy landscape at Christmastime. 

The centerpiece of tonight’s concert is Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s “Lauda per la Natività del Signore.” Composed between 1928-1930, this Christmas cantata – Respighi’s only work of sacred vocal music – sets text attributed to Franciscan monk Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230-1306). Based on the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the piece describes the Nativity of Jesus, but fuses the Biblical text with an increased focus of the insights and thoughts of the Virgin Mary. Respighi uses numerous traditionally pastoral instruments – flutes, English horn, and oboe – to paint the scene of shepherds in the fields and of the stable Christ was born in. Respighi also drew on his extensive work as a musicologist and historian of Italian music to give “Lauda per” a sense of timelessness. Several sections of the piece allude to or are based on Italian compositional techniques of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, even as other sections are clearly based on the expanded sense of harmony and tonality that characterized twentieth-century composition. One might be tempted to wonder, as I do, if Respighi was commenting upon the numerous histories and peoples who have told, engaged with, reflected on, and found meaning in the story of Christ’s nativity.

Yet for all the songs that sing – joyfully and triumphantly – of this story, it is one that carries numerous aspects of darkness and human struggle. We often sing of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth in a manger, yet not of his family’s poverty, of their necessitated displacement to escape King Herod’s tyranny, of their time in Egypt as refugees. Several songs on tonight’s program consider and ask us, the audience, to consider these components of the story. Rosephanye Powell’s “Christus Natus Est” (2019), set to text by African-American poet Countee Cullen, unflinchingly depicts poverty, homelessness, and the purpose and meaning of Christ’s birth and teachings. Richard Causton’s “The Flight” was first commissioned for performance at the 2015 Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. Causton’s music and George Szirtes’s words paint a haunting picture of the experiences of those fleeing oppression and seeking refugee status. “The Flight’s” refrain, “May Bethlehem give rest to them,” should remind us that part of the meaning of the Christmas story is the necessity of compassion and mercy – of choosing, unlike the famed innkeeper, to find room at the inn. 

When Jean-Sébastien and I discussed tonight’s repertoire, one theme stood out for both of us: the idea of light entering the world in times of darkness – a concept celebrated by many cultures and creeds throughout the winter holidays. This concert suggests many forms of what that light might be: Jesus’s birth, moments of reflection and stillness, connection with loved ones, the experience of making music together, or acts of selflessness and compassion. 

When I, personally, reflect on the meaning of this holiday season, the metaphor of light, and the closing of the calendar year, I am reminded of words many of us heard at the start of the year, on January 20th, when former US Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman reminded us:

“There is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.
  If only we’re brave enough to be it.”

The TMC and I wish you and your loved ones a light-filled and happy holiday season!

Festival of Carols takes place Dec 1st at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. You can still purchase tickets to enjoy the concert livestream (and you’ll have access to the concert until Dec 26). Visit the concert webpage to purchase tickets.