Festival of Carols Program Notes 2023

The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.

Welcome to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s 2023 Festival of Carols! A December tradition for the choir for many years, the Festival of Carols ushers in the holiday season with a chance to hear and communally sing Christmas carols, while also reflecting on the upcoming season. This year’s edition features a significant focus on recently composed music and work by Canadian composers, and explores numerous musical styles.

The concert opens with Canadian composer Jocelyn Morlock’s 2020 setting of “Io, Io.” Morlock describes the piece as being about “moments of delight” that transition “to a more transcendent, spiritual peace,” which is both a powerful reminder of the spirit of the holiday season and a fitting summation of her musical and personal legacy. Ms. Morlock passed away this past March, and the TMChoir is singing this piece in her memory. Numerous other arrangements by Canadian composers are included in the program, including Peter-Anthony Togni’s 2003 setting of the traditional hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” which translates the 348 text of sacred Ancient Roman poet Prudentius. Healey Willan’s 1941 arrangement of “Quelle est cette odeur agréable” (Whence is that goodly fragrance flowing) sets the 17th-century French Nativity carol, and weaves commonly-sung Québécois carols into tonight’s program. Sarah Quartel’s 2022 composition, “On This Silent Night,” was published in the 2022 Oxford Book of Carols and focuses on the calm found amid the snowy, stormy winter landscape.

Cree composer Andrew Balfour’s 2005 setting of “Coventry Carol” sets the anonymously-authored 16th-century English carol, which describes the Gospel of Matthew’s account of King Herod’s order for the massacre of all male babies under the age of one after the birth of Jesus. Balfour’s arrangement lingers on the heartbreak and horror of this Biblical event, arguably bringing it into dialogue with the numerous injustices young children face in our current society, amid ongoing crises of warfare, terrorism, and colonization, and an ever-increasing refugee crisis. Balfour’s piece is answered, in this concert, by Hector Berlioz’s 1850 arrangement of “L’adieu des bergers” (The Shepherd’s Farewell), which describes the shepherd’s leaving the stable where Jesus was born, wishing him love, peace, and safety as he, Mary, and Joseph flee Nazareth for Egypt to escape Herod’s edict.

The concert also includes many traditional but lesser-known carols, or recently published pieces that have become well-known. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Max Reger’s birth, the choir performs his 1914 motet, “Unser lieben Frauen Traum.” This piece was written at the start of World War I and draws on an anonymously authored Renaissance-era text about the Virgin Mary dreaming of a tree (a metaphor for Jesus) that will bring peace and shelter the world. Swiss composer Carl Rütti’s 2011 “A Patre Unigenitus” fuses Latin and English text to celebrate the birth of Christ, writing in traditional English choral style. Jonathan Dove’s 2000 “The Three Kings,” drawn from his larger song cycle The Passing of the Year, experiments with English choral and carol traditions, and was originally commissioned for Kings College Cambridge’s annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. Finally, Donald Fraser’s “This Christmastide (Jessye’s Carol)” was composed in 1984, and written as a gift for famed soprano Jessye Norman, who was hosting a Christmas party. Norman’s inclusion of the song in her 1988 “Christmastide” television special has since made it a contemporary holiday classic.

Several pieces also blend well-known carols with unique, distinct, or unexpected musical styles. Hyo-Won Woo’s rarely-performed setting of “O Magnum Mysterium” fuses the harmonic language of Western choral music with musical practices from her native South Korea. Shawn Kircher’s 1997 setting of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” joins the fifteenth-century German hymn with gospel and jazz influences (and was, notably, inspired by an improvisation session on his grandmother’s porch on Christmas Day). Finally, Virginian Native composer Marques Garett’s 2023 composition “The Savior’s Birth” fuses historic European and African American musical traditions. Garrett joins the Latin text of “Hodie Christus natus est” (today Christ is born), which formed the words of one of the earliest notated Gregorian chants, with three African-American spirituals: “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” “Mary Had A Baby,” and “What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?”

Of course, the program also includes traditional favourites, those carols without which it simply wouldn’t feel like Christmas. Luckily for me, my personal favourite, “Carol of the Bells,” is part of tonight’s program, in Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych’s traditional choral setting. “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Angels We Have Heard On High/Les Anges dans nos campagnes,” “Silent Night,” and “Joy to the World” also offer chances to sing communally to celebrate the season.

On behalf of the TMChoir members and staff, we wish you and yours very happy—and musical—holidays!