The program notes are written by Rena Roussin, Musicologist-in-Residence.
Welcome – for many of you, welcome back – to the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Festival of Carols! A beloved holiday tradition in Toronto, the Festival of Carols offers a chance to hear, sing, and reflect on Christmas carols. This year’s program features a combination of well-known favourite carols, lesser-known pieces that we hope might join the roster of your favourites, and – thanks to the TMChoir’s composer-in-residence, Dr. Shireen Abu-Khader – a new piece of holiday music.
Christmas carols are a much-loved musical tradition that draw on music from numerous cultures, time periods, and styles. As a music historian, I find it especially beautiful and moving to think of the many different, often little-known origins and histories of the carols we sing year after year. Many familiar favourites set Christmas-themed lyrics to folk or dance tunes from their respective cultures, with English lyrics sometimes only appearing later. “Carol of the Bells,” for instance, was originally a setting of the Ukrainian folk chant “Shchedryk,” while “What Child is This?” adapts the English folk song “Greensleeves,” and “Ding! Dong! Merrily on High” sets twentieth-century English words to a sixteenth-century French dance melody entitled “Branle de l’Officiel.” In other cases, a carol was originally composed for one specific time, place, or context, but then became known around the world. Franz Xaver Gruber’s “Silent Night,” for example, was rapidly composed on Christmas Eve in 1818 in rural Austria, for performance on guitar at Christmas Eve Mass after flooding damaged a local parish organ. There are also carols like “O Come All Ye Faithful,” where the eighteenth-century composer, lyricist, and original performance contexts are unclear and unknown, and yet the song has survived and remains a central part of holiday celebrations. Perhaps in part because of their diverse history, carols have joined people in music-making across time and place for hundreds of years. And after a two-year pandemic-caused hiatus, what a joy to be able to sing some of them in community once again tonight!
In addition to the many Christmas classics included in this concert, tonight’s program also features many lesser-known pieces. In addition to their musical beauty and insight, these pieces have distinct – often liturgical – histories of celebrating Jesus’s nativity. The choir’s opening piece, “Verbum Caro Factus Est” (“And the word was made flesh”) is a medieval chant that was widely performance at Christmas morning mass in the Middle Ages; John Shepperd’s arrangement dates from the 16th century. Morton Lauridsen’s 1994 arrangement of “O Magnum Mysterium” reimagines the Gregorian chant in a more contemporary arrangement, yet maintains the “great mystery” of contemplating the humble nature of Jesus’s birth. The two arrangements of “Noe! Noe!” on the program – respectively, by David Bednall and Mack Willburg – offer radically different interpretations of 15th-century texts and carols that rejoice in the birth of Christ (Noe, a Latin exclamation of joy, translates as Noel in English and French). Donald Patriquin’s arrangement of “Tous les Bourgeois de Châtres” adds a 16th-century French carol – in its original language – to tonight’s program; the carol is also especially popular in Québec.
Alongside songs that celebrate and make merry the Christmas season, the choir is performing Coreen Duffy’s arrangement of “Adon Olam” or “Eternal Lord.” This text, dating from antiquity, is a well-known hymn in Jewish liturgy that praises the timelessness and eternal nature of God. It remains a central part of Jewish worship.
Dr. Abu-Khader’s piece, “Heartbeat,” which is being premiered at this concert, attempts to restore something of the soundscape of Bethlehem to musical tellings of Christ’s nativity. Drawing on Byzantine chant and Greek melodies, Dr. Abu-Khader works to situate and evoke a particular time and place. At the same time, through her own distinct melodies, and through her choice of subject matter, she strives to think about more universal emotions. “Heartbeat” reflects on the welcoming of children into the world, motherhood, and the connections that sustain us. As a Palestinian Jordanian composer, Dr. Abu-Khader also hopes her piece contributes to diverse musical voices being seen and welcomed in a space and sphere – the often-Eurocentric realm of holiday music – where they have historically been left out. In her own words, she hopes to “translate diverse identity within the Canadian tapestry.”
Beloved traditions, joined together with unexpected and joyful surprises, and a special moment of music, unique to and uniquely for our community. This potpourri of carols offers the exact kind of holiday season and memories that we, the entire TMChoir’s team of choristers, conductors, and administrators, wish to all of you. Happy holidays!