Advent Calendar: The Beauty of Britten

For the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: December 21 – Christmas Music.

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Choirs and choral music have been a fact of my Christmas life since I was … oh, I don’t know, thirteen?

It was inevitable. I sang my way through the junior high and high school choirs. I sang in church choirs.  I sang in regional and state choirs and of course I sing in the shower when all else fails.

The magic of human voices blending and soaring has never lost its mesmerizing effect for me, and never more so than in the depths of December. Every year for the past decade, my church choir and an ensemble of musicians have participated in a candlelight carol sing, and the moment when the audience and the singers hold lit tapers and join together for our final song has a way of stopping anger, anxiety and cynicism in its tracks, if only for two or three precious minutes.

We’ve sung a lot of Christmas pieces over the years, but one in particular is special to my heart.

British choirs and composers work their own particular spell with Christmas. And hands-down my favorite Christmas choral work is by Benjamin Britten — A Hymn to the Virgin, composed in 1930, when Britten was all of 16. Using a starkly simple medieval text, it is a dialogue between two groups of singers, usually a full choir and a quartet of soloists.

It is simply, hauntingly lovely. Singing it transports you for a few minutes to a cleaner, calmer, brighter place.

Apparently, Britten retained a deep affection for Hymn to the Virgin throughout his life, and it was one of only two of his own works performed at his funeral on Dec. 7, 1976. Here it is, performed by the British professional mixed choir Polyphony.

I also love Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols — another beautifully crafted tribute to the season.


Sign Of Seasonal Overload

Apropos my Advent Calendar post below, a dialogue at a musical event last evening:

Spouse [slipping into seat, straight from work]: “What IS this?”

Me [puzzled]: “It’s the winter chorus concert.”

Spouse: “Not the violin recital?”

Me: “No.”

Spouse: [????]

Me [produces event program, points to title]

Spouse: “Oh. OK.”

[Cue grade-school chime choir.]


Advent Calendar: Christmas Ham … Onstage

For the December 16, 2010 Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories: Christmas at School. What did you or your ancestors do to celebrate Christmas at school? Were you ever in a Christmas Pageant?

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Was I ever in a Christmas Pageant? Wild horses couldn’t have dragged me away from one. I loved to sing (fortunately, I could do it on key), I loved Christmas, and I was a complete and utter ham. What more could  a person need?

And Christmas songs! Couldn’t resist them. Volunteered at age eight to stand in front of the class and belt out “Silver Bells.” Realized that in a Catholic school I should have done a religious song, and offered “Silent Night” as an encore. Was politely told to sit down.

My school didn’t do the classic pageant from what I remember. We did a sort of Christmas revue, in which each class did one big number. Then, at the very end, we would do a Nativity scene tableau with a select group of kids dressed in proper costumes, while the rest of us sang something (not “Silver Bells”) softly in the background.

The class numbers were a mixed bag. One year we had a 12-kid lineup doing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” in which each of us unfurled a poster depicting our day’s gift as we sang it out. It took forever to get through those twelve days, due to delays in singing caused by fumbling with posters. I sang the nine ladies dancing bit, and was extremely bitter that I wasn’t assigned the five golden rings.

I remember another year in which we sang “Silent Night” in German as my (German-speaking) mother winced at various manglings of the original text. (“Schlayyyyyf….. in heimlicher …. Roooooo.…”)

Children’s pageants may well be a long-standing tradition in my family. Although it doesn’t involve a holiday pageant, I was charmed to discover this item from the Brooklyn Eagle dated April 14, 1918:

“Toy Shop” Aids Hospital Fund

The Bay Ridge Hospital will increase its building fund by a considerable sum from a children’s musical extravaganza which pleased a large audience at the Bay Ridge Presbyterian Church, Ridge Boulevard at Eighty-first Street, yesterday afternoon. The production, “The Toy Shop,” included popular airs in a plot laid in a toy shop. The toys come to life through the genii of Aladdin’s lamp and are turned back into toys by a jealous little miss … One little doll named Babykins, kept in tissue paper as specially precious, was a wee tot of 2 years old, little Catherine Haigney.

So there’s a star turn by a Haigney child of yesteryear! I haven’t identified her positively yet. She might be my father’s eldest sister, although the age reported is a bit too young. At any rate, the show sounds adorable.

And tradition marches on. Only yesterday, I listened to my eight-year-old and her classmates sing their hearts out at the annual Winter Concert. As long as there’s a December, there will be kids treading the boards — and parents biting their nails in the audience.


Simple Gifts

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free,

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,

To bow and and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come round right.

When Elder Joseph Brackett of the Shaker community at Sabbathday Lake, Maine penned “Simple Gifts” in 1848, it is a fairly good bet he was not thinking about symphonic variations, pop-artist cover versions or theatrical dance extravaganzas.

Nobody else was, either — “Simple Gifts” remained quite unknown to general audiences for nearly a century after its creation. But then Aaron Copland fell in love with the clean sweep of its melody and worked it into his beautiful score for Appalachian Spring, and nobody has been able to resist it since.

If you’re interested in more about the history of the song, take a look at this page, which corrects many errors often perpetuated about “Simple Gifts.” The most obvious one is calling it a “Shaker hymn.” It is really a Shaker dance song, which a close look at the last two lines should have told us all along.

Although I have now been on three journeys to the Watervliet, NY area, I have yet to pay a visit to the Shaker historic site there, where Shaker founder Mother Ann Lee is buried. My ancestry hunts have always taken me to a very different side of Watervliet. But I hope to correct this oversight someday. Meanwhile, I’ll take a listen to “Simple Gifts,” which seems like an ideal meditation for Thanksgiving Day.

“Simple Gifts” is a perfect example of Shaker art: supple, clean-edged and just a little bit mysterious in its simplicity. No wonder singers and instrumentalists explore it again and again.

Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma have done “Simple Gifts” as a richly beautiful duet  that can be heard here.

And here is Judy Collins, singing it in February 1963:

Finally, how can you have a Shaker dancing song without dancers? This version from “Blast,” the brass-and-percussion theatrical event, brings it all together. A far cry from Sabbathday Lake, but still … enjoy! And Happy Thanksgiving.


An Irish (/German) Blessing

What’s an Irish-German girl going to post on St. Patrick’s Day?

The classic “Irish Blessing” sung by Germans in SATB, that’s what.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.


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