Lessons and Carols at Saint Paul's Episcopal

      The cover of the booklet for this "journey in scripture and song, from Old Testament prophecy to the celebration of the Nativity" of Jesus has an angel with orange hair, golden wings with red-orange tips and a gown of reddish-pink. It was as exciting as the program it heralded.

      Charles Woodward, Director of Music, conducted a choir that included some of Tidewater's finest soloists with some familiar and some unique songs. The accomplished James E. Derr was guest organist; the opening reader of the myth of the fall of mankind from Genesis was Jennifer Bern-Vogel, Cantor at Ohef Sholom Temple. Her chanting in Hebrew followed by the English translation was a powerful and moving experience.

      For lovers of early music, three songs stood out from the usual Christmas fare: Riu riu chiu (anonymous, Spanish, 16th c.) from Villancicos de Diversos Autores, Venice 1556; Sir Christèmas also known as Nowell: Dieus Vous Garde, attributed variously to anonymous or to Richard Smert, mid-fifteenth century; and the Coventry Carol ("Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child") from the Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors; For those of us who know these mostly from recordings, hearing them live by such accomplished singers in the acoustic space of St. Paul's was unexpected and thrilling.

      Both Riu riu chiu and Sir Christèmas are included on A Renaissance Christmas by The Boston Camerata (Nonesuch 9 79134-2).

      At the elegant reception, attractive young people from the congregation circulated throughout the room with trays of lovely food, solving the traffic problem so often encountered at this type of function.


Christmas 2006

Christmas through the Ages

      On December 8, 2006 at Christ and St. Luke's and December 9, 2006 at Trinity Episcopal in Portsmouth we heard The Cantata Chorus in Christmas through the Ages. Jeffrey Ward, Artistic Director, has an unhurried way of cherishing the music, serving the intent of the composer. The singers' response is to give precise, involved choral work with beauty and power. Alice Parker's arrangement of the fifteenth-century carol O Come, O Come Emmanuel was the opening selection. There was a reverence, even stillness within the sound. During Josquin des Pres Ave Maria. . .Virgo serena I closed my eyes and was transported back in time 500 years. There were other ancient pieces by Johann Walther (1496-1570), Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621), Tomás Luis de Victoria (1549-1611) and Hans Leo Hassler (1564 -1612). Victoria's O Magnum Mysterium moves like a warm wave creating a path through the night - dark, rich and lovely. The 19th and 20th century European music that followed with its ever expanding freedom of vocal expression kept our interest. Our favorite was two motets from Francis Poulenc's (1899 -1963) Quatre Motets pour the Temps de Noël which harks back to the energy of early music but with contemporary sonorities. An arrangement of Handel's Joy to the World by Frank Kuykendall with parts set for drama and contrast, an organ fanfare and shouted "The Lord is come" closed a lovely, satisfying evening. Organist Sharon Foxwell was outstanding.

Gabriel's Message

      On December 10, the seventh annual Christmas cantata arranged by John Dixon at Providence Presbyterian Church, opened with a fine arrangement for viola, cello, clarinet and flute of the Spanish carol Riu, riu, chiu. There followed an interesting mix of little known and familiar carols from around the world, with the composer at the organ. We especially enjoyed the peppy English-Irish The Snow Lay on the Ground. Music director Valetta Fellenbaum conducted the Chancel Choir in a morning and evening performance.

A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols

      On December 17 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, as we waited for the program to begin, we were pleased to hear the prelude played on the terrific new organ by guest organist Dr. Stephen Z. Cook. In the annual A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols the organist and the choir directed by Charles Woodward gave an outstanding performance of selections from the rich Anglican choral tradition. Mezzo-soprano Lisa Coston sang Once in royal David's city and set a tone of excitement and anticipation for the Christmas event. Mr. Woodward as Director of Music has built a stronger choir each year he has been at St. Paul's. Soprano Ann Scott and tenor Kerry Jennings were impressive in In the bleak mid-winter. This program captured the grandeur of the event it celebrated.


Music from A Christmas Carole
Virginia Stage Company
by M.D. Ridge for Artsong Update

One of the most interesting things about the Virginia Stage Company’s current production of A Christmas Carol is its use of less familiar period carols and seasonal songs that move the action smartly along. All too often, when music is interposed into a stage play, the action stops, resuming when the music is over. In this instance, that’s delightfully not the case.

In addition to the carols sung exuberantly in the lobby, the first scene begins with All Hail to the Days, also known as To Drive the Cold Winter Away, a traditional English carol that celebrates both Christmastide and the New Year. It sets the theme and hope of the play, too:

               Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
               All sorrows aside they lay;
               The old and the young doth carol this song,
               To drive the cold winter away

Another unfamiliar selection is The Salutation Carol for Gabriel’s greeting to Mary. It shares a tune with the wassail song, Bring Us In Good Ale, sung at a much brisker tempo.

My ears perked right up when one of the many grouping of carolers that inhabit the play broke into the macaronic carol, Nova, Nova; Ave Fit ex Eva. It’s a traditional fifteenth-century song with a jaunty tune. Sung in Latin and English, it proclaims the good news of Christmas as a response to Eve’s fall. The angel Gabriel’s first word to Mary, “Ave” is made from “Eva.” The song is reprised with different verses several times during the evening.

Wassailing songs are part of the tradition, and like carols, vary according to region. Most of them had to do with drink and good times throughout the twelve days of Christmas and the beginning of the New Year. Wassail, Wassail, All Over the Town is familiar to many in this context. God Bless the Master of this House also appears in the play.

The children’s chorus sings Tomorrow the Fox Will Come to Town, a 17th-century song by Thomas Ravenscroft, about a thieving fox. Several songs about the holly and the ivy mixed Christian and pagan symbolism. Some date from the late 16th century, and some weren’t collected until much later.

The text of Come Away to the Skies is attributed sometimes to John Wesley or to Joseph Humphreys, the son of a minister; it may be the altered form of a poem by Charles Wesley published in the late 18th century. It’s more commonly heard with another tune, but the one used in the play is the wonderful Southern Harmony tune EXALTATION.

Shepherds, Arise is a traditional English folk song from East Sussex, collected by the Copper family. Dona Nobis Pacem serves as grace for the Cratchit family’s Christmas dinner; a traditional canon, many know it from the famous M*A*S*H Christmas episode.

Three more songs from A Christmas Carol are worthy of note. The Wren Song, probably known to most folkies from the Clancy Brothers’ version, is a begging song with a pretty grisly history; but in modern times, the dead wren is replaced by a stuffed bird, and the “Wren boys” go from house to house in a sort of trick-or-treat for St. Stephen’s Day, December 26. Charmingly, the newly happy Scrooge joins in their singing, ad libbing,

               The wren, the wren, the king of all birds —
               I’m singing along but I don’t know the words. . .

The play’s carolers sing an interesting song about Miss Hoolihan’s Christmas Cake, a comic Irish holiday song also known as Miss Fogarty’s Christmas Cake. It seems that in 1888, at a concert at Breslin’s Hotel in County Wicklow, Ireland, the six-year-old James Joyce sang it, clad in his Little Lord Fauntleroy suit. (Yes — that James Joyce.) It apparently remained in his consciousness into adulthood, since there are allusions to the text in his novel Finnegans Wake.

The final song of the play, one that involves all the choristers in chorus, is the Malpas Wassail, an early 19th-century house-to-house luck-wish song, from the Truro district of Cornwall.

Fortunately, those involved in the production resisted every impulse to “pretty things up” musically, and did things in authentic style. Some were heard only in quick fragments, others with several stanzas. These carols, comic songs, wassails and what-have-you were primarily the music of the people. We’ve gotten used to gussied-up arrangements that, however lovely, lack the earthy vitality of the period. Kudos to A Christmas Carol for their stick-to-the-ribs authenticity.

Virginia Stage Company's production of A Christmas Carole continues through December 24th. Phone 757-627-1234 or visit www.vastage.com

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