Our music for Christmas Eve is the “Christmas” Concerto by Archangelo Corelli. I first played it when I was 10 years old as part of the NH Youth Symphony Orchestra, and since then my siblings and I have played it at numerous Christmas concerts.
The concerto is written in the sonata de chiesia form, which was used regularly by Corelli and his early-1700’s contemporaries. Corelli expanded this format from the usual four movements to five, but otherwise he stuck with the stylistic conventions. Like most of the music written during this time period, the concerto is written for two violin soloists and a single cello soloist, accompanied by a tutti orchestra.
There are six movements in the concerto, all of which are beautiful. However, the sixth movement (Pastorale) is the most well-known and, in my opinion, the most beautiful. The melody in the violins is unforgettable.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Written as a two-act ballet in 1892, the story is based on T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 short story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Tchaikovsky’s evocative and colorful music, combined with the brilliant choreography of Lev Ivanov and others, have created a timeless Christmas classic.
Today we will hear (and watch) the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. This dance was somewhat revolutionary in its time, for it introduced a new instrument to the world: the celeste. Since then, the celeste has been used by Frank Sinatra, Gustav Mahler, John Williams, Bela Bartok, and dozens of other famous musicians. The celeste operates like most of the other keyboard instruments: keys trigger hammers that strike metal plates suspended over wooden resonating blocks. Tchaikovsky used it to create a delicate, sparkling atmosphere that feels magical and childish at the same time.
We’re only a couple of weeks away from Christmas, so its time to start listening to Christmas music! This is not, however, what most people think of when they think of Christmas music. In fact, it’s not even the usual set of popular Christmas carols that cycle through the radio stations this time of year. Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten is nonetheless a true Christmas masterpiece.
Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, wrote Ceremony of Carols in 1942 when he was only 29 years old. It is written for three-part choir, solo voices, and harp and incorporates 11 Middle-English Christmas carols. Britten composed it while on board a ship from New York to London. When the ship stopped in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten purchased a book of medieval poetry that happened to include a number of 14th and 15th century English carols. Before he stepped off the ship in London, he had written Ceremony of Carols.
This piece is unique in several ways. First, note the use of a single instrument – a harp – as the accompaniment for the choir. Most choral works are accompanied by a small orchestra, but Britten uses only the harp. Second, note the way the choir is a sort of call-and-response partner with the solo voices. This creates a lovely echoing effect. Third and finally, listen for the simple, roaming unison lines that individual voices sometimes present. This is Britten’s imitation of Gregorian chant, a kind of choral singing that was popular in the 9th and 10th centuries.
With Christmas right around the corner, this week’s music is J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, which tells the story of the birth of Jesus as described in Luke 2:1-21 and Matthew 2:1-12. As one of the most famous church musicians in Europe, Bach also wrote an Easter Oratorio and an Ascension Oratorio. The Christmas Oratorio therefore completes the trilogy of major moments in the Christian liturgical calendar.
The Christmas Oratorio includes six cantatas, one for each day of the Christmas feast. The first (to be performed on Christmas Day) depicts the birth of Jesus. This is the cantata you will hear today. The second and third cantatas feature the shepherds and are to be performed on December 26 and 27, respectively. The fourth cantata depicts the naming of Jesus (to be performed on New Year’s Day). Cantatas five and six focus on the Three Wise Men and are to be performed on the first Sunday after New Year and Epiphany, respectively. Each part features a different set of instruments and vocal soloists.