Saturday, 24 December 2016

Christmas 2016 (2)

CB Christmas

Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Today, we celebrate Christmas with an anthology of music and words, and our script was researched and written by Mike Burrows.  The huge quantities and variety of music – and arrangements of music - inspired by the long-lived spiritual value of Christmas has made selection extremely difficult, but we hope that everyone will find something to enjoy amongst our choices.

We begin with a spry instrumental arrangement by Percy Faith, a skilful band-leader, arranger and original composer, of Joy To The World, a popular carol that utilizes a theme
by Handel.  The recording dates from 1959.

Track 1: Joy To The World, Handel/Mason/Watts/Faith

Now, two carols together, one from 14th Century Poland and entitled, Judas Sold Jesus and Good King Wenceslas.  Both originated as popular dance-tunes, and would have been performed during general dances in church.   Judas would have been disrespected; Wenceslas was a martyred young Bohemian king who had been canonized.  In Winter, thanks both to thoughts of the rebirth of Spring or renewal of faith, one could triumph over betrayal or untimely death.

The pagan origins of Christmas were more to the fore in mediaeval times than they are today; public Christmas services in churches were like shindigs held to spite the cold winter and flaunt what fruits of their labour were made available to villeins and serfs.  In contrast to the exalted, cold and austere observances of priests and monks, they were wild, vigorous occasions among the peasantry.  There was much drinking, singing and dancing; such licence that, eventually, the Church banned the performing of carols in church, the ban being the foundation of a tradition of going carol-singing.  It is possible that the church inadvertently took Christmas back to Viking roots, in that among the Norsemen, the figure who became Father Christmas was a man chosen yearly to go from homestead to homestead and be plied with drink and food as he went.  It took things back to the Roman occupation and Saturnalia, too.  Carol-singers roamed the countryside unchosen but expecting food and drink in front of a log-fire in payment for their performances.  Feasts in castles and palaces were feasts on plenty; in inns, taverns and cottages, they might be feasts on more than usual

Track 2:  Judas/Wenceslas (Trad)

The employment of professional waits or musicians by towns and cities did not necessarily deter the unofficial variety from performances, although such did not have the right to break curfew.  In the countryside, carol-singing slowly became more measured in spite of the impossibility of maintaining control over the movements of bands of common folk after dark. All the same, the mania for clampdowns had its rueful martyrs into the days of Thomas Case Sterndale Bennett (1882-1944).  Let’s hear his slyly folkish comic song, The Carol Singers, which for its grasp of the complex psychological nature of British seasonal behaviours on both sides of The Law cannot be beaten…

Track 3:  The Carol Singers, TC Sterndale-Bennett

Memories of an old Somerset and Devon custom of Christmas Eve, memories of the ashen faggot, remind us of Winter solstice customs of days older still.  The Yule-log was kept burning festival long in the time of Arctic darkness. Like alcohol, it warmed celebrants thankful for what the year had borne them to reward their labours.  Country folk’s regard for a good blaze and auguries drawn from close observation of the peculiar nature of faggot or log is not surprizing.  It is worth remembering that permission to gather firewood on a landowner’s estate was not freely given, and to gather it without permission was a felony.

Track 4:  Memories Of The Ashen Faggot

In Hamlet, there is a reference to the bird of dawning singeth all night long - Christmas Night, that is. The Canadian composer Jean Coulthard took her cue from this for a sombre, rapt and meditative piece for violin, harp and strings of that title.  Waiting on daybreak has always been hard for adult as well as child since Christmas began.  One expects it at every other moment, wanting to be up and being and doing on a day of hope for the future.  In this piece the listener travels far in search of Christ’s and his or her own hour. Coulthard was one of Canada’s most-respected musicians of the last Century.  She was born in Vancouver in 1908, and died there in 2000.  Her teachers included figures as diverse as RO Morris and Vaughan Williams and Bartok and Schoenberg.  Her personal style here reflects something of most of those influences.  Lovers of English music may detect a noble yet at some moments impassioned, almost mediaevally lacerating tone similar to that of Edmund Rubbra, who was also a pupil of RO Morris. 

Track 5:  The Bird of Dawning, Coulthard

Here's another carol, seemingly as well-known a berceuse as any.  It is one that many children of a number of generations may have found poignant.

Track 6:  Away In A manger, Trad

A touching description of Christmas Eve hospitality, now.  The hardness of life in the countryside was visited on journeymen, tinkers, tool-sharpeners; all making themselves useful to a district when need arose.  The cold of Winter was bitter.  Deaths from exposure were common among those who worked on the land, particularly shepherds.  Where did they live, the itinerents, in a country where movement about the country was curtailed  by the Poor Law and by zealous prosecution of vagrants or vagabonds?  They had their name, tools and calloused hands as proof that they were not sturdy or able-bodied beggars, a class of person once branded or mutilated – hanged, thanks to Bluff King Hal, if caught homeless and occupationless 3 times by the authorities..   A statute never rescinded
prescribed death for anyone caught living like an Aegyptian (that is, a gipsy) – it was passed in the name of Good Queen Bess, who later instituted the first poorhouses.  When could these nomad-workmen of all weathers sleep swaddled like the baby Jesus?  On Christmas Eve, perhaps? It is sometimes hard to tell from social attitudes that Christians believe all men were made in God’s image.  The meaning of the beauty of the divine human child in the manger, whose parents and worshippers comforted and blessed his first waking or sleeping hours, has not generally sunk in, it seems; because no-one cares about their parents, 120,000 children have no real home, this Christmas, and as many as 17m adults will be buying Christmas for others on the Never-never, as salaries don’t necessarily cover popular celebrations.  Other children still won’t see their parents or sole parent for most of Christmas Day – or perhaps they will be caring for them or for another sick relative.   This is, after all, the 24/7 society.

Track 7:  Swaddling Clothes

Let’s hear another cradle-song, this time for piano-solo, written by a contemporary composer.  Archishman Ghosh is a research-scientist who lives and works in Florida.  Much-travelled and
aware, his musical personality is close to his everyday character, logical, sceptical, slightly aloof, but capable of expressing deep warmth and affection.  Like Ravel’s, his irony and even sarcasm can
be suspect! The influences on his style are many; ranging from Scarlatti and Mozart through Grieg and Grainger to Scriabin and a later, grittier aesthetic.  The mark of his gift is that he has digested all
these influences to make his own, distinctive music.  Here, he gives us a well-worked, deceptively simple Berceuse in F-Sharp.  The harmonic sense and handling of rhythm and part-writing on show have a real distinction and modern sensibility and yet express something of the timeless awe a
human feels in looking up at a starry sky. The tracings of a map, a meaning, orientation – and pure beauty, the boundlessness of belief, hope and imagination can be…

On Christmas Night, will the stars turn to angels who sing? Our children gaze up at us and our
tenderness as we sing them to sleep. So sly is the composer's tonal sense that this innocent Berceuse in F# ends with seeming-total consistency in F!

Track 8:  Berceuse In F#, Archishman Ghosh

Track 9:  Church-bells ringing changes

A Virgin So Pure is an old carol of great freshness and beauty, a song in praise of Christ’s mother.  .  Here, the choir is accompanied with handbells.

Track 10:  A Virgin So Pure

Arise And Hail The Glorious Star announces the birth of Christ in bright directness.  This carol is from Cornwall and has a Wesleyan fervour.  The arrangement appears to be in 18th Century-style, the contrapuntal parts contrasting and pitting registers against eachother in a cheerful, rudimentarily canonic manner…

Track 11:  Arise And Hail The Glorious Star, Trad

See Amid The Winter Snow.  Children may miss snow in many parts of the UK this Winter.  However cruel the winter cold used to be, if one had a hearth, relatives and friends and blessed holyday, once church was got over, it was possible to choose whether or not to fool about in it

Track 12:  See Amid The Winter Snow, Trad

It’s that time of year again:  we’ve trailed through Advent, meeting the consequences of a year of all-too human decisions – and perhaps must hope that the festival will grant us the kind of joys it granted us as children:  that the magic will work to comfort and console all of us who long for peace, tolerance and repose in which it is the soul that speaks and does for the sake of those whom we love.  To go a stage further, the more people we show that we love over 12 days, perhaps, the more chance that magic has of happening for us.  The New Year may be truly NEW.

This next track is dedicated to Miss Suvi Burrows, now on the way to grownupness.  It is an evocation of Peter Pan’s Fairy-companion, but to her parents oddly evocative also of their companion.  It is by Angela Morley, a fine composer and arranger of light music.

Track 13:  Tinkerbell, Morley

The composer Gerald Finzi once wrote a familial carol.  Though an agnostic, he loved the culture and imaginative appeal and the potential moral effect of Christmas traditions.  Later, he arranged the carol for clarinet and piano to exquisite effect.  This music is a miracle of expression, of deceptive simplicity.  Finzi’s music may be characterized in an image of metaphysical poetry that saw jewels as “contracted” stars and heavenly bodies.  A wealth of
experience of this world’s beauties, including those of humanity, is contracted to become musical sounds supremely yet unpretentiously well-wrought. One hears wisdom whose
expression is compassionate love, quite an achievement for a man of enthusiasms and known to some of his close confreres as Frenzy!  When in his farmhouse-home, on Christmas Eve, this solemn and highly-strung little man obsessed with the too-short time, was given to calling down a chimney-flue to his children and their friends, in the person of Father Christmas…

Track 14:  Carol from 5 Bagatelles for Clarinet and piano, Finzi

It doesn’t take much for a parent to make Christmas a time of wonders for a child who may have been looking up at the stars or imagining houselights to be stars - or the light of
angels – on dark Winter nights.  The stars may be candles, Christmas-tree lights, or the faces of holy messengers; as blessings draw nearer out of the void of night and ordinary life. An airliner coming from or leaving Bristol, or a star or planet may guide from huge distance and stand over a barn.  Other symbols may be:  holly, mistletoe, baubles -spirit-balls at their first appearance), crib-scenes, robins, frost, icicles, snowflakes and carpets of snow, bittersweet cakes and puddings eaten at no other time of the year, spiced drinks against the cold, burning hearths of domesticity and ancient woodcraft  a white-haired bishop of Myra or sprite in red or green from a toy-factory at Rovaniemi in the north of Finland, which might as well be the North Pole; who walks with Black Peter or drives a sleigh drawn by eight reindeer between the clouds and stars..

Auditory symbols will be carols and songs of peculiar fervour or pathos, the tunes various, the harmonies like a spiritual hug or caress of one’s brow and hair, and as warming as taperlight or sounds of a brass band in the coldest stone church.  Light survives Winter; the
cold can’t end warmth, life and hope, or the magic of love.

Track 15: The Twelfth Day of Christmas, Trad

Presents appear and are unwrapped on Christmas Day.  However swish with logos or cheap, they have come seemingly out of nowhere as symbols of what love and sense of fun can do.  Not only can the loving child marvel that something he may have wanted or that suits him fine turned up, but also – for some years – the agency of the act of generosity is unclear and possibly supernatural.  Not bad!  The element of fantasy is created from love, pure and simple.  It’s the love itself that can seem supernatural to older minds.  The presents have been wrapped and await his or her Lord or Ladyships.  But first things first:  the muddy boot-prints on newspaper, the nibbled carrot, the glass with a drop of the tawny stuff in the bottom of it and the plate with a sprinkle of crumbs of mince-pie.   Then come the corroborative details of what mum or dad thinks she or he saw or heard, or the possible thesis to be drawn from this or that circumstance.  The inquisition must be parried with the
maximum of tongue-in-cheek believability… What’s that all about, if it isn’t love?  In their deep happiness, parents may extend, even improve on, the traditions of their childhood – even celebrate the coming of their own children in memory of a holy birth in Bethlehem.

Track 16:  It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, Trad

What is the name of our Saviour?  Christ?  Father Christmas?  Santa Claus?  Are His helpers angels or elves?  Are we saviours ourselves, either for ourselves or for those about us? 
Does it matter?  Kindness, compassion, a willingness to rise to the slightest glimpses and epiphanies of faith, hope, love and imagination we meet and to behave well for others from
the heart will create or go towards creating what we call Christmas.  We say that the angels sang, “On earth, peace; goodwill to all men.”  In fact this was a mistranslation when the Bible was Englished.  They sang, “On earth, peace to all men of goodwill.”  In truth, only goodwill can bring about peace, either world peace, national peace, familial or personal peace; nothing will do but goodwill – it is obviously up to those who have this in their hearts and minds to spread the word, and to spread it through their deeds, which when extended by many, may bring about peace.  Peace through an unquenchable longing for peace and goodwill.

John Rutter is the doyen of carol-writers, and with good reason; reason that only some critics are incapable of hearing and believing.  Here is his Carol of The Children, a rearrangement of a movement from his lovely Suite Antique for harpsichord, flute and strings.

This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham.  Our Christmas edition was researched and written by Mike Burrows.  We hope you enjoyed it and that
you will tune in again soon.  We both extend our best wishes to you all for a happy,
easeful and peaceful Christmas.  Goodbye!

Track 17:  The Carol of The Children, Rutter

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