Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Gustav Holst: Christmas Day- a choral fantasy on old carols

Some five of six years before the composition of his masterpiece The Planets, with its astrological and Theosophist symbolism, Holst wrote a choral work that was very much motivated by the Christian tradition. Christmas Day- a choral fantasy on old carols, was written in 1910 shortly after Holst had finished the three groups of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda and around the same time as the First Suite in Eb for military band and Beni Mora, for orchestra.
Typically, the piece is composed in what John Allison has described as a ‘sturdy, diatonic vein.’ It was originally composed for SATB with parts for a sizeable orchestra. It lasts for about seven minutes. The work was dedicated ‘To the music students of Morley College’.
Michael Short, in his biography casts little light on the genesis of this piece save to relate that the first performance was given at Morley College on 28 January 1911. Apparently, it was extremely well-received and had a further presentation on 18 February at a music students’ ‘Tea and Social’ event. The college magazine described the work as ‘delightful.’ Finally, in a postcard dated 4 June 1918 Holst wrote to his friend William Gillies Whittaker that ‘Xmas Day can be done pf (pianoforte) and str [string] or any other combination but it is poor stuff and not worth doing.’

A number of well-known carols are used in this ‘fantasy.’ Throughout the piece, the composer makes use of ‘God rest you merry gentlemen,’ ‘The First Nowell’ and a traditional melody derived from Brittany used to set the words ‘Come ye lofty; come ye lonely.’
‘Good Christian Men Rejoice’ is believed to have originated in Germany. It was originally an old Latin song or carol called In Dulci Jubilo. The English-speaking world came to know this tune through the rediscovery of the late sixteenth century Piae Cantiones in the 1800’s. The words were translated by the scholar John Mason Neale. The composer of the tune, which appears to go back to the early fourteenth century, is unknown.
Christmas Day opens with a quiet, sustained Eb major chord before the mezzo soprano soloist begins an unaccompanied statement of the first stanza of the carol:-

Good Christian men rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say:
News! News!
Jesus Christ is born today:
Ox and ass before Him bow,
And He is in the manger now
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

A short orchestral interlude leads to a four-part unaccompanied reiteration of the first stanza. Immediately after this, the mood changes and a bass solo sings the first verse of ‘God rest you merry gentlemen.’

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from woe and sin
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

This English carol may date from the early eighteenth century, as it was first published in a broadsheet in 1760 with the note that it was a ‘new carol.’ Interestingly this carol is mentioned in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, 1843: " the first sound of — "God bless you merry, gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!"— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost."

After another short orchestral interlude the choir sing a four-part accompanied setting of the second verse of Good Christian men rejoice. However, now the mood changes: Holst provides a lovely setting of the ‘Old Breton Melody’ ‘Come ye lofty, come ye lowly’ for the sopranos.
Christ was born to save.

Come ye lofty, come ye lowly
Let your songs of gladness ring;
In a stable lies the Holy,
In a manger rests the King:
See in Mary’s arms reposing
Christ by highest heaven adored:
Come, your circle round Him closing,
Pious hearts that love the Lord.

Yet after the first verse a soprano soloist then followed tenor sings the opening verse of ‘The First Nowell.’ These two tunes are combined in a rather unusual but totally effective 3/2 time signature. Soon a baritone soloist joins in with the Breton melody. There is a good modulation from G major to B major where all sing ‘The First Nowell’ before the tenors and basses begin again with ‘Christian men Rejoice’. Soon the sopranos and altos join this tune in imitation. The music calms down until a bass solo sings 'Now to the Lord sing praises' after which the soprano solo reiterates ‘Nowell, Nowell’. The contralto joins in. After a short passage for strings the Contralto sings Good Christian Men rejoice. The entire choir sings a ppp unison 'Christ was born to save.'

It seems that reviewers have barely picked up on this work. Imogen Holst has given little discussion to this work, save to note that the composer was ‘happy enough with his peppery sprinkling of quaver fifths...’ Simon Thomson writing on MusicWeb International finds that Holst’s Christmas Day is ‘an entirely new work to me but it is quite delightful. It is an extremely attractive fantasia of mostly well-known carols, harmonised distinctively but still pleasingly. There is simple festive merriment combined with vigorous contrapuntal weaving of The First Nowell with Come ye lofty, and it moves towards a wonderfully haunting conclusion.’ David Vernier at Classics has suggested that Christmas Day is ‘a festive and cleverly structured joining of several carols with its central theme, Good Christian men, rejoice...’

There are currently five recordings of Christmas Day available, however I suggest that the easiest to find will be the Naxos In Terra Pax with the City of London Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton [Naxos 8.572102]
A number of good performances are available on YouTube: I suggest the version by the Sanctuary Choir of Tabernacle Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis makes for a good introduction to this piece.


Unknown said...

The craftsmanship in this composition is amazing. My brief interpretation: Part 2, the jaunty version of Come Ye, Lofty, Come Ye Lowly in G Major makes me envision a rustic sleigh ride to a Christmas celebration, all are welcome regardless of stature. Woven into that framework is the augmented statement of The First Noel, very angelic, the Spirit of Christmas is all around. Part 1, Good Christian Men, Eb Major, compound duple="the lofty." God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in C minor simple duple= "the lowly." The climactic section in B Major, church bells throughout the town are ringing, voices are proclaiming, Born is the King! The recapitulation, returning to Eb Major. Now all are filled with the good news. The canonic treatment of Good Christian Men, the delicate weaving of The First Noel etc, all powerful devices depicting all believers' feelings at the birth of The Savior! The composition unwinds with the words Christ Is Born Today in a way that makes me feel as though we are nodding off at the end of a glorious day. The most sublime bit of craftsmanship by Holst is his choice of tonal centers. Opening in Eb Major, moving to G Major for part 2, climaxing in B Major, then returning to Eb Major. Try this: draw the circle of fifths, then draw lines from key to key. I am convinced that this harmonic design is no accident. This underlying symbolism is amazing!

Mollygirl#01 said...

It is interesting that critics and professionals don't know this piece. It is very well known among amateurs. I first sang it when I was 16 years old, and subsequently conducted it when I had my own church choir. It is very accessible to church and school groups, and is performed quite often in the US.