Carols and Lullabies

Carols and LullabiesThe Girl Choir is proud to present its very first holiday album: Carols and Lullabies, featuring our Concert Choir and Chamber Singers ensembles accompanied by harp and performing the featured works of our December 2013 program.

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Benjamin Britten – A Ceremony of Carols, Op. 28
John Rommereim – Poem of Light
Conrad Susa – Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest

Susa composed his Christmas in the Southwest specifically to be performed together with Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. Rommereim’s Poem of Light bridges the two with a beautiful setting of an ancient Sephardic prayer.

Featuring

  • Wallis Peterson, Artistic Director
  • Charlene Conner, Harp
  • Gayle Giese, Keyboard
  • Mindy Lofgren, Guitar

 

A Ceremony of Carols

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

In 1939, British composer Benjamin Britten left his native England and traveled to the United States, lured by a tentative offer to write the score for a Hollywood film. However, in September 1939, just a few months after Britten had settled in New York, World War II broke out. Although he immediately began to make plans to return home to England, friends convinced him to remain in the United States.   Britten continued working in America until 1942, when his visa was approved and he decided to return to his native country.

While in America, Britten was asked to write a harp concerto. In part, to “alleviate the boredom” of the long Atlantic passage back to England, he brought along two harp manuals to occupy his time.  On March 16, his ship set sail for Liverpool, England. Britten’s cabin was located next to the ship’s refrigeration unit – it was noisy, hot, cramped, and uncomfortable.

While his ship was making a refueling stop in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Britten visited a bookshop where he purchased a copy of The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems. Five poems in the book were particularly inspiring to Britten. These poems, written between the 13th and the 16th centuries, described the medieval view of scenes from the Nativity.

He combined these five poems with several similar ones that he already knew. Upon his arrival in Liverpool, he told a friend that he had composed “a collection of Christmas carols for women’s voices and harp,” a work he titled A Ceremony of Carols. The original draft of the work was premiered by a women’s choir on Christmas Day in 1942, and the finished version was performed by a boychoir in December of the following year.

Poem of Light

John Rommereim (b. 1958)

Although the exact identity of Nahum, the author of this poem, is uncertain, this particular poem was well known in medieval Spain. A number of poems by Nahum have been included in Sephardic prayer books even in present day. The title of this new musical setting, “Poem of Light,” is the name of a type of liturgical poem called “me’ora.” The translator, Peter Cole, writes in The Dream of the Poem:

The me’ora, literally, ‘[a poem of] light,’ is intended to ornament the first blessing leading up to the recitation of the Shema: ‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord, Creator of the heavenly lights.’ The me’ora usually treats the relationship between God and the congregation of Israel, and expresses hope in the coming redemption …

Whoever our Nahum was, subsequent poets particularly admired two of his hymns—including the me’ora, or ‘poem of light’ translated here—and they often sought to imitate them. [Nahum employs] a delicate music to create sensuous and seemingly secular surfaces, extolling the virtues of spring and its delights. [He does] this with such grace and deftness that only at the end, and in the subtlest fashion, is the liturgical—and messianic—dimension of the poem revealed. Just twelve of Nahum’s poems have come down to us, some of them in manuscripts dating from around 1300.

It is hard to believe that this is a liturgical poem from the sound of it—it is so sensuous and secular in its themes. As Cole points out, the liturgical reference is just at the very end, where it mentions the western lamp: “According to Shabbat 22b, the western lamp (or branch of the candelabra) of the Temple burned the longest. The miracle of its endurance testified to the Divine Presence in Israel … The light given by this lamp is the light, and hope, of redemption.”

Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest

Conrad Susa (1935-2013)

Conrad Susa has this to say about his work, Carols and Lullabies: Christmas in the Southwest, first published in 1992:

“Four or five years ago, Philip Brunelle [Artistic Director of VocalEssence] suggested I write him a companion to Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. To a composer, this tempting offer was another way of asking, ‘How’s about writing us a hit?’ After several years of writhing in doubt, a friend, Gary Holt, showed me a collection of traditional Spanish carols he had sung as a boy in Arizona. Excited, I juggled them around to form a narrative. I noted their many connections with Renaissance music along with their homey, artful simplicity. Finally, the overriding image of a Southwestern piñata party for the new baby led me to add guitar and marimba to Britten’s harp and to compose connective music and totally re-conceive the carols.”

While all of the texts are in Spanish, the historical, regional, and dialectal variations are numerous: Castilian, Biscayan, Catalonian, Andalusian, Mexican, and Puerto Rican.

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