The Sacramento Choral Calendar
The View from London, Christmas, about 1850 - December 21, 2012
by Dick Frantzreb
Christmas is inevitably a time for nostalgia. For many if not most of us, I imagine, our past Christmas celebrations seem happier and more fulfilling that our present poor efforts. And better yet are the Christmases of earlier generations. So what better Christmas concert than one that celebrates the Christmas of Charles Dickens’ mid-19th century England?
Several hundred people were on hand for this musical time travel, held in the beautiful, bright and spacious Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Its acoustics are dramatic, and it is hard to imagine a better place for a choral concert.
For this evening’s performance, the Capella Antiqua consisted of 11 singers, seated in tiered chairs at the Cathedral’s crossing. Interestingly, the men outnumbered the women 7 to 4, though the number of men included an alto and countertenor, eventually producing a well-balanced ensemble sound.
The concert was preceded by a welcome on behalf of the Music Society of Cathedral Square, and we were promised a program that would not be the “same old, same old.” That was not an empty promise.
The first three selections were known to be performed in London between 1830 and 1850. That is according to the program notes, written by Dr. Robert M. Johnson, the Artistic Director and Conductor of the Capella Antiqua, an organization that has been designated “Artists in Residence” at the Cathedral. Dr. Johnson’s scholarship was evident, as always, both in those interesting program notes and in the very design of the program (and, no doubt, in the pre-concert talk, which I unfortunately missed).
(Click here to open the concert program in a new window.)
The first piece in the concert, “Angelus ad pastores ait,” began with a solo by the male alto, and the ensemble sound resonated throughout the Cathedral, despite the small size of the group. That is really no surprise since all these singers are serious musicians – most with extensive formal vocal training, even formal academic training, and some with professional or semi-professional solo credits.
The second selection, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” was a 17th century composition that seemed in a way like an abbreviated “Messiah.” Its six brief sections consisted of three choruses, a solo, a duet, and a trio. The program notes indicate the composer’s dates as 1645-1687, so this was already “ancient music” when it was performed around 1850.
The next piece, titled “Welcome All,” was the finale (the last of six movements) of A Christmas Cantata. It was composed by George Alexander Macfarren, and the music itself was certainly pleasant, but the great fun of this piece was in the libretto, which had been written by John Oxenford. Dr. Johnson warned us to be sure to follow the words of “Welcome All” in the program, a good move because the Cathedral produced a measurable echo, which, while a pleasant effect for much of the music, often made it difficult to make out the words sung by the chorus. The delightful lyrics of this piece really gave a picture of the English Christmas celebration of that period. Here’s a sample:
Nay be cautious gentle
For there’s one has
made a vow
Ne’er perish the law of
After an intermission that came only 20 minutes after its start, the remainder of the concert was devoted to a single collection of music and readings which lasted about an hour. Titled “19th Century Lessons and Carols for the 21st Century,” it was built around Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and the concept was introduced by Dr. Johnson in the program notes in this way:
“Tonight we pair Lessons from A Christmas Carol with period Carols from the English tradition in a work created especially for this concert. Calling it a ‘work’ is probably incorrect, it’s probably more correctly described as a pastiche, or perhaps even better as a collage of extant material. We’ve found many great carols that have departed our musical traditions, and deserve to find their way back.”
The carols (12 in all, 2 of which were familiar) were engaging for their quaint lyrics and mostly unfamiliar tunes – all sung a cappella in 4-part harmony, as I recall. The Cathedral’s echo obscured many of the lyrics, but they were easy to follow in the supplement to the program. The Very Reverend Michael O’Reilly, Cathedral Rector, read selections from the novel, which alternated with the carols. I’m pretty sure that the readings took more time than the singing, and Father O’Reilly did an excellent job, reading slowly and acting out the dialog of the various characters. It was unfortunate, therefore, that so many of his words were lost in the echo of the room. And the program only gave a few sentences of explanation to set the stage for each reading – the various segments of Ebenezer Scrooge’s story of redemption. Still, that story is so familiar that one could fill in many of the words that were unclear, so the effect was preserved.
The printed program explained how A Christmas Carol came to be, and it should have made interesting reading for those unfamiliar with the details of Dickens’ personal history. The program also noted that all the carols were selected from William Sandy’s Christmas Carols, Ancient and Modern, published in 1833. However, there was one carol not selected from this source. In A Christmas Carol Dickens says that Tiny Tim sang a carol about a lost child, traveling in the snow, though no such contemporary carol has ever been found. Early 20th century author and poet G.K. Chesterton sought to fill this void with a poem called “A Child of the Snows,” published in 1926, and for tonight's performance, this was set to the music of “Greensleeves” by ensemble member Jonathan Hansen — and performed delightfully.
That’s the word that describes this concert – delightful – and it was unlike any other concert I’ve heard this season. It gave an authentic look into the heart of the Christmas celebration in a long bygone era that so many of us are inclined to idealize, but of which we have so little knowledge. After joining in singing “The First Nowell,” audience members and performers adjourned to the basement of the Cathedral for mulled cider and baked treats – all very authentic to the period, I’m sure.