Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas — Dec 2005

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Program Notes

PSALLITE! A Candlelight Christmas

Notes on the Program
Our concerts this season celebrate our 70th anniversary by paying tribute to the great music the Bach choir has sung over the last six decades. Today’s concert particularly features the Christmas repertoire our current musical director, David Babbitt, has developed for us during his tenure. Interestingly, our archives reveal several Christmas programs from the choir's early years that included works by pre-Bach composers such as Dieterich Buxtehude (who was himself a link between Bach and the earliest post-Reformation composers). Bach’s choral music was under-performed in the late 1930s and the 1940s when the choir was first formed, but Buxtehude was such an unknown at that time that we can easily see the creative programming connection between Mr. Babbitt and founding director Waldemar Jacobsen. Both directors came to the leadership of the Bach Choir via their experience as Lutheran church organists, and both knew of Bach's musical precursors through a church hymnody that had been kept alive in Lutheran services from its inception to modern times.

After assuming directorship of the choir in 1981, Mr. Babbitt began thinking about other musical opportunities for the choir. He had a deep appreciation for the large body of dramatic choral works that were written in the late 16th and 17th centuries in northern Germany by composers such as Heinrich Schütz, Samuel Scheidt, and Michael Praetorius—whose music many of you have heard in our concerts—and decided to start bringing them to performance. These grand works featured multiple choirs of instruments and voices, and were performed from different areas of the cathedrals. However, this musical form flourished for a relatively short period: The ravages of the 30-year war exacted such a severe toll upon the population in some areas that the lavish forces needed to perform this music were no longer available to composers. The composition and performance of these great musical works ceased. Though Bach and Handel both reference them in their own compositions, the dramatic presentation of the “Colossal Baroque” died an early death and was not to be revived.

Performing the music of these masters today is not a simple affair. Though we are lucky that some musical scores have actually been preserved, they are often in volumes locked away in reference libraries and practical performance editions are not available for purchase from a music publisher. Much of the music we sing outside of the Bach repertoire requires hours of work to transcribe the scores into special computer software and to generate the vocal and instrumental parts. Another unusual aspect of this music is that composers often allowed flexibility in terms of how their works might be performed with varying numbers of vocalists and instrumentalists and kinds of instruments. The transcription of each piece requires the consideration of what instruments and voices to use on each part. Over the years, Mr. Babbitt has developed hundreds of practical scores for the Bach choir, bringing to light beautiful and dramatic music that has lain dormant for over 350 years. This is the repertoire we consider part of the choir’s special niche in the Bay Area.

Composers of the Baroque often wove well-known melodies into pieces using the new compositional techniques. When audiences heard these new pieces, they also experienced the sense of the familiar when melodies they knew and loved were quoted. A good example of this are the cantatas Bach wrote for each Sunday service; these new works in their own right incorporated the well-known hymn-tune for the day. Mr. Babbitt has written many pieces in this same manner—using melodies we are familiar with today but presenting them in the polychoral idiom.

—Laurel Elkjer


Notes on the Music
Our concert today includes a variety of different musical genres and styles by different composers. There are the polychoral pieces by Baroque German composers, carols, and a piece written especially for this occasion by Mr. Babbitt. Notes on a few of these pieces and their composers follow.

Dieterich Buxtehude (c. 1637–1707) was the most prominent representative of the north German organ school. J.S. Bach so revered Buxtehude that he made his famous journey by foot from Arnstadt to hear him play. In 1668, Buxtehude became the organist of the Church of St. Mary’s in Lübeck and married his predecessor’s younger daughter—a condition of his employment that he later extended to his successor. He remained in service at the church for nearly 40 years. Buxtehude composed a considerable body of music, both vocal and instrumental, though many of his compositions have been lost. Of the 128 complete surviving vocal works, all but eight have sacred texts. His concertato pieces are in a form ultimately derived from the Venetian polychoral style, with short sections of text-related musical material. Today’s piece, the New Year cantata “Das neugeborne Kindelein” is in four sections, with an orchestral prelude and orchestral commentaries and interludes interspersed within the work. The first choral section is lively with a swaying feel. An allegro section in triple meter follows, and, in proper fashion, includes long runs to illustrate the word “singen” (to sing). After a short instrumental interlude in the initial tempo and rhythm, the choir sings what sounds like one verse of a chorale (hymn), followed by a fiery return to the initial fast tempo, which becomes more percussive due to short note values and explosive short words (such as “trotz”).

Artistic Director David Babbitt has composed a new work especially for this concert—a setting of the Latin Magnificat. The Magnificat is the biblical canticle (text similar to a psalm, but not from the Book of Psalms) with text from Luke 1:46–55 (“Magnificat anima mea Dominum” or “My soul doth magnify the Lord”). It is sung near the end of the Vespers service. In some places, in particular in Leipzig before and during Bach’s tenure, the canticle was customarily sung in German, except on high feasts when it was sung in Latin in some polyphonic setting. Since medieval times, the Magnificat was sung in Lutheran Baroque Germany with interpolations of so-called Laudes (hymns for the Christmas season). Having discovered this practice of troping (adding text or music or both), Bach adopted it for his Magnificat by including four hymns to be sung at regular intervals between the traditional movements. Mr. Babbitt has followed this practice in his eight-voice concertato Magnificat, which intersperses carols within the Latin text. Those familiar with the music of Praetorius will notice that this piece is often reminiscent of this German master. Sometimes it also sounds more ancient; for example, the beginning invocation is written in a pentatonic scale. After the initial Magnificat comes the first interpolated carol “People look East.” The second carol, “He that comes despised shall reign,” is inserted after the “Quia respexit.” The chordal “Quia fecit” is followed by an instrumental interlude and the third carol, “Dark the night lay.” The “Fecit potentiam” is much more complex and polyphonic, and is followed by a lilting, dancy last carol, “As it fell our upon one day, rich Dives made a feast.” At this point the Latin text is coupled with the English text. The rest is a gloriously rousing and lively concluding section.

A holiday concert by the SFBC would not be complete without the presence of Michael Praetorius’s music. Michael Praetorius (1571–1621) was the son of a Lutheran pastor and served for part of his career at the Dresden court of the Elector Johann Georg of Saxony. Praetorius’s musical style was strongly influenced by the Germans Schütz and Scheidt, and by the latest Italian music, which he came into contact with in Dresden in the 1610s. His creative power was impressive and his output is astonishing; the list of works he had already written as well as those he still planned to write consumed 28 pages of his famous treatise, the Syntagma musicum of 1614–15. Most of Praetorius’s sacred music is based on Protestant hymns (chorales). His work clearly forms the climax in the history of Protestant church music of alternatim (the practice of alternating the performance of sections of works for different musical forces).

Our concert also features many carols. Though we often think of a carol as a Christmas piece, it has a complex history. During the Middle Ages, a carol was an English or Latin song with several stanzas of the same form, and beginning with a refrain (a burden) that was repeated after each stanza. These carols could be on any subject, though most were about the Virgin or the Saints of Christmas. Some were even secular. The medieval carol—whether the courtly or popular dance-song, popular religious or processional song, or ecclesiastical polyphony (music with multiple independent parts)—was associated with several social functions.

There is evidence that carols were used as processional hymns, and some may also have been used to replace the second Benedicamus at the Offices on the three days after Christmas, on the Circumcision and on Epiphany. Carols may also have been used as banquet music. The English carol takes its name and nature from the medieval French carole, a courtly or popular dance-song with various choreographic forms that was extremely popular from the mid-12th to mid-14th century. The earliest carols were not necessarily Christian. In fact, people belonging to pre-Celtic and Celtic matrilineal societies wrote many carols.

On today’s program, you will hear The Legend of Mr. Dives and Poor Lazarus (included in Babbitt’s Magnificat), which is one of the popular melodies first notated in 1700, and a carol that tells a story. There are quite a few of these legends, and all begin with “As it fell out.” There are also two carols with macaronic text (in multiple languages, such as English and Latin or German and Latin) arranged by David Babbitt: “The Snow Lay on the Ground” and “In dulci jubilo” which is a German carol from the 14th century. The latter is associated with a legend that it was first sung to a German mystic by a band of angels who led him to dance with them. Also arranged by David Babbit is “On Christmas Night,” a traditional English carol known as the “Sussex Carol.” The melody of “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” is attributed to St. Ambrose (339?–397), and the German translation of 1524 may have been by Luther himself, who adapted many plainchant melodies like this one into chorales. Finally, “Wie schön leuchtet” is a tune by Philipp Nicolai (1556–1608) who also wrote the famous “Wachet auf.”

—Copyright © Alexandra Amati-Camperi, Ph.D., 2005

Please do not distribute or use these notes without the express written permission of the San Francisco Bach Choir.