Yale Schola Cantorum | Epiphany Concert

Event time: 
Saturday, January 21, 2017 - 2:30pm to 4:00pm
Christ Church New Haven See map
84 Broadway
New Haven, CT 06511
Open to: 
General Public
Event description: 

David Hill, conductor
Martin Jean, organ

Selections from La Nativité du Seigneur, for solo organ      
Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

O magnum mysterium                                                                                 
Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611)

Maria wallt zum Heiligtum                                                                                      
Johannes Eccard (1553–1611)

The Clouded Heaven                                                                                                
Judith Bingham 
(b. 1936)

Three Carol Anthems                                                                                                
Hebert Howells (1892–1983)

  1. A Spotless Rose
  2. Sing Lullaby
  3. Here Is the Little Door

Bethlehem Down                                                                                                         
Peter Warlock (1894–1930) 
arr. David Hill

Take My Heart (World Premiere)                                                                                  
Hannah Lash 
(b. 1981)

The Lamb     
God Is with Us                                                                                                                 
John Tavener (1944–2013)

Spanish organist Thomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) was a renowned choral composer during his lifetime. He exclusively set Latin sacred texts; the text of the motet O magnum mysterium is a prayer for matins on Christmas Day. The text marvels at the humble nature of Christ’s birth: that he was placed in a manger to the witness of animals is indeed a great mystery.

Victoria paints the text through distinctions of texture, the manipulation of the number of voices, and the distance between their entrances. The first half of the motet, describing the animals near the manger, is set in a polyphonic style that grows in activity. Possibly depicting the descent from heaven to earth, “O magnum mysterium” (O great mystery) is gradually introduced in each voice, from soprano to bass. “Et admirabile sacramentum” (and wonderful sacrament) is introduced in the polyphonic texture by the soprano voice before being echoed homophonically. “Ut animalia viderent Dominum natum” (that animals should see the newborn Lord) follows in a similar homophonic style. Perhaps to underline the simplicity of the animals in the stable setting, and to set apart the divinity of the Christ child, Victoria resorts to the most complex polyphonic technique of this piece on the words “jacentem in praesepio” (lying in a manger). Here Victoria introduces the voices in pairs (bass and tenor, then soprano and alto) in a double-invertible counterpoint. After the entrance of the higher parts, Victoria introduces stretto, interrupting entrances on the word “jacentem” (lying) before dissolving into melismas and reaching the first stopping point in the piece.

Addressing the Virgin Mary in a solemn tone, Victoria homophonically sets “Beata Virgo” (Blessed Virgin) and extends “Virgo” by means of melisma. Another extensive melisma occurs on the word “meruerunt” (worthy), as if to highlight the merit of the Virgin’s status as mother of the Christ child. The upper three voices sing the words “portare Dominum” (to bear the Lord) before the bass voice completes the texture with gravity on the words “Jesu Christum” (Jesus Christ). The motet’s final section sets an exaltation of “Alleluia” in triple time, and relaxes into a florid passage of melismatic scales to conclude the work.

Olivier Messiaen was born in Avignon in 1908. His childhood was spent surrounded by the literary talents of his poet mother and Shakespeare-loving father. He began learning the piano as he approached his ninth birthday, and showed a talent for both the practical and theoretical aspects of music, requesting operatic scores for Christmas presents at the age of ten. As his prodigious talent continued to develop, he entered the Paris Conservatoire the following year. By the time he left the conservatory, he had encountered the music of Stravinsky, studied with Paul Dukas, and become familiar with music forms from around the world; his music already showed signs of departing from traditional Western harmony. At twenty-three he took up the post of organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris, where he remained for the next sixty-one years. The cycle La Nativité du Seigneur (The birth of the Savior) was composed in 1935. Along with Messiaen’s other organ cycles, La banquet celeste (The heavenly feast) and L’Ascension (The Ascension), this work established and cemented Messaien’s unique harmonic language based on the octatonic scale. La Nativité du Seigneur is divided into nine movements, six of which are performed on this program.

Messiaen inscribed the opening movement of the cycle, La Vierge et l’Enfant (The Virgin and Child), with words from the Hebrew Bible:

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, for unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee: He is just and lowly.

 (Isaiah; Zechariah)

The movement opens with sustained chords supporting a twinkling arabesque melody—one of Messaien’s trademarks—portraying the wonder that humanity should feel at God’s arrival on earth. The second section, slightly faster, adds another part to the texture: parallel chords in the left hand of the organ with an irregular pedal line, over which the melody sounds, becoming more and more intricate. The tempo returns to the original before one last flourish in the melody draws the movement to a slow, hushed close.

Maria wallt zum Heiligtum (Mary went to the temple) is an example of Johannes Eccard’s sonorous choral motet style. Eccard (1553–1611) was a German composer who, before becoming a Kapellmeister in Berlin, studied with the Franco-Flemish polyphonist Orlande de Lassus. In addition to being a celebrated composer of his day, Eccard also influenced later composers such as Johannes Brahms, who owned several volumes of Eccard’s music. Eccard paints Ludwig Helmbold’s short biblical narrative and supplication in a straightforward manner, and by doing so emphasizes the message of the text. The two stanzas are set strophically in a rich soundcape of six vocal parts in a homophonic declamation. The song’s refrain, Simeon’s exaltation, contains the few madrigalism in this otherwise simple setting: a turning ornamental figure accents the word “Freud” (joy) and a dramatic octave leap highlights the final line of the refrain: “Licht der Welt” (light of the world).

Judith Bingham’s luminous style of composition is growing in popularity both in her native United Kingdom and on a more global stage. Having pursued a career as a professional singer following training at the Royal Academy of Music, Bingham has more recently focused on composition and is regularly commissioned by choirs around the world. Her harmonic language, while including some dissonance, often portrays the theme of light, and this is apparent in her carol, The Clouded Heaven. Over an ostinato figure in the altos and tenors, the sopranos sing a soaring ethereal melody. The ostinato continues throughout the piece, evolving as it goes, creating a restless unease, perhaps portraying the hardship of the wise men’s journey to the infant Christ. The organ adds to the color of the sound, with long pedal notes supporting its own ostinati. After a plea to be brought “safely home,” the music dissolves into a close, clustered chord sung by the choir, which the organ finally assumes.

Les Bergers (The shepherds), the second movement of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur, is much thicker in texture than the preceding movement. The two hands of the organ play at distinctly different dynamics, accentuating the difference between the staccato right hand and the more legato left hand, perhaps illustrating the awe of the shepherds crowding into the stable. The inscription of this movement reads:

Having found the babe lying in a manger, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God.

 (Gospel of Luke)

After the opening phrase, a fast melodic passage demonstrates the shepherds’ excitement before an extended melody in an irregular meter completes the movement. The registration is marked to be changed several times, but each time, the composer calls for a woodwind sound, reminiscent of the shepherds’ reedy pipes.

Hebert Howells (1892–1983) was strongly influenced by modern English composers, especially Ralph Vaughan Williams, and early music, particularly the modal counterpoint of Tudor composers. In 1915, a few years after receiving a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music, where he studied with Charles Villiers Stanford, William Parratt, Charles Wood, and Hubert Parry, Howells contracted Grave’s disease and was seriously ill for many months. While recovering from his thyroid ailment, Howells produced some of his first mature works. Dating from the latter stages of his recovery, the Three Carol Anthems are among the composer’s first significant choral works.

Howells composed A Spotless Rose (1919) in his beloved Gloucester, England, dedicating it to his mother. Even the composer himself was charmed by the song’s seamless elegance: he wrote, “It always moves me when I hear it, just as if it were written by someone else.” The piece is divided into three sections, the first and third of which use parallel chords in a full choral texture. The chords rise and fall together, creating a flowing motion that depicts the Spotless Rose in the blowing breeze.

The texture divides into solo and accompaniment at the end of the first stanza, and creates an artful transition into the middle section of the carol. Here, a solo male voice sings the text of the second stanza (“The Rose which I am singing”) on a melody whose contour resembles the opening of the piece, while the choir accompanies in a slower-moving homophonic texture. The solo male voice ends the second section unaccompanied on the word “night” to emphasize the triumphant nature of the third section. A musical reiteration of the first section, the third part of the carol is differentiated from the opening piano by the strong forte dynamic marking. Nevertheless, the closing section slows rhythmically into a more serene mood and fades at the final return of “In a cold, cold winter’s night.”  

Sing Lullaby (1920) musically resembles A Spotless Rose in its use of a parallel chordal texture in its opening and closing sections. The quickly moving chords provide a rocking accompaniment to the slower melody that we hear in the basses. The soprano voices echo the bass melody before this churning texture comes to rest on “lullaby.” “Sing lullaby to Jesus / Born now in Bethlehem” picks up the new F-major tonality of the first section’s ending, and is set in more traditional homophony. As the text reminds us of the holy child’s future in this otherwise-placid lullaby, Howells snakes wild and dissonant harmonies through the last phrases of this section before a jarring landing in A minor on the word “Jesus.” The new tonic of A serves as a short pedal point over which “sing lullaby” floats before we are jerked back down to F minor. The final section proceeds in a fashion similar to the first, but with a few piquant harmonic touches inspired by the journey of the middle section.

The ambivalence between the miraculous birth of Jesus and his future strife is again depicted in Here Is the Little Door (1918), though now through the lens of the gifts the three magi bring to the infant. Two large halves divide Chesterton’s text: the first describes the gifts brought to the baby Jesus as he rests peacefully among the animals in the stable; the second tells of the gifts the holy child gives humanity in return. Musically, these two sections imitate each other, but the second section mirrors with great effect the dramatic complications of the text. “Gold was never bought nor sold” in the first half emphasizes the majesty that is then reflected in the martial strength of the sword in the second. While the sweet wafting incense is gently depicted in the first half, it later becomes the “smoke of battled red” in the Christ child’s battle against the forces of evil. Aromatic and purifying myrrh strewn about the manger is recast in the light of a funerary rite.

After the calm of the three works by Howells, Les Enfants de Dieu (The children of God) is a more impassioned affair. The organ quickly crescendos and with an accelerando, the listener is drawn to the climax of the movement, the children of men crying “Father! Father!”

To as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the children of God. And God hath sent forth the spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Father! Father!

(Gospel of John; Galatians)

The movement concludes with a more reflective section—Messiaen composed this cycle while spending a summer in the French Alps, and he later commented that the awesome majesty of the scenery was part of the inspiration for this work.

The following movement, Les Anges, is written for manuals only. This is the only movement of the cycle not to employ the pedals. Two independent melodic lines interplay with each other, clearly illustrating the inscription:

A multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the Highest.

 (Gospel of Luke)

The angels’ dancing across the skies in joyful exultation rises and falls, sometimes with the two lines intersecting and playing off each other’s rhythms, until in the final section, the two lines move in parallel motion before ascending into the heavens one last time, and fading into the twinkling night sky.

A collaboration between composer Peter Warlock (1894–1930) and poet Bruce Blunt (1899–1957), Bethlehem Down was the winning entry in The Daily Telegraph’s annual carol competition of 1927. Warlock was the composing pseudonym of Peter Heseltine, who was already publicly known as a music critic. Warlock had an eclectic variety of musical interests, ranging from Elizabethan music to that of fellow modern English composer Frederick Delius. In its original form, the carol was set a cappella, with two variations on the harmony, one for the first and second stanzas, and another for the third and a fourth. However, soon after its publication, Warlock arranged the work for solo voice accompanied by piano. In this version, the harmony changes with each verse, highlighting the changing mood of the text. David Hill has combined the two versions, so that the simplicity of the original is maintained alongside the harmonic interest of the solo version.

Take My Heart is a piece that expresses a sense of devotion and selfless giving of self. I wanted to work with a text that was based upon an existing text having to do with the Epiphany, but I wanted to translate it in such a way that felt as universal and nonspecific as possible. My hope is that this concept of devotion can relate across all beliefs, beyond any religious structure. To me, devotion means letting go of ego and desire. It is the embracing of a greater purpose, however we may describe that.

The text I used is based upon part of an anonymous poem used for an aria in Bach’s Epiphany cantata, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65). I translated the text in such a way that the language felt most approachable to me but so that the sense of it was preserved. (Note by the composer)

Jésus accepte la souffrance (Jesus accepts his suffering) stands apart from the rest of La Nativité du Seigneur, being much darker and morose in mood. Like Howells’ Here Is the Little Door, it recalls the pain and suffering that the infant Jesus will endure later in life:

Wherefore when He cometh into the world, Christ saith to the Father: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin Thou hast had no pleasure, but a body hast Thou prepared me. Lo, I come.


An opening motif of two loud detached chords in the upper registers of the organ, answered by a muddy growl, sets the tone for this movement. Between each repetition of the opening figure is a more linear passage. The morbidity of the movement is offset by the last few bars however, where Jesus’ statement, “Here I am,” is portrayed with a crescendo and diverging lines, ending on a bright C-sharp major chord.

John Tavener’s music is submersed in the Byzantine chant of the  Orthodox church to which the composer converted in 1977. Previously, his music had been more elaborate: his opera The Whale, which brought Tavener to fame upon his graduation from the Royal Academy, called for nontraditional instruments such as football rattles and electronic sound. In contrast, after his conversion, his compositional language became simpler. Included in tonight’s program are two works, The Lamb, written in 1982, and God Is with Us, commissioned in 1987 by Winchester Cathedral in tribute to their retiring Master of the Choristers, Martin Neary.

The earlier of the two works, The Lamb is based on the opening melodic fragment sung by the sopranos. The fragment is immediately repeated, this time accompanied by its inversion, sung by the altos. The next fragment (“Gave thee life, and bid thee feed”) is continued with the second fragment’s retrograde. This is then repeated by the soprano, with the alto singing the inversion underneath. While the construction is complicated, the overall effect is one of simplicity and cleanliness. Even at the entry of the tenors and basses, the harmony remains simple. The second stanza takes the same melody as the first, but this time it begins with the entire choir singing in unison. The listener is drawn through the melodic lines, which always return to their starting note, right up to the last phrase, which is repeated in augmentation.

Also called “A Christmas Proclamation,” God Is with Us opens with the basses divided into three: the lower two parts act as a drone, while the upper part sings a melody. This melody is taken over by the sopranos and tenors when the full choir enters. As the phrase is repeated three times, now harmonized with parallel homophonic chords, the dynamic increases, heralding the entry of the tenor soloist. In the manner of Byzantine chant, he proclaims the text from Isaiah, “the people that walked in darkness.” The line is marked with the direction to include microtones and breaks characteristic of the music which inspired so much of Tavener’s output. As the solo continues, it is joined by the rest of the choir, building the tension. The homophonic figure is sung three times again, but this time diminuendos down to piano, and then pianissimo, as the basses sing the opening motif. The listener would be forgiven for thinking that the piece was drawing to a close, but instead the entire choir proclaims the text central to the Christmas story, “Christ is born.” They are answered for the first time by the organ. The choir repeats the text twice more, each time being answered by the organ, each time growing in dynamic until the final climax.

Dieu parmi nous (God among us) is a virtuosic conclusion to La Nativité du Seigneur.

Words of the communicant, of the Virgin, of the whole Church: Then the Creator of the universe laid a command upon me; my Creator decreed where I should dwell. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.

 (Ecclesiasticus; Gospels of John and Luke)

Much like Jésus accepte la souffrance, the movement opens with a descending fanfare which is answered by a figure played on the pedals. This time, however, it is no mere growl, but a thunderous rumble. A short reflective passage gives way to a flowing section, interspersed with echoes of the opening motif. This movement takes ideas from the rest of the cycle: a quotation from Les Anges is succeeded by a passage reminiscent of Les Berges. The opening figure interrupts this passage before we hear Jesus accepting his fate, played in octaves over a sustained and quiet low chord.

The final section of this work has a doubled figure in the manuals, offset by a syncopated countermelody in the pedals. A tumultuous climax is reached at the end when the manuals reach a bright E-major chord, but the pedals demand the last word, slowly descending down the octatonic scale, leaving the listener desperate for the final resolution.

Notes by Alexandra Krawetz and Simon Lee