Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Advent Music: Christmas Eve

I think this one needs no explanation.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent Music Part 5

Past Three O' Clock has long been a favorite carol of mine. I can't say exactly why (although it is one of the few Christmas carols that mentions cheese); I think partially because it's lesser-known, and thus doesn't get overplayed ever Christmas season. But more so, I think it's because it gets to my favorite moment of Christmas - that quiet, pregnant moment when the world has yet to wake up, when Christmas is set to be sprung but first, there is one last quiet pause. The shepherds are still on the hillside, ma in her kerchief and I in my cap are still settled in for a long winter's nap. The town crier echoes the ancient cry "all is well." And we slumber, gently, and Christmas lays just beyond the horizon, waiting for the sun to rise and all glory to break forth on the earth.

This carol gets at the heart of Advent - Christmas is coming, but just for now, rest. Morning, and with it Christmas, is on the way.

Past three o'clock, and a cold frosty morning,
Past three o'clock, good morrow masters all.

Born is the baby, gentle as may be
Son of the eternal Father supernal,

Sereph choir singeth, angel bell ringeth
hark how they rhyme it, time it and chime it!

Hinds o'er the pearly dewy lawn early,
Seek the high stranger laid in the manger.

Cheese from the dairy bring they for Mary
And, not for money, butter and honey

Thus they, I pray you, up sirs, nor stay you
'Til ye confess him likewise, and bless him.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent Music, auf Deutsch!

How about a nice little German lullaby for Advent? And performed by not one, but two outstanding vocal groups - The men of New York Polyphony and the ladies of Anonymous Four.

The music of Josef Lieber, Josef Mein can be traced back to a 14th century German carol (although it may go all the way back to the 12th century), while the words were used in the 16th century mystery plays in Leipzig.

The lyric is sung by Mary and Joseph as they ponder their newborn son, wrapped up in the glory and wonder of this miraculous birth. It is meant as a gentle lullaby, rocking the baby to sleep.

"Joseph, dearest Joseph mine
help me cradle the child divine
God reward thee, and all that's thine
in Paradise" 
So prays the mother Mary.

      He came among us at Christmas time,
      At Christmas time, in Bethlehem
      Men shall bring him far and wide
      love's diadem: Jesus, Jesus
      Lo, he comes, and loves, and saves, and frees us.

Gladly, dear one, lady mine
Help I cradle this child of thine
God's own light on us both shall shine
in Paradise
As prays the mother Mary.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Be nice. Everybody's broken.

I made a trek to get my pre-Christmas haircut at a local chain place. I was settling into the comfy chair and going through the ritual of "how do you want your hair cut" with my stylist* (whom I shall call "Carol", just because that's a good Christmasy-sounding name) when another customer came in.

Carol left me to check in the new customer. I couldn't see the exchange that followed, but I heard it clearly. And it went like this:

Carol: Hello, and welcome to (redacted).

Customer: Grump grump grumble.

Carol: Can I get your last name?

Customer: Mfpththgrumble**

Carol: I'm sorry, can you repeat that?

Customer: Mpsthsgrumpgrump

Carol: Sorry, could you spell that?

Customer: intelligible grumble.

Carol: Okay, just to make sure, one more time?

Customer's female friend (possible wife?): SMITH! S - M - I - T - H! GOT IT?

Carol: Yes, thank you. And how about a first name?

Customer: Grumble grump fsgetedpde

Carol: And could you spell that?

Customer's female companion: JACK! J - A - C - K! Got it? SHEESH!

Carol: Yes, I have it now - thank you.

Customer's female companion: We're leaving! If you're so deaf we don't want to be here! Grump grump grump! (stomping footsteps out the door)

At which point Carol came over and stood behind my chair. We made eye contact in the mirror - she rolled her eyes, but I could see the pain in her face. "That was the wrong thing to say to a person who'd just had ear surgery," she said.

Turns out she's been deaf in one ear since childhood, and just had surgery last week to (hopefully) repair the damage from early sickness, and (hopefully) restore some hearing. But it's still quite stuffed up, so she remains partially deaf.

She was hurt by the exchange, I could tell. I don't know her story, but I would guess, based on her reaction, that this wasn't the first time she'd been bullied for her impairment. And all the while she was fighting to remain professional. I suspect that, had she said what she was thinking, it wouldn't have gone over so well with management. So she let them go without challenging their rudeness.

We ended up having a delightful conversation about our kids, and our favorite Christmas movies, and family customs over the holidays. I could tell she loved her kids, and was doing her best to give them a great Christmas, in spite of the fact that she had just had surgery (and was working less than a week later). I would like to think that, just maybe, I brought some light and levity back to her day, after she had been treated so poorly. I did my best to encourage her, anyway. This is the work of the Kingdom of God: to shine light into darkness. To turn swords into plowshares. To speak of peace in the midst of violence. To encourage, where there has been discouragement.

So next time you're tempted to insult somebody, or you feel like stomping out in a self-righteous huff, or you're frustrated because somebody is a little bit slow***, just be nice. Be patient and friendly and understanding, okay?

It's possible they actually are deaf, and are trying their best to put up with your mumbling.

And after all, it's Christmas.

* As a man, I'm not comfortable with saying I have a hair stylist. But she wasn't exactly a barber, either. Hair services professional? I could live with that.

** All names have been changed so as to protect the grumpy

*** I don't want to overlook the possibility that this customer and his female companion were also acting out of pain, as well. It's possible they were just rude; it's also possible that they had recently received some bad news, or maybe he had a speech impediment that I didn't know about. Maybe somebody had been rude to them earlier in the day. None of that is an excuse for their behavior, of course. But if given the opportunity, we should try to be nice to rude people, as well. Maybe they've got some pain in their lives, as well. Maybe that will be my new Christmas theme: Be nice. Everybody's broken.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Advent Music 3

Let's jump back 500 years. Jacob Arcadelt lived ca. 1505-1568. He was born in what is now Belgium, spent time in Florence, Rome, and Germany, and died in France. He served for a time as choirmaster of the Papal choir under Pope Paul 3, and later was choirmaster of the French Royal chapel. He was known for shorter works; in his earlier career he focused on motets and madrigals, and once in France he switched to chansons. However, he did write 3 masses, including the Christmas mass - Missa Noe noe.

This is the Kyrie from that Christmas Mass. Like much of his work, it is written in four-part harmony, with beautiful, long-flowing melodies that intertwine like the winter wind blowing through the trees. The text is the traditional Latin Kyrie:

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Music Christians would have been listening to during Advent and Christmas, almost 500 years ago.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Advent Music 2

Lux Aurumque is rightfully growing in popularity, so you may already know it. It is a modern song that sounds ancient, rich in polyphony yet so sweet and simple. It's a Christmas song, but it seems to pop up any number of places, including the Peninsula High School graduation a few years ago. I have about 3 different recordings in my own collection, including the Elora Festival Singers and the St. Olaf Choir.

Like with the last, you need to stop and really listen to this one. Dim the lights, light a candle, sit with your warm cup of tea, and let the sound wash over you, even while contemplating the mystery of the incarnation. Hear the angelic choir song of Christmas once again.

Warm and heavy as pure gold
and the angels sing softly
to the newborn baby. 

If you want to see something cool, then watch this. Whitacre put together a virtual choir of the same song.

And then there's the band version, which gives it a much different feel. if you're interested.

Friday, December 06, 2013

New Horizons in Musical Appreciation (Advent Edition)

As long as we've been exploring such rich versions of the wonderful Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," I thought I might continue on for the next month or so, sharing some Advent and Christmas themed music that you all need to listen to.

I was once accused of being a musical bigot. Thank you. I wasn't a music major for nothing. America is a cesspool of popular music being touted as "art."

I am hereby doing my part to educate and share and generally lift up the collective musical conscience of the world by bringing to your attention music that is, actually, really very good and worthy of listen.

If you're a lover of good music, you don't need the introduction: you already know. But if you happen to think the world really needed a Justin Bieber Christmas album, or a Carrie Underwood version of The Sound of Music, then this is for you. This is what good art, this is what craft, sounds like. This is how good it really can be.

Here's the only thing - don't play this in the background. Stop what you're doing, except maybe sipping on that hot beverage, still your heart, and take this in.

You can thank me later.

Let's start with Lauridsen's Magnum Mysterium. The text is from the Matins of Christmas, the liturgy that takes the church through the darkest hours before dawn on Christmas morning.

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Simple Gifts 3

Those last two posts about the song "Simple Gifts" make even more sense in the arc of my life when you consider this:

Too many years ago, when I was a freshman music major in college, I took my first conducting class. I remember we spent almost a week perfecting our downbeat (you have to let it drop with intention, but not too tense or controlled).

This was a Christian college, and much of the class was focused on congregational songleading. This was in the day when most churches were led in worship by a gentleman who stood at the front and "conducted" the congregation, while being accompanied by the piano. I knew how to do this well simply because it was the way of the church I had grown up in; as it happened, the gentleman who led our church was usually my father, and the pianist was usually my mother. So I had seen first-hand how congregational songleading went.

I was eager to push things out a bit more, and found my chance when we were given our final assignment. Each member of the class was to pick a song and teach it to either the college choir or orchestra, and then conduct that group  in that song during a concert.

Since I was in the orchestra (and not the choir), I naturally decided to conduct the orchestra. I spent a few dusty hours one afternoon going through the school's music library. Most of the songs there were of the Christian Music genre. Variations on "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace," "Fantasia on Psalm 95," and the like. Nothing grabbed my attention.

Until, somewhere in the back of the file as if forgotten, I found the orchestration to Copland's "Simple Gifts" from Appalachian Spring. And I knew that was the one. (side note: I never really wondered until now how this "secular" song by a non-Christian composer ever made it into their library. I'm sure if they knew more about the real person of Copland, this song would not have been allowed. So finding it was a tiny bit of fresh air, the beauty of the outside world breaking into such a stifling, insulated, controlling atmosphere).

I pulled the parts, organized them all, and confidently (or at least I was pretending) handed them out to the orchestra a few days later. We ran through it a couple times. And the string players all grumbled at the cascading, screaming lines there about the 2 minute mark. But we worked on it (I even had the chance to do some personal work with one of the cuter string players (which was a no-no at this conservative Bible College but I did it anyway)), and we made some cuts and we rearranged a few things, and eventually, early in the spring, in a concert of the Prairie Bible College Orchestra, I conducted my first real orchestral work ever. And I must say, it went well.

This isn't a recording of that concert. I'm sure this is much better than we did. But this is the song (well, up until about the 3-minute mark) I conducted, the first major work of my short musical career.

And it's a beautiful song, one that I still listen to quite often, when I need a little peace of mind.