Program Notes, December 2014
A German Christmas
German Christmas music has a long tradition, dating back to medieval times. Early Christmas hymns usually integrated well-known folk melodies with lyrics written by local clergymen; they were sung in churches, often as choral dialogues, or performed in religious Christmas plays. The oldest German Christmas songs still in use date back to the 11th century.
In this program, we explore some less-familiar works by German masters from several musical eras. Using Biblical texts (Psalms, the prophecies of Isaiah, and the New Testament), traditional hymns, and folk songs, these compositions weave the musical textures of their eras into traditional forms to tell the ancient story, tracing it from the angel's startling announcement to Mary to the presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple.
The Christmas hymn "Ein Kind geboren zu Bethlehem" (original composer unknown) dates back to 1512. It is presented in a compilation of settings by the German Renaissance composers Bartholomëus Gesius , Michael Praetorius, and Melchior Vulpius.
Hans Leo Hassler became the first of many German composers of the early Baroque era who went to Italy to continue their studies. He arrived in Venice during the peak of activity of the Venetian school of composers who wrote in resplendent polychoral style. Hassler was already familiar with some of this music, as numerous prints had circulated in Germany. Hassler's setting of "Dixit Maria" (Mary's reply to the angel during the Annunciation) is in this Italian style, but is also reminiscent of Palestrina in its gently imitative writing.
The sixteenth-century German composer Johannes Eccard was a pupil of Orlando di Lasso and an important figure of the Protestant Reformation. "Über's Gebirg' Maria geht" (Over the mountain Maria went) is a buoyant, cheerful setting of a folk hymn describing Mary's visit with her cousin Elizabeth. Another folk hymn, "Ich steh' an deiner Krippen hier" (I stand here by your manger) is given a sweet and reverent chorale-like treatment. The medieval Christmas hymn "Resonet in laudibus" presents the traditional melody in the soprano part, propelled along by ascending lines in the lower accompanying parts.
Heinrich Schütz is generally regarded as the most important German composer before Johann Sebastian Bach and considered to be one of the most important composers of the 17th century. He is represented here with two works in very different moods. "Hodie Christus natus est," is a six-part setting of this antiphon text that follows the Magnificat during the Christmas Day Vespers service. The final movement ("Beschluß - Dank sagen wir alle Gott") from his Weihnachtshistorie, a setting of the Gospel intended to be performed during a service in place of the Gospel reading, is a late work, composed when Schütz was 75 years old. It features the austere musical style that Schütz adopted late in life.
Andreas Hammerschmidt was a contemporary of Schütz, and his best works hold up quite well in comparison (his reputation as "the poor man's Schütz" is not quite fair). His stirring setting of "Machet die Tore weit" is a fine example of the melded German Protestant/Italian style. His motet "Sei willkommen, Jesulein," in contrast, is charming and folk-like.
Johann Rudolph Ahle's Christmas motet "Fürchtet euch nicht" features a vigorous dialogue between the shepherds and the angels, set off with instrumental ritornellos. It is one of the earliest compositions to display this particular dialogue style.
We round off this era with a sweet and simple setting of "O Jesulein süß," which is attributed to Johann Sebastian Bach.
In Carl Loewe's lifetime, his songs were well enough known for some to call him the "Schubert of North Germany," and Hugo Wolf came to admire his work. His "Quem pastores laudavere" (an antiphon for Christmas) is a setting of a 16th century German folk song with a "macaronic" text (mixing Latin and German). In alternation, a small choir sings a phrase of the Latin verses, and the large choir answers with the same phrase in German.
Felix Mendelssohn's essentially conservative musical tastes set him apart from many of his more adventurous musical contemporaries. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes and anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his creative originality has now been recognized and re-evaluated. "Im Advent" and "Weihnacht" are eight-part motets from Mendelssohn's series of motets for the Christian liturgical year.
Albert Becker taught on the faculty of the Akademie der Künste in Berlin, where his famous pupils included Johan Halvorsen and Jean Sibelius. In 1889 he was appointed conductor of the Royal cathedral choir in Berlin. His setting of "Machet die Tore weit" (Open wide the gates) makes use of vigorous rhythms and a broad dynamic palette, which seem to foreshadow similar works by Bruckner.
Max Reger's compositions could be considered retrospective as they followed Classical and Baroque compositional techniques, yet he was also famous for his highly chromatic harmonic language (more in the spirit of Liszt and Wagner). His setting of "Unser lieben Frauen Traum" ("Our dear lady's dream"), from a set of eight spiritual songs written towards the end of his rather short life, however, is calm, reverent, and harmonically straightforward.
In her twenties, Gunild Keetman discovered the teaching and musical methods of Dorothee Günther and Carl Orff at the Güntherschule in Munich, Germany; she flourished in this environment. She and Carl Orff began the Orff-Schulwerk approach, for which she is best known today, in 1945 (after the Güntherschule was destroyed in an Allied air raid.) "Die Weihnachtsgeschichte" (The Christmas story) is part of this Orff-Schulwerk. A reviewer said this of this work: "It blends simplicities and complexities in the music and carries a mysterious, primitive, medieval feel throughout, alternating between choral parts. . ., spoken parts. . .called out by individuals from the choir. . ., and instrumental parts that make me think of a medieval circus. . . ." Many well-known traditional German Christmas carols are set into this work.
The Andernacher Gesangbuch (1608) refers to "Maria durch ein Dornwald ging" as being universally known and liked at that time. The use of the words "Kyrie eleison" shows that it had its origin in the first period of the creation of German religious folk songs during the Middle Ages. Günter Raphael (incidentally, the grandson of Albert Becker) sets this traditional Advent hymn in an elegant Neoclassical harmonic style.
Hugo Distler's Die Weihnachtsgeschichte certainly looks back at the Baroque motet for structural inspiration; the composer stitches together the prophetic words of Isaiah, the story of Christmas as told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and closes with words from an Epistle of John. These sections alternate with settings of seven different verses from the beloved hymn "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen" (known in English as "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"), which dates back to 1599. Interestingly, although the first three or four verses of this hymn are fairly well known, it actually contains approximately twenty-three verses.
~ Patricia Jennerjohn