Program Notes, December 2015
California Bach Society sings Joyeux Noël!
Artistic Director Paul Flight and the 30-voice California Bach Society present "Joyeux Noël!" on December 4-6 in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley. Our program will span the centuries, from Gregorian chant and a 14th-century mass, to Mouton's "Noe, noe, psallite" and Charpentier's charming Christmas noëls, to Berlioz's evocative "Shepherd's Farewell," and to 20th-century Francis Poulenc's motets for Christmas and modern variations on traditional French carols. In addition, we will present an example of French organ noëls, played by the resident organist at each venue: Reiko Oda Lane (First Unitarian, San Francisco), Rodney Gehrke (All Saints', Palo Alto), and George Emblom (St. Mark's, Berkeley).
In France, Christmas is typically a restrained and intimate holiday. Yet the season has been celebrated since medieval times with music that is overflowing with sophistication, charm, beautiful melodies, and heartfelt appreciation.
Puer natus est nobis, usually translated as Unto Us Is Born a Son, is a Gregorian chant to be used as the Introit for the Christmas Day Mass. The Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion are sections of the Mass that change according to the date, either representing an observance within the liturgical year, or of a particular saint or significant event, and are collectively referred to as the Proper of the Mass.
The Kyrie and Gloria of the Messe de Tournai are two movements from the Ordinary of the Mass — the movements that do not change based on date or occasion.
The Tournai Mass is a polyphonic setting from 14th-century France. It is preserved in a manuscript from the library of the Tournai Cathedral. The Kyrie is stylistically typical of mid-to-late 13th century practice. The Gloria has freer rhythmic interplay than the Kyrie. It is concluded by a lengthy Amen which makes use of the hocket, a compositional technique in which a single melody is shared between two (or occasionally more) voices such that alternately one voice sounds while the other rests. The Tournai Mass is believed to have been composed by several musicians over a period of fifty or more years and was later compiled to be performed as a whole. The first known Mass to have been conceived of and composed as a single unified work is the Messe de Nostre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut, who probably knew the Tournai Mass and may have used it as a model.
Antoine Busnois (c. 1430-1492) was probably from the vicinity of Béthune in the Pas-de-Calais, possibly the hamlet of Busnes. He clearly received an excellent musical education, probably at a church choir school. An aristocratic origin may explain his association with the French royal court as early as the 1450s. His personal life was somewhat eccentric; in a petition for absolution that he filed in Tours in 1461, he admitted to being part of a group that beat up a priest "to the point of bloodshed," not once but five times. He was also foolhardy enough to celebrate Mass although he was not an ordained priest, an act which got him excommunicated until Pope Pius II pardoned him. His contemporary reputation as a musician was immense; he was probably the best-known musician in Europe between Guillaume Dufay and Johannes Ockeghem. Stylistically, his music can be considered a midpoint between the simplicity and homophonic textures of Dufay and Binchois and the imitative counterpoint of Josquin and Gombert. The setting of Noël, noël, noël that we are performing is stately and dignified.
Antoine Brumel (c. 1460-1512 or 1515) was a renowned member of the Franco-Flemish school of the Renaissance and, after Josquin des Prez, was one of the most influential composers of his generation. Little is known about his early life, but he was probably born west of Chartres, perhaps in the town of Brunelles, making him one of the first of the Netherlandish composers who was actually French. Brumel was at the center of the changes that were taking place in European music around 1500, in which the previous style of highly differentiated voice parts, composed one after another, was giving way to smoothly flowing, equal parts, composed simultaneously. These changes can be seen in his music, with some of his earlier work conforming to the older style and his later compositions showing the polyphonic fluidity that became the stylistic norm of the Josquin generation. His setting of Noël features this later style, with its syncopated and closely written imitative passages.
Jean Mouton (c. 1459-1522) was a French composer of the Renaissance. He was famous both for his motets, which are among the most refined of the time, and for being the teacher of Adrian Willaert, one of the founders of the Venetian School. Mouton was born Jean de Hollingue either in 1459 or earlier, but records of his early life, as is so often the case with Renaissance composers, are scanty. He was hugely influential both as a composer and as a teacher. Mouton was a fine musical craftsman, highly regarded by his contemporaries and much in demand by his royal patrons. His music was reprinted and continued to attract other composers even later in the 16th century, especially his joyful Christmas motet Noe, noe, noe, psallite noe (Noel, noel, noel, sing noel), which we perform in this concert.
Claude Goudimel (c. 1514 to 1520-1572) was a composer, music editor and publisher, and music theorist of the Renaissance. He was born in Besançon. Few details of his life are known until he is documented in Paris in 1549, where he was studying at the University of Paris; in that year he also published a book of chansons. Goudimel moved to Metz in 1557, converting to Protestantism, and is known to have been associated with the Huguenot cause there; however, he left Metz due to the increasing hostility of the city authorities to Protestants during the Wars of Religion. First he settled in his native town of Besançon, and later moved to Lyon. He was murdered in Lyon sometime between 28 and 31 August 1572, during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, along with much of the Huguenot population of the city.
Esprits divins (Divine spirits) is a reconstruction from several sources. It displays a smoothly homophonic style in the first verse and in the tenor/bass duet of the second verse. The third verse is more ornate, with gently imitative entrances shared among different voice pairings.
Hodie nobis coelorum rex (Today for us the King of heaven) is a classic Renaissance motet, starting out with a pure imitative introduction in unquestionable Palestrina style. It then flows from one imitative idea to another without pause; this is accomplished with graceful handoffs between different pairs of voices.
Guillaume Costeley (1530-1606) was the court organist for Charles IX of France. He was famous for his numerous chansons, which were representative of the late development of the form. He was born in Fontanges-en-Auvergne; nothing is known of him prior to his arrival in Paris in or before 1554. Costeley's chansons were by far the most famous part of his output. They are in the Parisian chanson style of the time, with vivid word painting, along with a tendency to think harmonically rather than polyphonically — as the age of purely polyphonic writing was coming to an end over most of Europe. Allons gai, bergères (Let us go gaily, shepherdesses) is written in this chanson style, and the verses are a lively discussion of what the shepherdesses will bring as gifts to the little King (somewhat like a modern baby shower).
Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) was a French composer of the Baroque era. Exceptionally prolific and versatile, Charpentier produced compositions of the highest quality in several genres. His mastery in writing sacred vocal music, above all, was recognized and hailed by his contemporaries.
Salve puerule (Hail, little boy) is the last movement of Charpentier's Christmas cantata In Nativitem Domini nostri Jesu Christi. Each verse of this five-part setting is separated by a charming instrumental ritornello.
Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772) wrote in the Baroque and Galant styles. He was a virtuoso organist and harpsichordist. He never lacked for work as an organist. By reputation a dazzling performer at the keyboard, Daquin was courted by the aristocracy, and his great expertise at the organ drew large crowds to hear him. He was known for his "unfaltering precision and evenness" at both the harpsichord and organ.
The noëls of the French organ school were based on these religious songs, folk-like in nature, which were sung in the vernacular at the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass. By the seventeenth century, instrumental versions of the noëls appeared, and at the end of the century the first keyboard variations on the noël tunes were published. Daquin's Noël X, Grand jeu et duo is a setting of a noël known as Quand Dieu naquit à Noël (When God was born at Christmas) or Bon Joseph, écoutez-moi (Good Joseph, listen to me).
Traditional Carols have been known and loved by the French for centuries. A number of them, including the three that we present, were used by Charpentier for his Messe de Minuit pour Noël, a parody mass (a mass that uses a piece of secular music, a fragment of a motet or chanson, as part of its melodic material). Christophe Ballard (1641-1715), a noted French music publisher, provided a collection in 1703, titled Chants des noëls, anciens et nouveaux (Songs of Christmas, old and new). This volume was the first time that a harmony line had accompanied the popular noël melodies. The settings we present are partly inspired by these arrangements.
Or nous dites, Marie (Now tell us, Mary) is a medieval noël; Charpentier used it not only in his Messe de Minuit but in his Noëls sur les instruments. It is also found in hymnals as The Hand of Heaven (set by John Bell). Here the melody is set over a low drone.
Une jeune pucelle (A young maiden) was well known by the 1550s. The French words were set to an earlier Italian ballad from the sixteenth century titled La Monica, which is also known as a dance in various German, Italian, French, Flemish, and English sources.
Laissez paître vos bêtes (Leave your animals to graze) is a childlike re-telling of the Christmas story in which the announcement of Jesus' birth is made by a nightingale. The speaker finds first another shepherd to help spread the news, and each verse brings more people to the grand occasion.
Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) conceived and completed his "sacred trilogy," L'Enfance du Christ, in 1853 and 1854. Berlioz wrote the libretto himself, adapting the story of Jesus' childhood from the second chapter of the book of Matthew. Berlioz conducted the premiere performance in Paris in December of 1854 and received glowing reviews that somewhat irked him. He later wrote in his memoirs: "In that work many people imagined they could detect a radical change in my style and manner. This opinion is entirely without foundation. The subject naturally lent itself to a gentle and simple style of music, and for that reason alone was more in accordance with their taste and intelligence. Time would probably have developed these qualities, but I should have written L'Enfance du Christ in the same manner 20 years ago."
The elegant pastoral chorus L'adieu des bergers (The shepherds' farewell) occupies the center point of Part Two: The Flight into Egypt. It is easy to see why audiences have always responded so warmly to this gentle music, which is often performed separately.
Pierre Villette (1926-1998) was born into a musical family in 1926 in Duclair, Normandy. He studied with Maurice Duruflé before attending the Paris Conservatory. Pierre Boulez was a fellow student, but their careers followed very different paths. In 1957 Villette was appointed director of the conservatory in Besançon, the capital of the Franche-Comté region. Villette's music is a product of a French musical heritage that includes Fauré and Debussy as well as Poulenc and Messiaen, and a French cultural legacy that includes Catholicism and the Order of Saint Benedict. Villette's Hymne à la Vierge is probably his best-known work and has been performed regularly in the annual Service of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge.
Courons à la fête (Let us run to the celebration) is a late seventeenth- or early eighteenth-century noël by the French poet l'Abbé Simon-Joseph Pellegrin (1663–1745). In keeping with the ethos of popular French culture, the shepherds and shepherdesses feature prominently. The arrangement is by Gaston Roussel. Roussel (1913-1985) was a Catholic priest and musician; he was an accomplished organist and composer, and contributed to the restoration of some of the forgotten works of Michel-Richard Delalande.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) was born into a wealthy Parisian family. In Poulenc's view, the two sides of his nature grew out of this background: a deep religious faith from his father's family and a worldly and artistic side from his mother's. Although his parents wanted him to receive a traditional education before entering a conservatory, they passed away before he turned nineteen, and he started studying composition. He was a member of the eminent French group known as "Les Six." In his later years, and for decades after his death, Poulenc had a reputation, particularly in his native country, as a humorous, lightweight composer, and his religious music was often overlooked. During the twenty-first century more attention has been given to his serious works.
The Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël (Four motets for Christmastime) was finished in 1952. Poulenc often returned to traditional forms of French church music, such as the motet. The movements follow the narrative of the Nativity. Each movement is dedicated to a friend or colleague. The musical language he employs uses breathless phrases, lyrical lines, abrupt dynamic changes, and vigorous syncopated rhythms to bring color to these four traditional texts.
Peter Mathews was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1944, and studied violin and piano under the Toronto Conservatory system. His interest in French culture has taken him on a number of bike trips to study the cathedrals and great churches of France. Dans les ombres (In the shadows of the night) is part of a set of three French carol settings commissioned in 1982 for the Kansas City Chorale.
~ Patricia Jennerjohn