It happened again this year as ASU’s Concert Chorale and Chamber Singers with a small coterie of strings, trumpet and harpsichord continuo beguiled a near full sanctuary of listeners at St. Teresa’s Catholic Church with its broad variety of Christmas music.
There were carols, of course, but there is always much more. This year conductor Marcia Mitchell Hood selected the notable cantata — Gloria by Giuseppi Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). This is a somewhat modest work by Baroque standards. Its 12 parts are relatively short, yet carries the central message promulgated by the Catholic Church for most of the centuries of its existence. Sung in Latin it expresses these succinctly, tersely, with the deep spirituality that all of Christendom has come to respect and admire. Such expressions found in the Church’s central mode of worship — the mass — as well as in other worshipful exercises.
Among the best known are the “Gloria” — “Glory to God in the highest ... on earth peace, good will toward men.” “Quoniam” ... thou alone are holy ... are the Lord ... are most high, Jesus Christ.” These and many others, not found in these selections, are praise songs or Doxologies. Protestant hymnals contain an expression referred to as the Doxology as though there is only one. There are many and should be thought of in the plural as above. The work ended with a lively Cum “Sancto Spiritu” ... with the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. Amen.
We have before remarked about the ability of these students to master a language not regularly spoken by them. We repeat that commendation here in reference to the Latin text that challenged them here including the Chamber Singers mastery of “Hodie Christus natus est” ... Today Christ is born ... the Saviour appeared ... Angels sing ... Archangels rejoice ... the righteous rejoice saying: Glory to God in the highest: Alleluia.
Four other pieces bear honorable mention: Francis Poulenc’s (pronounced Poo-LINK) (1899-1963) beautiful “O Magnum Mysterium” ... O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the new born Lord, lying in a manger, Whose virgin womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia! Then the song dedicated to the memory of recently deceased Jesse Lee Walker, assistant conductor of ASU’s concert band: “In Bright Mansions Above” — a song of attractive spiritual value, made even lovelier by the deft arrangement of Roland Carter (b. 1942), a professor of music at Morgan State University in Maryland. Roland’s careful, imaginative treatment perfectly matched the chorale’s heartfelt interpretation of it.
Then from the pen of one of the Negro spiritual’s greatest master’s, William Levi Dawson, (1899-1990) came two of his finest arrangements “Mary Had a Baby” — a folksy, direct statement of the birth reality ... the girl had a baby. It was real but imbued with an extraordinary character — it was somehow holy, a mystery, they say.
The last one, a quite different phenomenon which the naïve Shepherds tending their sheep in the open grassland saw, could not quite understand. But there was something different in the night sky above them which riveted their attention — A star. They’d seen stars in the night sky before. But there was something about this star which drew special attention: “Behold the star! This star!” Dawson masterfully sets this star apart from all the others when he makes a solo soprano sing a graceful, soaring, line above the choir: “Behold the star(ah), Behold the star-ah-ah. Behold the star up yon-duh!” The chorus answer in a faster paced, almost breathless: “Behold the star! Behold the star! Behold the star!” The following one (the last one) now slower, with more emphasis seem to describe the shepherds’ excitement.
Four carols for the usual audience sing-a-long beginning with “O Come All Ye Faithful,” sung following the Gloria. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night”encourage us to imagine a modest, small, “stop-over” place en route to a larger more important city where people register for a census. There, Mary went into labor, there was an inn there, but it was filled to capacity. Tradition tells us that that special star hovered over a stable, the only place where Mary was to deliver her baby. We know the rest of this beautiful story: the savior of all mankind was to be born there in this place unfit for human habitation. And so it happened. This little town now became the center of the spiritual world. “Joy to the world! the Lord is come” proclaims the next carol.
The evening’s music ends with the introspective “Silent Night” ... all is calm, the delivery was a success, parents are relieved, the baby sleeps now, oblivious to its environment — the bright,”special” star hovering above protecting scene, heavenly hosts causing a bit of a ruckus announcing this special night and what it all means: the savior, the redeemer has come. The babe quietly sleeps on. The lovely babe quietly sleeps on.
The University has given the community yet another program of richness and high culture which it now expects and yearns for.
James Marquis is a composer and emeritus professor of music, retired, at Albany State University.