Christmas music (17)–Themes and Variations

We all know that many modern Christmas carols and songs derive from earlier versions. Musical history is full of these little evolutions. Some of our favorite carols turn out to be something that someone was singing 400 or 500 years ago, and that’s pretty cool, actually. Good Christian Men, Rejoice, for example, derives in a pretty straight line from In Dulci Jubilo, which first appeared on the scene, so far as anyone can tell, in 1328, written by a German mystic monk named Heinrich Seuse. And composers ever since then have taken this theme and reworked it in interesting ways. There were, in fact, multiple Renaissance versions—but this is what Renaissance composers specialized in, trying to one-up each other (that’s why we have something like 35 Armed Man Masses). But I sang a dramatic version of this by Robert Pearsall just last year, in fact. Pearsall was a 19th century English-German composer who worked hard to revitalize plainsong and Renaissance polyphony. A good song is hard to keep down. And occasionally we find albums that highlight some of these developments.

In addition to the well-known version most frequently associated with the German Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius, versions of the theme—or the outright song—were used by Buxtehude, Bach, and Liszt. And, of course, at some point someone turned it into Good Christian Men, Rejoice, a bang-up version of which you can find on Gabriel’s Message—One Thousand Years of Carols, a collection of 20th century arrangements of traditional carols by a variety of English chorales, to be found on Naxos records

Occasionally a group will provide multiple versions of the same song, in part to show how it differed over a period of time. So in the case of In Dulci Jubilo, we can profusely thank the extraordinary Pomerium, a New York based early music choral group, who have produced an astonishingly beautiful Christmas album Creator of the Stars (which was also issued as Old World Christmas) on Archiv, and of course it’s out of print even though I bought it only two years ago. On this album, we hear a very early version of the earliest In Dulci Jubilo, from the Piae Cantiones, a manuscript of medieval Latin music initially published in 1582 in what is now Germany, but was then part of Swedish territory, and which further seems to have a substantial contribution from what is now Finland as well. We then hear three different versions from Praetorius, for two, three, and four voices, respectively. Praetorius explores some interesting polyphonic possibilities to create a wonderful musical tapestry, and we can see how the theme lends itself to these sorts of creative variations by composers. The modern Pearsall version discussed above makes for a dramatic contrast to the Praetorius compositions—whereas the latter are almost ethereal in their sound, the kind of sound Renaissance composers strove to achieve for the cathedrals their works were designed to be performed in, the Pearsall composition is loud, bossy and emphatic. Someone should put this entire sequence on one album. Of course, someone should re-issue this album too. The Pomerium album, by the way, replicates this theme and variations pattern for a number of other works, mostly medieval or early Renaissance in origin, although most of these will be unfamiliar to most modern listeners.

Other medieval songs may be more familiar, however. O magnum mysterium, which began as a responsorial chant for the Christmas Mass, may not show up on everyone’s list of favorite carols, but is such a beautiful theme that it has been reworked by any number of composers over the centuries, ranging from the Spanish composer Tomás de Victoria in the late 16th centuries to the English composer William Byrd in 1607, through modern composers such as Francois Poulenc and, more recently, the American composer Morten Lauridsen (who is still with us). In fact, it’s been a hugely popular 20th century work for any number of composers, and we’ll discuss it further when we get to 20th century Christmas music. But it also fits the theme and variations concept wonderfully.

As do Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour le temps de noël, one of which is, indeed, O magnum mysterium. Poulenc, about whom we shall have more to say in a future post, set these in the minimalist style that characterized much of his work, but they clearly have medieval roots–and reflect Poulenc’s strong return to his Catholic faith. In fact, all four motets (O magnum mysterium, Quem vidistis pastores dicite, Videntes stellam, and Hodie Christus natus est) are medieval or early Renaissance in origin, and, like O magnum mysterium discussed above, have been stretched and reworked over the centuries. Poulenc’s stretching is some of the most interesting to have occurred to medieval themes, and are clearly of this century. But like Britten, with whom Poulenc was close friends, the fascination with the medieval became an important part of his musical life. This work shows up everywhere—not just on Christmas albums, but on all sorts of Poulenc choral albums as well. This is one you will have no trouble tracking down.

Then there’s perhaps the most lovely extended set of variations, those associated with Es ist ein Ros Entsprungen, which we probably know as Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention the two-disc set from the Thomanerchor Leipzig (founded in 1212!), called Weihnachten. Although I should also note that it’s not just medieval—there are more recent German carols and Christmas songs as well. And this one is actually still available through Amazon, and I assume other venues as well. Such a rare occurrence. Among other gems is an 11-minute arrangement of Michael Praetorius’s Es ist ein Ros Ersprungen. Actually, it’s not originally by Praetorius—we don’t know who composed it originally—it appears anonymously in a Hymnal in 1599 ten years before the first arrangement by Praetorius first appears, in 1609. Brahms later used the theme in an organ piece. But the one of interest to us here are the variations are by a 20th century German composer, Hugo Distler, from a piece he composed in 1933 called Weihnachtenshistorie (The Christmas Story), which I actually sang about fifteen years ago. A treat. Distler was a wonderful composer who killed hiself rather than be conscripted by the Wehrmacht, leaving us at the age of 34. Distler is one of those artists that I think about in terms of what theri early departure deprived us of. It’s pure selfishness on my part, I know, but still, I think about, in Distler’s case, the extraordinary music we shall never hear. The Dutch painter Carel Fabritius, who died at 32, and the Italian Renaissance painter Masaccio, who died at 27, evoke a similar sadness.

Weihnachtenshistorie is a series of solos and choral pieces retelling the Christmas Story. The entire piece is interspersed with a series of variations on Praetorius’ original arrangement, and it’s one of my absolute favorite Christmas pieces. The version I have was picked up in Germany, but I notice that Amazon seems to carry a number of their albums, and many are Christmas albums—and last time I checked, they have this one as well. It also shows up on one of the Chanticleer Christmas albums, the one with Dawn Upshaw, since there’s a lovely bit with a soprano solo and the chorus behind her. Actually, I prefer the Thomanerchor version—I think Chanticleer take the piece much too slowly.

See, this is what you can do when your collection gets out of hand—you justify it by saying you want to compare multiple version of the same work. Neat.