I met Witold Lutoslawski in London in 1987 when he came to the Proms to conduct his Thrid Symphony. I asked him whether he had plans for another: he smiled and replied that he was so busy he couldn’t plan that far ahead. However, he did indeed start work on his Fourth (and last) the following year, and it premiered in 1992. He died the following year, and Radio 3 predictably gave a great deal of airplay to his music, including a work that I had never heard, his Twenty Christmas Carols (begun in 1946 and originally written for soprano and piano).
I was used to the avant-garde leanings of such pieces as Jeux Venitiens, which gave the conductor freedom to stop the player from continuing at any given point, but this was another world, and one that immediately captivated me. In the aftermath of a war that had ravaged his country and killed 6 million of his compatriots, Lutoslawski, at the behest of the Ministry Of Culture, began collecting texts of traditional carols, very much in the manner of Vaughan Williams before him, and organising them into a cycle. The charm of the pieces is heightened by magical orchestration, completed towards the end of the composer’s life. I immediately bought this Naxos CD when it first appeared, and it has become a part of the season for me ever since. The texts (which I have included in English and Polish) give the secondary characters Polish names and embellish the Nativity story in a childlike, timeless way: it would have been balm for Poland’s ravaged soul after the war and again during the upheaval of the 1980s and the victory of Solidarity (which Lutoslawski supported vigorously). The performance is by the Polish Radio Choir and Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antoni Wit, and the full CD or download is available here.
Lutoslawski, Twenty Polish Christmas Carols
Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) was actually born Michael Schultze, but took Pratorius (meaning ‘mayor’) as a Latinisation of his name. He was the youngest son of a Lutheran pastor, and used Protestant hymns to shape his music. Since he had the advantage of steady employment first as an organist and then as a court composer, he was able to indulge his knowledge of the ‘new’ composers such as Giovanni Gabrieli. He is best known for the secular dances, of which there are several versions, but the issue of the CD this comes from helped to re-establish the reputation of his church music too.
Paul McCreesh’s version of the Lutheran Divine Service, played by the Gabrieli Consort and Players, is a stunning recreation of how the celebrations on Christmas morning might have sounded to early 17th century ears. Most of the plaudits tend to focus on the sonic explosion of the recessional at the end, In Dulci Jubilo, which presages the coming of baroque music in its aural wipeout of voices, trumpets and drums, but the whole magical tapestry deserves your attention. Not all the pieces on here are by him, but it would have been unlikely that one composer would have written all the music for the Mass, even then.
Praetorius, Mass For Christmas Morning
I first encountered John Tavener’s music in 1992, when a hugely successful recording of The Protecting Veil seemed to fill the public’s need for religiously inspired, slow-moving pieces (at the time, Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony was also shifting units to an unprecedented degree). He began his composing career as something of an enfant terrible (but then so have many others): The Whale, written in 1966, premiered two years later to considerable acclaim for a work largely based on an encyclopedia entry that includes a totally improvised section and non-musical choral sounds. The Beatles issued a recording on Apple that even featured a spoken part by Ringo Starr. Tavener converted to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1977 and their teachings influenced his subsequent work.
His career was not without its speed-bumps, however: Thérèse (1979) disappointed Covent Garden opera-goers and the Akhmatova Requiem was a failure at its first performance at the Edinburgh Festival in 1981 and caused walkouts during its debut at the Proms. Nevertheless, The Lamb (1982) has outlasted such over-ambitious works, and Song For Athene (1993) gained worldwide exposure when performed at Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997. He suffered poor health for many years, including a stroke and two heart attacks, and his death last month at the age of 69 followed years of frailty. One of the products of his later years, Ex Maria Virgine (2005) came at a time when he was exploring other religions in addition to Christianity, as he felt that the Orthodox tonal system restricted him. It is a series of settings of what have become part of the traditional canon of Christmas carols, but to music that enlivens and refreshes the sentiments: for example, the stern warning Remember O Thou Man takes on a more comforting aspect in Tavener’s hands. The work was composed in celebration of the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles, and the feeling one gets while listening to it is that engendered by the body of Tavener’s work: as if it has been around and part of our lives for all time. Buy or download the excellently-packaged CD from Naxos.
Tavener, Ex Maria Virgine
Today’s share is possibly my favourite piece of Christmas music by one of my favourite composers. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) had already written two ballets, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, but it is arguably the Nutcracker, premiered in St. Petersburg on Sunday 18 December 1892, that is his best-know. This is due to the instant success of the suite of musical numbers taken from it, because the ballet itself didn’t go down that well at first: I suggest this is down to its structural weakness, since the first act tells a dramatic and convincing story but the second is merely a series of dances that don’t advance the action. However, those numbers are among the most famous in the classical canon, explaining why the work has met with as much success in the concert hall as it has in the theatre. You can’t say that the first-night audience didn’t get value for money: the Nutcracker went out on the same bill as Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta.
It tells the story of a young girl, Clara, who is given a nutcracker in the shape of a man by a local toymaker. Her brother breaks it on purpose, and the heartbroken girl comes down to see it again at midnight while all the family are asleep. It comes to life and prompts a battle between gingerbread soldiers and mice: the biscuits win, and Clara ‘s nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince. He takes her to the Land Of Sweets and the two are crowned rulers. She wakes at the foot of the tree, with an ambivalent ending leaving her wondering whether it was all a dream or not.
At one time, this was the only Christmas music I had and during the festive season, I played it repeatedly, something I hope you will do too. The performance of the complete ballet is by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati: I would urge you to buy it, but the Philips Duo CD it comes from has been deleted.
Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker
I was intending to break my long silence by posting a cheery item for St. Andrew’s Day yesterday, but the tragedy in Glasgow turned my words to ice. Today, as we begin to think about the festive season (albeit tempered with tears), I’d like to start by sharing a piece called A Ceremony Of Carols that Benjamin Britten composed at sea during March 1942, which is a kind of chamber piece for the church: it begins and ends with a procession and recession. However, as always with Britten, nothing in the composition process was totally straightforward: it is scored for treble (originally women’s) voices and harp, and instead of giving us a potpourri of favourites in the tradition of Fantasia On Christmas Carols, he deliberately sets medieval texts with the intention of celebrating life before the fall of man (witness the setting of Adam Lay I-Bounden). This is a Radio 3 staple of the season, and one that repays repeated listening. Track listing:
- Procession (accompanied)
- Wolcum Yole! (anon, 14th century)
- There Is No Rose (anon, 14th century)
- That Yonge Child (anon, 14th century)
- Balulalow (James, John and Robert Wedderburn, 16th century)
- As Dew In Aprille (anon, c. 1400)
- This Little Babe (Robert Southwell, 16th century)
- Interlude: andante pastorale (harp solo)
- In Freezing Winter Night (Robert Southwell)
- Spring Carol (William Cornish, 15th/16th century)
- Adam Lay I-Bounden (anon, 15th century)
- Recession (unaccompanied)
Britten, A Ceremony Of Carols
New London Children’s Choir, cond. Ronald Corp. Buy or download the whole CD from Naxos.
…well, definitely not punk. I still had my Deep Purple records, and didn’t discover Peel until early the following year. This, though, remains one of my top 10 TV shows ever:
The Street at Christmas: Hilda Ogden as Oliver Hardy and Gail putting on the Jam instead of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Priceless. ALBERT TATLOCK!!!
Go buy something! I fancy the JVC clunky old VCR, which was probably used to record these. I doubt if anybody would buy a perfume called Tramp these days (or be persuaded by Twiggy urging us to ‘spread the word’ about her bloody shampoo).