The Feast of St. Stephen or Boxing Day

>> Sunday, December 26, 2010

Boxing Day is a bank or public holiday that occurs on 26 December, or 27 December, and is observed in Australia, Austria, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and in some Commonwealth nations that have a mainly Christian population. In South Africa, the public holiday 26 December is called Day of Goodwill, in Ireland St Stephen's Day or Lá an Dreoilín, and in continental European countries the "Second Christmas Day."

Though not an official holiday in the United States, some Americans use the term "Boxing Day," particularly those who live near the Canada – United States border. In Canada, Boxing Day is listed in the Canada Labour Code as an optional holiday. Only the province of Ontario has made it a statutory holiday where all workers receive time off with pay.

The exact etymology of the term "boxing" is unclear and there are several competing theories, none definitive. The tradition has long included giving money and other gifts to the needy and those in service positions. The European tradition dates to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. Some claim it dates to the late Roman/early Christian era when metal boxes placed outside churches collected special offerings tied to the Feast of Saint Stephen.

A clue to Boxing Day's origins appears in the Christmas Carol, "Good King Wenceslas." Wenceslas, who was Duke of Bohemia in the early 10th century, was surveying his land on St. Stephen's Day — Dec. 26 — when he saw a poor man gathering wood in the middle of a snowstorm. Moved, the King gathered up surplus food and wine and carried them through the blizzard to the peasant's door. The alms-giving tradition has always been closely associated with the Christmas season, but King Wenceslas' good deed came the day after Christmas, when the English poor received most of their charity.

In the United Kingdom, it is a custom for tradesmen to collect "Christmas boxes" of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This is mentioned in Samuel Pepys' diary entry for 19th December 1663; and widely in Victorian literature. Another possibility is that the name derives from an old English tradition: in exchange for ensuring that wealthy landowners' Christmases ran smoothly, servants were allowed to take the 26th off to visit their families. The employers gave each servant a box containing gifts and bonuses (and sometimes leftover food). In addition, around the 1800s, churches opened their alms boxes (boxes where people place monetary donations) and distributed the contents to the poor. --Wikipedia


My Favorite Carols: Stille Nacht, Heilege Nacht

>> Friday, December 24, 2010

Of course this is the beloved carol, "Silent Night", sung in the original German. I've always preferred it sung in its original language. There's just something magical about it that the English translation fails to achieve. Frohe Weinachten!


My Favorite Carols: Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant

>> Wednesday, December 22, 2010

This is another delightful little French carol that I became familiar with as a child. I don't recall ever singing it, but I always loved it. This particular performance is by the Vienna Boys Choir.

He is born the divine child,
Play oboe, resonate musette.
He is born the divine child,
Let's all sing his accession.
For more than four thousand years
We've promised by the prophets,
For more than four thousand years
We've been waiting for this happy time.
A stable is his lodging,
A bit of hay is his little bed.


My Favorite Carols: Bring a Torch Jeanette Isabella

>> Monday, December 20, 2010

This charming little French carol isn't one that I've actually ever sung, but is one that became a favorite because it was featured on one of our Robert Shaw Christmas albums. Its delightful, playful tune suggests the "skipping" and playing of a child in union with the text.

Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle (French: Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle) is a Christmas carol which originated from the Provence region of France in the 16th century. The song is usually notated in 3/8 time.

The carol was first published in 1553 in France, and was subsequently translated into English in the 18th century. The song was originally not a song to be sung at Christmas, but rather dance music for French nobility.

In the carol, visitors to the stable have to keep their voices down so the newborn can enjoy his dreams. To this day in the Provence region, children dress up as shepherds and milkmaids, carrying torches and candles to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, while singing the carol. The painter Georges de La Tour painted a nativity scene based on the carol.


The Fourth Sunday of Advent: Vivaldi: Gloria

>> Sunday, December 19, 2010

And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying...


My Favorite Carols: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

>> Saturday, December 18, 2010

I first heard this elegant setting of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, back in the 1990s when I bought a recording of the Cambridge Choir conducted by John Rutter and it was one of the pieces on that recording. It instantly became one of my favorites. This particular setting of an 18th century poem by an anonymous New Englander was composed by a woman, Elizabeth Poston, who died in 1987. Most of you are probably not familiar with this one, but I assure you, it's worth a listen, especially if you're fond of the more "plainsong" type carols.

The first known publication of "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" was in 1784 in Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs: for the use of Religious Assemblies and Private Christians by Joshua Smith, a lay Baptist minister from New Hampshire. It may have been based on an earlier anonymous American poem first printed in London's Spiritual Magazine in August of 1761.

The song may be an allusion to both the apple tree in Songs 2:3 which has been interpreted as a metaphor representing Christ, and to Jesus' description of his life as a tree of life in Luke 13:18-19 and elsewhere in the New Testament including Revelation 22:1-2. Apple trees were commonly grown in early New England and there was an old English tradition of wassailing or wishing health to apple trees on Christmas eve. The song is now performed by choirs around the world, especially during the Christmas season as a Christmas carol
. --Wikipedia


My Favorite Carols: How Great Our Joy

>> Friday, December 17, 2010

How Great Our Joy (The Echo Carol) is another one of the few Christmas Carols that I remember from my childhood church experience. The First Baptist Church of Stillwater has a large sanctuary with a choir loft in the front and a balcony in the back. We had a very advanced music program in our church and our minister of music would put on a lavishly beautiful music program at Christmas, which always included this carol. I remember sitting with the children's choir, wearing our little white cherub drapes with the red collars, listening to the adult choir sing, and wishing that I could sing with them instead of the children!

The Echo Carol is a traditional German antiphonal response, dating back to the 17th century.


My Favorite Carols: Angels We Have Heard on High

>> Monday, December 13, 2010

Angels We Have Heard on High has been one of my favorite carols since I was a small child and sang it in church during the Christmas season. I was especially proud of myself when at the age of eight, I could read and sing the alto line and everyone standing around me in the congregation who heard me sing it, smiled.

"Angels We Have Heard on High" is a Christmas carol. The song commemorates the story of the birth of Jesus Christ found in the Gospel of Luke, in which shepherds outside Bethlehem encounter a multitude of angels singing and praising the newborn child.

The words of the song are based on a traditional French carol known as Les Anges dans nos campagnes (literally, "Angels in our countryside") composed by an unknown author in Languedoc, France. That song has received many adjustments or alignments including its most common English version that was translated in 1862 by James Chadwick, the Roman Catholic bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, north east England. The carol quickly became popular in the West Country, where it was described as 'Cornish' by R.R. Chope, and featured in Pickard-Cambridge's Collection of Dorset Carols.

There is also a Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig) translation of the carol which is known as Ainglean chuala sinn gu h-ard (literally, "Angels We Have Heard on High"). This was translated into Gaelic by Iain MacMilan from James Chadwick's English translation.


The Third Sunday of Advent: O Magnum Mysterium

>> Sunday, December 12, 2010

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.


My Favorite Carols: In the Bleak Midwinter

>> Saturday, December 11, 2010

I first became familiar with this lovely British carol when I sang it in a Christmas concert with the Oklahoma Baptist University Chorale. I've always adored it since.

In the Bleak Midwinter is a Christmas carol based on a poem by the English poet Christina Rossetti written before 1872 in response to a request from the magazine Scribner's Monthly for a Christmas poem. It was published posthumously in Rossetti's Poetic Works in 1904 and became a Christmas carol after it appeared in The English Hymnal in 1906 with a setting by Holst. In 2008 Harold Darke's setting was named the best Christmas carol in a poll of some of the world's leading choirmasters and choral experts. --Wikipedia


My Favorite Carols: Sweet Little Jesus Boy

>> Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Okay, so Sweet Little Jesus Boy isn't exactly a carol; it's a spiritual. But it's still one of my very favorites, especially when sung by Mahalia Jackson. This, incidentally, was one of my mother's very favorites, as well, so I'm dedicating this one in her memory.

Sweet Little Jesus Boy is a Christmas song composed by Robert MacGimsey and published in 1934. Its style is similar to African-American spirituals. It has been recorded by many choirs and solo artists. --Wikipedia


My Favorite Carols: Carol of the Bells

>> Monday, December 6, 2010

Leave it to the Russians to create one of the most beautiful and beloved of all "modern" carols. I first heard this particular carol on our Robert Shaw recordings as a child, and I couldn't wait until I was old enough to sing in a choir that performed it. I was thrilled when I started singing in my high school Concert Choir and Carol of the Bells was another one of the choir's Christmas Concert mainstays. To this day I never tire of hearing it, or singing it.

Carol of the Bells (also known as the "Ukrainian Bell Carol") is a choral miniature work originally composed by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych. Throughout the composition, Leontovych used a four note motif as an ostinato which was taken from an ancient pagan Ukrainian New Year's chant known in Ukrainian as "Shchedryk" [the Generous One]. The composer created the piece as an assignment for a harmony course he was taking by correspondence in the use of an ostinato. The original work was intended to be sung a cappella by mixed choir. Two other variants of the composition; one for woman's choir and another for children's choir with piano accompaniment were also created by the composer.

The Carol of the Bells was premiered in December 1916 by a choral group made up of students at Kiev University. It was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its concert tour of Europe and the Americas, where it premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921 at Carnegie Hall. It was later adapted into an English language version by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s, and to this day is performed and sung worldwide during the Christmas season. An alternate English version ("Ring, Christmas Bells") featuring more Nativity-based lyrics, written by Minna Louise Hohman in 1947, is also widely performed.


Second Sunday of Advent: Ave Verum Corpus

>> Sunday, December 5, 2010

This second Sunday of Advent happens to coincide with the anniversary of Mozart's death, so I thought it appropriate to feature his Ave Verum Corpus, composed in June of 1791, just a little less than six months before his death in the early hours of 5 December 1791 at the age of 35.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Ave verum corpus in D major (K. 618) was written for Anton Stoll (a friend of his and Joseph Haydn's) who was musical co-ordinator in the parish of Baden bei Wien, near Vienna. This setting of the Ave verum corpus text was composed to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi and the autograph is dated 17 June 1791. It is only forty-six bars long and is scored for SATB choir, stringed instruments, and organ. Mozart's manuscript itself contains minimal directions, with only a single sotto voce at the beginning. --Wikipedia

Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered, was sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death.
Oh dear Jesus, Oh merciful Jesus, Oh Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.


My Favorite Carols: Away in a Manger (British tune)

>> Saturday, December 4, 2010

Away in a Manger is one of the carols that I learned in church. However, the tune that I've featured here isn't the tune that I learned (Mueller) but the British tune, which I much prefer.

The song was first published with two verses in an Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School collection, Little Children's Book for Schools and Families (1885), edited by James R. Murray (1841-1905), where it simply bore the title "Away in a Manger" and was set to a tune called "St. Kilda," credited to J.E. Clark.

For many years the text was credited to the German reformer Martin Luther. Research has shown, however, that this is nothing more than a fable. In the book Dainty Songs for Little Lads and Lasses (1887) it bears the title "Luther's Cradle Hymn" and the note, "Composed by Martin Luther for his children, and still sung by German mothers to their little ones." A possible reason for the spurious attribution to Luther is that the 400th anniversary of his birth was in 1883. The words were either based on a poem written for this anniversary or were credited to Luther as a clever marketing gimmick. This song has never been found in Luther's works. The first half of the melody is identical to the beginning of the second theme of Waltz #4, transposed down a fourth, in G'schichten aus dem Wienerwald, Op. 325 by Johann Strauss Jr., composed 19 years earlier.

The third stanza, "Be near me, Lord Jesus" was first printed in Gabriel's Vineyard Songs (1892), where it appeared with a tune by Charles H. Gabriel (simply marked "C"), thus these words are probably by Gabriel. Gabriel credited the entire text to Luther and gave it the title "Cradle Song." This verse is sometimes attributed to Dr. John McFarland, but since the popular story dates his contribution to 1904 (postdating the 1892 printing by 12 years), his contribution is highly questionable.

Tom Jennings, director of worship and arts, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, consider this carol has odd or misleading lyrics, such as 'no crying he makes'. This lyric misses a key aspect of the Incarnation, Jesus entered into our suffering.

Murray's tune, which is the tune most commonly printed in the U.S., is typically given the name "Mueller."

The tune "Cradle Song" was written by William J. Kirkpatrick for the musical Around the World with Christmas (1895). Kirkpatrick, like others before him, attributed the words to Luther.
It is also sung to an adaptation of the melody originally composed in 1837 by Jonathan E. Spilman to Flow gently, sweet Afton.

Thus, there are two different melodies for "Away In A Manger". Each setting has a harmony version for S, A, T, B.

Also, the two tunes actually fit together quite well. An arrangement by Christopher Erskine combining both settings (harmony), first heard in 1996 in Canberra at the annual pair of joint Carol Services in Manuka. Performed by the choirs of St Paul's church (Anglican) and St Christopher's Cathedral (Roman Catholic) both of Manuka, one of the capitals older pre-WWII suburbs. In this version the Kirkpatrick setting is sung by one choir, and the Murray setting by the other choir, alternating through the first two verses. Both settings are sung together for the third verse.


My Favorite Carols: The Coventry Carol

>> Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Coventry Carol is another one that became familiar to me by listening to it every year on our Robert Shaw Chorale recordings. This one always haunted me not only because of the darker modal tune (not in a minor key because the key tonal system had not yet been invented), but also because of the lyrics. It depicts a grieving mother singing a lullaby as she rocks her dead child in her arms.

The Coventry Carol is a Christmas carol dating from the 16th Century. The carol was performed in Coventry as part of a mystery play called The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors. The play depicts the Christmas story from chapter two in the Gospel of Matthew. The carol refers to the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod orders all male infants under the age of two in Bethlehem to be killed. The lyrics of this haunting carol represent a mother's lament for her doomed child. It is the only carol that has survived from this play.

It is notable as a well-known example of a Picardy third. The author is unknown. The oldest known text was written down by Robert Croo in 1534, and the oldest known printing of the melody dates from 1591. The carol is traditionally sung a cappella.


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