Music: Christmas 2003

Last Christmas, I recommended a number of seasonal works beyond Handel’s Messiah (which is an Easter oratorio, anyway). They included pieces by Frank Martin, Gabriel Pierne, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Pablo Casals, and, of course, Bach. Now, I shall go further afield in search of musical myrrh.

Arthur Honegger (1892-1955) was a Swiss composer, thought by many to be French, who conceived of a grand oratorio to be called Jeu de la Passion. He did not live long enough to complete it. However, while suffering from a painful, and fatal, heart disease, he did finish the first part, Cantate de Noel (A Christmas Cantata). This moving work has to be considered by anyone wondering what 20th-century composers made of the Good News.

Honegger used texts from the De Profundis, the Gloria, the Laudate Dominum, and traditional carols. The work begins with an organ solo enveloped in gloom. The uneasy organ harmonies lead to a bleak orchestral and then choral landscape. After an impassioned shriek of “exaudi” from the adult choir, a children’s choir seems to arrive from another (musical) world. Its gentle ministrations of joyful revelation are interrupted by another cry of “exaudi,” as if the adults are not listening. The children repeat themselves and win over the grownups. Honegger moves us from the tortured depths into a marvelous, heady lightness of spirit. The children’s choir then melodically intertwines itself with the imploring soloists to exclaim and celebrate the Good News. All the tension is released in rapt, glorious joy. Honegger then creates a brilliant contrapuntal mélange of traditional Christmas tunes and his own material. It is brought to a climax in the exhilarating Laudate.

This work is all the more moving for its dark prelude and the highly effective contrast Honegger creates with the seraphic singing of the children. His Christmas cantata is a wonderful evocation of spiritual anguish and relief. It is a mystery as to how such a composition could have ever been out of the catalog. My recordings of it, on record by Ernest Ansermet and on CD by Michel Corboz, have been deleted. Luckily, EMI has restored its performance by the great French conductor, Jean Martinon, and the ORTF Chorus and Orchestra. (If you cannot find the EMI release, it is also available from the Musical Heritage Society.)

Though he had a shorter life than Honegger, Romanian composer Paul Constantinescu (1909-1963), appears to have come closer to fulfilling his vision of a work comparable to Jeu de la Passion. He completed an Easter oratorio, Passion and Resurrection (1946), and Nativity, A Byzantine Christmas Oratorio (1947). The Olympia label features a marvelous 1977 performance of The Nativity by soloists and the Bucharest “George Enescu” Choir and Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Mircea Basarab. (Though this recording does not seem to be listed in the current Olympia catalog, it is available on several music Web sites, including Amazon and Berkshire Record Outlet.)

The Nativity sounds as if Puccini had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. It combines the exotic flavor of its Byzantine hymns with Puccini’s impassioned lyricism in a choral and orchestral outpouring of refined tenderness and ecstatic joy. Its appeal is immediate. Its hour-and-a-quarter length is spread across three parts: the Annunciation, the Nativity, and the Magi. This is more Western music with an Eastern flavor than it is the other way around. Apparently, Constantinescu never forgot his lessons in Vienna with Josef Marx and Franz Schmidt. However, his Christmas oratorio has more of an Italian operatic than a Viennese sound. Regardless, this stirring work is gorgeous, gloriously melodic, and brilliantly orchestrated. If it is of similar caliber, it will be a cultural crime if someone does not record Constantinescu’s Passion and Resurrection.

Gabriel Piernê’s Les Enfants a Bethléem may be the most charming depiction of children at the manger, but Frank Bridge’s The Christmas Rose is not far behind. A British composer best known as Benjamin Britten’s teacher (through Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge), Bridge (1879¬1941) put his considerable musical abilities to the service of a children’s nativity play by Margaret Kemp-Welch and Constance Cotterell. It tells the story of the daughter and son of one of the shepherds who journey to Bethlehem after hearing the angels. The father tells the children to stay behind because the journey at night is dangerous and “these things are beyond your understanding.”

The daughter laments that “the King of Glory, desired of all the ages, has come down to man. And I may not behold Him.” The children make the journey on their own. Lost and tired, they hear the angels again and finally arrive at the stable. Miriam, the daughter, is dismayed to discover that they are the only ones without gifts for the Christ Child and begins to weep. Roses spring up where her tears fall, and they become the children’s presents.

Bridge was at the height of his powers when he worked on The Christmas Rose from its first sketches in 1919 until its completion in 1929. There are rich orchestral echoes from his magnificent tone poem, Enter Spring, but this work reveals a side of Bridge with which I was not familiar: his ability to set a text like this in such a dramatically lyrical fashion. This is not a cute, folk work. It takes its children and their experiences very seriously—they are more like little adults in the British tradition—in the sense that this revelation is as vital to them as it is to everyone. The Christmas Rose receives a very convincing performance in the Pearl label’s 1983 recording of various soloists and the Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra and Chorus, under Howard Williams. No texts are provided but the words are crystal clear.

Unless you are Swedish, you probably have not heard of Hilding Rosenberg’s Holy Night. Composed in 1936, this half-hour oratorio became a Christmas fixture on the radio in Sweden for many years. I can hear why. It is sweet, leisurely, and somewhat nostalgic in its settings of biblical texts and poems by Hjalmar Gullberg for reciter, soloists, mixed choir, and orchestra. Joseph’s song is a treasure, as is Mary’s lullaby. The Wise Men’s march is depicted just as a child would wish it to sound. This is an intimate, gentle depiction of the Holy Night. My recording of it hails from 1949, but there is an up-to-date version available on Marco Polo.

This month marks the end of the 200th anniversary year of Hector Berlioz’s birth in 1803. Although I wrote of his L’Enfance du Christ at length some years ago in CRISIS, I would be terribly remiss if I did not recommend it to you again as one of the truly great Christmas oratorios. It is in the same league as the Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. I am very partial to Colin Davis’s second recording of this masterpiece on the Phillips label, with the great Dame Janet Baker as Mary. However, there is a budget version on Naxos, with French forces led by Jean Claude Casadesus, that might be worth a try.

For a Spanish perspective on Christmas, I recommend Retablo de Navidad, by Joaquin Rodrigo (1901-1999), of Concierto de Aranjuez fame. Written in 1952, Retablo consists of two groups of songs, the Tres villancios, for soprano and orchestra, and the Cinco Canciones de Navidad, for soprano, bass, mixed chorus, and orchestra. These are tender, exquisite, folk-like pieces that enchant with their lyrical simplicity and ardor. In their delightful character, the livelier numbers remind me of the brilliant Songs of the Auvergne by Joseph Marie Canteloube. Soloists and the Chorus and Orchestra of the Comunidad de Madrid perform with real conviction. iFeliz Navidad!


Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

Join the conversation in our Telegram Chat! You can also find us on Facebook, MeWe, Twitter, and Gab.