It came a floweret bright, amid the snows of winter
I expect humankind has observed the Winter Solstice ever since our early ancestors wandered out of Africa and populated the northern hemisphere. The gradual weakening of the sunlight, the shortening of the days and lengthening of the nights, the cold and ice and storms, the possibility of starvation, -- not only did it cause physical privation and hardship, it must have been metaphysically terrifying. Only the knowledge that, after reaching its lowest point, the sun would return to full strength, bringing warmth and health, could sustain people through the hard times—then, and now. We crave light, warmth, comfort, good food and drink, the company of friends and family, at this dark time of year. We long for a narrative that makes sense of this annual descent into night. And we crave celebration, defying the shadows and gloom.
Chicago Chorale’s Christmas program takes us on this journey, from darkness back to light and into the new year. Our first piece is also our most ancient-- a modern setting of the Gregorian chant, Veni Emanuel. “Come, ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile,” sets the scene, and prepares us for the miracle that follows, the fragile spark of life amid the desolation of winter.
A mysterious but constant image in the Christian version of this new life is she who bears it: Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary inspires composers to their best and most creative efforts, and her inscrutable figure dominates much of the iconography associated with the season. Chorale’s program features several pieces, by Franz Biebl, Michael Praetorius, Anton Bruckner, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Herbert Howells, and Gustav Holst, which celebrate Mary’s role in the Christmas narrative.
Perhaps the most compelling image in the Marian tradition is the picture of Jesus, born in darkness, amidst poverty and deprivation, loved and protected by his mother. So unlikely, so fragile, so needful. Javier Busto’s O magnum mysterium perfectly describes the wondrous scene—“O great mystery, that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger.” Chorale will also sing the beloved American carol O Little Town of Bethlehem, Bob Chilcott’s Bethlehem Star, the Schemelli/Bach chorale, O Jesu so meek, and David Wilcocks’ arrangement of the Polish carol, Infant holy, infant lowly, before asking the audience to join us in singing Silent Night.
Some of our music sets philosophical texts, leading us to understand how we should feel about this miracle of light in the darkness. Nils Lindberg’s version of the traditional Swedish song, Den signade dag, tells us that “this blessed day, which is now upon us, comes to us from Heaven; he gives us his blessing, he lets us behold him.” Javier Centeno’s setting of Lux fulgebit assures us that “a light shall shine upon us this day: for the Lord is born to us.” Johannes Brahms’ setting of Est ist das Heil uns kommen her really nails it all in place: “Salvation has come to us from grace and sheer kindness. Works never help, they cannot protect us.”
And there are songs of celebration: Francis Poulenc’s exuberant version of Hodie Christus natus est, and Charles Wood’s arrangement of Ding Dong Merrily on High. We will invite the audience to join us in the tongue-twisting, brain-teasing Twelve Days of Christmas, before closing with Arthur Warrell’s classic arrangement of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
We celebrate at this time of year because we need to. And there is no better way to celebrate, than by joining Chicago Chorale at Ravinia, December 15.