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Harps of Gold

Thursday, December 10, 2015, 7:30 PM
St. Patrick’s Catholic Church
380 Academy Hill Road, Newcastle

Sunday, December 13, 2015, 2:00 PM
Camden Opera House
29 Elm Street, Camden

Program Notes

A Festival of Carols, by American composer Frank Ferko, is based on five Christmas carol texts by 19th century American poets and hymn writers. Although it was the composer’s intention to use earlier American texts, he found that most Christmas carols sung in America prior to the 19th century were carols brought to this country by immigrants from their homelands in Europe. Thus, many of the early carols sung here did not originate in this country. The nineteenth century, however, did produce an abundance of new texts by American writers, and these were also set to music by American composers. Some of these carols have become quite well-known while others have remained relatively obscure. In A Festival of Carols all of the music is new whether or not the texts are familiar. Thus, the carols are not arrangements of previously existing tunes but entirely new melodies and harmonizations with the harp used both as an accompanying instrument and as an intrinsic thread within the larger musical fabric. A Festival of Carols was commissioned by the Dale Warland Singers. The music was composed in the summer and early fall of 2002 and first performed by the Dale Warland Singers at four performances in December 2002 of the annual Echoes of Christmas concerts.

San Francisco composer Kirke Mechem’s The Seven Joys of Christmas includes carols from seven different nationalities, all sung in English. The first movement, “This is the truth,” is a traditional English carol. The second movement, “Din don! merrily on high,” is a French carol. The third movement, “Joseph dearest, Joseph mine,” is German in origin. The fourth movement, “Patapan,” is a Burgundian tune. The fifth movement, “New Year Song,” is the most unusual to western ears because it is a traditional Japanese carol. The sixth movement, “Fum, fum fum,” is Spanish, and the last movement is in the form of a cleverly constructed quodlibet (a musical potpourri) that includes the following carols woven together: “God bless the master of this house,” “Angels we have heard on high,” “Joy to the world,” “Din don! merrily on high,” and “Patapan.” The result for the listener is akin to trying to watch a four-ringed circus!

The Seven Joys of Christmas was written for the Chamber Singers at the San Francisco College for Women in 1964. The composer later arranged it for four-part mixed choir. It is dedicated to the American composer Randall Thompson.

Michael Larkin’s Choral Fantasy on Creator of the Stars of Night was published in 2014 for mixed choir and piano. Our harp soloist, Virginia Flanagan, has arranged the piano accompaniment for harp. The text, “Creator of the Stars of Night” is a translation of a ninth century Latin hymn entitled “Conditor alme siderum.” The plainsong melody has been resurrected in recent times and is frequently included in Christmas services. Part way through the singing of the hymn, another well-known Christmas hymn is combined with it: “Of the Father’s love begotten.” This melody is a 13th century chant. The original Latin text, called “Divinum mysterium,” was written by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (348-ca.413). It is sung in English to a translation by John Mason Neale (1818-1866), written in 1854.

English composer Benjamin Britten wrote A Ceremony of Carols in 1942. It was originally scored for a choir of three-part treble voices and harp. Down East Singers performs the work in a well-known arrangement for four-part mixed choir by Julius Harrison. The procession and recession were written so that the choir could enter and leave the church while singing this music, which is a joyous unaccompanied plainsong for Christmas Day. The texts are from medieval and renaissance poetry. The harp interlude in the middle of the work contains musical material heard earlier in “Wolcum Yole.” The music becomes progressively more elaborate until it begins to resemble the third movement, “There is No Rose.” The interlude comes to a conclusion with a series of wider and wider glissandos, a specialty of harp writing.

A Ceremony of Carols was composed on board ship in the submarine-ridden Atlantic Ocean on a voyage from the United States back to Britten’s native England. The composer had been living in the US but decided in 1941 to return to his war-torn homeland. With his return to England came a resurgence of interest in English music and poetry. Now viewed as one of Britten’s most often performed works, A Ceremony of Carols produces striking sonorities, and his melodic inspirations are simple and vivid, with dance-like movements that show the influence of Henry Purcell, a composer Britten greatly admired. The work also displays the ritual element that was to infuse many of the composer’s later works.

Harps of Gold also includes one composition for solo voice and harp—Le Sommeil de l’Enfant Jésus (Sleep of the Infant Jesus) by Henri Büsser, a French composer of German ancestry who was born in 1872 in Toulouse. Büsser entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1889, where he studied organ with César Franck and composition with Ernest Guiraud. He then worked as personal secretary to the eminent French composer Charles Gounod who took a professional interest in him, helping him to obtain the position of organist at the Paris church of Saint-Cloud. In 1883 he won the prestigious Prix de Rome for his musical compositions. When he returned to France he became a conductor and protégé of composer Jules Massenet. In 1921 Büsser began teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, becoming a professor of composition in 1931. He was elected to the Académie française in 1938. He was married to the famous French soprano Yvonne Gall.

Büsser’s compositions include 15 operas, a ballet, orchestral music, chamber music, works for organ and songs. He died in Paris at the age of 101, just short of his 102nd birthday. He lived for many years at 71 Avenue Kléber. His Le Sommeil de l’Enfant Jésus (Sleep of the Infant Jesus) was originally composed for harp and tenor soloist, and then published separately as a composition for organ and harp.

Down East Singers

PO Box 996, Rockport, Maine 04856