Friday, December 9, 2011

Informed Listening for Grownups!

A Guide to Seattle Pro Musica’s Celtic Christmas
December, 2011

This year, Seattle Pro Musica wanted to provide additional materials to expand your concert experience. It’s our hope that all of our concertgoers find something wonderful to enjoy about our performances, whether they’re professional musicians, musical hobbyists, or entirely new to choral music!  This listening guide is meant as a supplement to program notes, to offer special  opportunities to hear specific things during the performance.

We start our program, as is our tradition, with the women of Schola. This year’s processional, Jerusalem, is a traditional arrangement popularized by the Irish group Anúna. You can hear an excerpt of our performance here – this is from our performance on KING FM. Several embellishments – musical flourishes – can be heard very clearly in the melody line; these turns have a big place in Celtic music. You’ll hear similar embellishments in The Gallant Weaver and the soprano solo of Christus Vincit.

Following the processional, our small mixed ensemble will sing Illuminare Jerusalem. This piece starts with a tri-tone, a musical interval of three whole steps, which is historically known as diabolus in musica ("the Devil in music").  (Here's an example.)  This song is based on an ancient Scots text, which was not translated – there are unusual pronunciations of words that we use today (such as “shoot” for “shout”, “richtous” for “righteous”, “dirkness” for “darkness”, etc.), as well as words which are no longer in use., and both ancient Scots and a proper Latin pronunciation of ‘Jerusalem’. 

Tàladh Chrìosda is a Scottish Gaelic tune traditionally sung in the Hebrides at Midnight Mass. The tune is a lovely, simple one, and is used as a basis for the piece immediately following, Christ-Child’s Lullaby.  Our first soloist, Lauren Oglesby, plays the part of Mary, singing a lulling song to her child, framed by other women's voices in echo and response. As the rhythmic activity increases, the full chorus enters, growing in speed and volume into a celebratory "Alleluia!"  The middle section of the piece features a gentle tapping rhythm from some of the members of the chorus accompanying the alto, with the chorus offering occasional alleluias as response; eventually, the full chorus returns in celebration. Solo women's voices, additional incarnations of the mother Mary, sing their reactions of joy and awe – and as the chorus fades out, Lauren returns with her original lullaby, expressing doubt of her worthiness to tend to the Christ-child – an enormous responsibility.

Christus Vincit uses a very simple motif as its basis, and expands and embellishes that motif in an 8-part texture which grows to a very rich and complex climax. Some of the rhythmic embellishments are taken from Scottish folk music, such as the traditional “Scotch snap” short-long rhythm – which is especially audible when the men sing ‘imperat’ alone, about halfway through the piece.

Magnificat for Double Choir, the final piece of our first half, is possibly the least Celtic-sounding on our program, but is yet a wonderful continuation of the Celtic theme; C.V. Stanford is one of the most influential Irish composers of our time. The piece is his only setting of the Magnificat for a capella chorus, and is wonderfully fun to sing.  Listen to this short excerpt from our appearance on KING FM.

On our second half, we begin with the men – the recognizable and beautiful Suo Gan, followed by Ble rwyt t’in mynd.  Ble rwyt is full of ideal examples of the Lombard rhythm, or ‘Scotch snap’, as we heard earlier in Christus Vincit.  The simplest – and broadest – definition is “a very short note followed by a long note played in sequence”; when exaggerated rhythmically, this gives a 'snap' sound. The clearest examples are found in fiddle and pipe tunes, but our men do a very fine job!  

The ladies then take a turn with a transcription of Mouth Music – a piece in the "port-a-beul" style.  Many of the words are nonsense, and some of the phrases are nonsensical; but the words aren’t particularly important, as they were written to imitate the rhythm of specific dance tunes or styles.  Traditionally, this sort of music would be sung when the playing of a fiddle or the bagpipes was undesirable, or the instruments were unavailable.  

The Cornish Christmas Carol is a lovely, warm piece, full of unusual harmonizations that somehow work. The choir enjoyed sightreading this one, partially due to the amusing-but-informative editor’s notes in the music.  At times, we are directed to sing while “touched with awe” – and there a moment where we are instructed to sound “massive but vigorous”.  Perhaps you’ll hear both of those notes in our interpretation! You’ll definitely hear the short quote from the popular carol “The First Noel”, sung by the highest sopranos – listen for this lovely moment.

We hope these bits of information help you to enjoy our concert more deeply – and we look forward to your feedback!  And, as always, thank you for your support of Seattle Pro Musica!