December: a Meditation on Advent

For the 2015 installment of the annual Christmas concerts produced by Pacific Lutheran University I was asked to write a short piece for orchestra that would fit in with the premiere of a choral-orchestral work by JAC Redford about Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” along with the usual mix of seasonal pieces both choral and audience participation.

When I looked at the existing mix of repertoire, I decided that what was missing was an homage to the really early traditional Advent- Christmas songs of the Lutheran church, and thus decided to create a piece that arranged a number of those 16th-17th century chorales and hymns into a narrative, moving us from Advent into Christmas. Since it was to be positioned as the opening of the second half of the concert right after intermission, this seemed also like a good way to review the ritual progress of the evening before continuing on to the end.

Fortunately the Lutheran Book of Worship very clearly organizes music according to season and so I was able to go through and pick those early pieces that I thought were best suited to my purpose and sequence them into a dramatic narrative moving from darkness and waiting into brilliance and light.

This kind of “gebrauchsmusik” (music for use) has always pleased me, as a way for a composer to provide really useful music for important ritual or community events. I tend to use these opportunities to indulge in pure craft- the craft of designing a musical/theatrical experience, of soaking myself in tradition, and indulging in the pure joy of old-fashioned counterpoint. So many composers have enjoyed constructing clever games for themselves and their performers and listeners, and I am no exception. Thus this piece contains not just traditional tunes but also age-old composer games such as counterpoint and quodlibet. More on that in a moment.

The piece opens with fragments of O Come O Come Emmanuel in my signature key of e minor. Why e minor? I don’t know except that maybe because I discovered the dark open ringing sound of the guitar’s e minor chord when I was young and impressionable, I’ve always thought of it as primal. (I’ve used it in numerous pieces including the opening of my meditation on Kepler’s solar system in the orchestra piece Harmonices Mundi as the sound of the background microwave radiation…) The fragments of Emmanuel coalesce and we hear the whole tune before it gives way to another minor tune greatly loved by Bach: Savior of the Nations Come, introduced by the organ and answered by the brass section- another call for divine intervention in a period of dark waiting.

Like a hopeful sign, Comfort Comfort Now My People enters in the woodwinds and harp, with its dance-like rhythms alternating 6/8 and 3/4 time influenced by the 16th century French tradition of musique mesuree a l’antique (measured music in ancient style). But Advent is not yet over and a brass fanfare returns us to darkness and a final statement of O Come Emmanuel.

Then- like a miracle, the harp plays a surprising upward C Major arpeggio and we are into the Christmas season with a quiet, intimate rendition of Lo How a Rose is Growing performed by a solo string quartet under the haze of a high harmonic. Another miracle chord on the harp and the tune is joined by the full string section, but with another chorale tune, heard as though from another dimension on the solo trumpet: the first statement of THE Lutheran Christmas chorale From Heaven Above to Earth I Come. (Which I used as the basis for my entire cantata for these Christmas Concerts 30 years ago: Officium Pastorum: The Office of the Shepherds.(1985)

Another miracle chord from the harp brings a full statement of From Heaven Above, now triumphantly in the full brass, with the upper woodwinds and strings counterpointing it in good “quodlibet” style (several well-known tunes performed simultaneously as counterpoint) with Rejoice Rejoice Believers. Finally the low brass and organ add a third simultaneous tune with the augmented (and now E major!) version of O Come Emmanuel. The meditation ends in a blaze of glory with bells ringing. 

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