We had our first practice of the season last night, and received our music packets. We're doing a variety of pieces for our spring concert which should be a lot of fun. The largest portion of the concert will be Franz Joseph Hayden's 1775 mass Missa Brevis Sancti Joannais de Deo. It was written for the order of the Brothers of Mercy, whose patron saint was Saint John of God- hence the name ("missa brevis" means "brief mass"). It's about seventeen minutes long and is frequently referred to as "Kleine Orgelmesse" or, "Little Organ Mass" due to the organ solo in the middle of the mass. Several versions of the mass can be found online; this is one of them.
In a complete change of pace, we're also doing Keith Hampton's Praise His Holy Name!:
When the wind works against us in the dark, And pelts with snow The lowest chamber window on the east, And whispers with a sort of stifled bark, The beast, 'Come out! Come out!'- It costs no inward struggle not to go, Ah, no! I count our strength, Two and a child, Those of us not asleep subdued to mark How the cold creeps as the fire dies at length,- How drifts are piled, Dooryard and road ungraded, Till even the comforting barn grows far away And my heart owns a doubt Whether 'tis in us to arise with day And save ourselves unaided. -Robert Frost
Well, we had quite the winter storm the day before yesterday: snow, freezing rain, and incredibly high winds. In the Valley they had mostly just had snow, so my sister's kids enjoyed a fun day free from school.
Here on the coast it was quite a different story- insanely high winds and driving freezing rain. I got off work early because the power went out, as it did in many places around the area. It was just as well since the weather was so bad that the city closed both bridges and cancelled all public transit- buses and ferries. A lot of tree branches and power lines were down, and the storm surge flooded the boardwalk on the waterfront.
One of my sisters lost power at her house early in the morning so after her husband went to work she packed the kids up and took them to my parents' place. Unfortunately, my parents' power went out around suppertime, and they still don't have it back. They've now gone to my sister's place, because her power is back on. The powerless night wasn't unpleasant, however, as they spent the time playing Scrabble by lamplight, and having breakfast in the morning by lamplight as well.
Fortunately my power stayed on -and so did the shingles- but many people had their roofs seriously damaged. There was a lot of other damage around the province as well; here's a few pictures of the ruined road on the way to Queensland Beach, destroyed by powerful wind and waves:
By far the funniest picture of the aftermath of storm was taken by a guy on his way to work the next morning and found something blocking his way: someone's trampoline had obviously taken flight during the storm and came to rest in the middle of the road.
My nephew is studying Greek and Norse mythology, and drew this picture of the Valkyries:
In Norse legends, the Valkyries were the "choosers of the slain," supernatural women who would ride horses- on the ground or through the air- to select slain warriors to take to Odin's hall Valhalla. They are referenced in many old Norse stories and poems, including Gylfaginning 36 (from 1220) which describes them this way: “Odin sends them to every battle. They allot death to men and govern victory. Gunn and Rota and the youngest norn, called Skuld, always ride to choose who shall be slain and to govern the killings.”
Richard Wagner wrote an opera called Die Walkure which is based on Norse mythology and premiered in 1870. It includes in its third act "The Ride of the Valkyries". In it, four of the eight sister Valkyries of Brunnhilde (shieldmaiden) wait on a mountaintop and, when the other four arrive, they sing their battle cry. The music is instantly recognizable:
On Saturday evening I attended a carol sing at my church which I really enjoyed. One of the songs we sang was the Coventry Carol, which dates back at least to the 1500's. It's not technically a Christmas carol per se, as it describes an incident which happens as a direct result of the visit of the Wise Men to the Holy Family in Bethlehem. As anyone who paid attention in their primary Sunday School class knows, the Magi didn't show up at the stable when Jesus was born. They actually turned up some two years later and originally went to Jerusalem, asking around the city where they could find the one who was born to be King of the Jews. Herod, the paranoid king of Judea, heard about this and asked his advisers where the Messiah was to come from and they told him that the prophesy said that he would be born in Bethlehem. Herod called the wise men to him and pretended to be enthusiastic about their quest, asking them to come back and tell him when they find the baby, so that he may worship the child king, too.
When the Magi eventually found Mary and Joseph with the young child Jesus in Bethlehem, they paid homage and gave their gifts. Then, warned in a dream of Herod's evil intentions, they didn't return to see Herod, but went home by another route, avoiding Jerusalem. Then Joseph, warned by an angel about the danger, took Mary and Jesus to Egypt for safety. Meanwhile Herod, stewing over the failure of the Magi to report back to him and furious at the thought of a child growing up in Bethlehem who might potentially challenge him for the throne of Judea, decided to take action.
Herod ordered the execution of all the male children in Bethlehem under the age of two, an event which became known as the Massacre of Innocents. Many historians question whether this event actually happened, because the only account of it is found in the Gospel of Matthew. This is true, but this action was also completely in character for Herod, who ruthlessly disposed of anyone he considered a potential rival, including his own son. Also, Bethlehem was a very small place and there wouldn't have been that many young male children in the town. Such a small body count would probably not have been considered worthy of reporting, considering the scale of other bloody acts which Herod perpetrated. In any case, this event- the Massacre of Innocents- is what the Coventry Carol is based on. The lyrics are rather dark: some of the Bethlehem mothers are singing of this tragedy in the form of a lullaby:
Lullay, Thou little tiny Child, By, by, lully, lullay. Lullay, Thou little tiny Child. By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do, For to preserve this day; This poor Youngling for whom we sing, By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the King, in his raging, Charged he hath this day; His men of might, in his own sight, All children young, to slay.
Then woe is me, poor Child, for Thee, And ever mourn and say; For Thy parting, nor say nor sing, By, by, lully, lullay.
The Coventry Carol is called that because it was originally a song in one of the Coventry Mystery Plays: a nativity play called "The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors". No one knows exactly when- or by whom- the carol was written; the Coventry plays occurred from 1392 onward, but the earliest surviving written copy of the song lyrics is dated 1534. F.Y.I.- In 1940, after the bombing of Coventry on November 14, the BBC recorded a Christmas broadcast there, ending it with the singing of the Coventry Carol in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.
Then Mattathias answered and spake with a loud voice, "Though all the nations that are under the king's dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments: Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not hearken to the king's words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand, or the left." -1 Maccabees 2:19-22
My choir's concert was last night, and it went really well. This was a bit of a surprise, because a few of the pieces were really difficult and we had been struggling with them. The dress rehearsal on Friday night wasn't terrible, but our last regular practice on Tuesday was a bit of a disaster. I think our director was preparing for the worst, because after we warmed up last night, he told us to have fun and not worry if something went wrong. I took this to mean that he expected that something would go wrong, but in the end, nothing did. A Christmas miracle!
The concert was fun, and our singing was interspersed with a few poetry recitals and instrumental solos. This is one of our basses, who donned a fur hat and recited Robert Munsch's poem Winter. When he's not singing bass, he's a Gaelic professor, so he was a lot of help in our practices when we were learning to pronounce the lyrics in our Gaelic piece Taladh Chriosda. Robert Munsch-Canadian writer of children's books- wrote his poem in response to a letter he received from a child in Florida, asking if it was cold in Canada. Munsch sent him this response:
Winter Oh the great Canadian Winter Is not so very cold. I once knew a kid who didn’t freeze Until he was ten years old. And just last year in Ottawa, When they cleared away the ice, They found two people still alive And they said Winter was nice. On Baffin Island the Inuit Go swimming with polar bears. Of course they always come back dead. That’s why they go in pairs. So don’t stay inside when it’s snowing, Don’t stay inside when there’s ice. Go out and get frozen like a brick, And then you’ll think Winter is nice.
One of the pieces which we sang was The Cherry Tree Carol, which I had never heard before this fall. It's an old one, whose lyrics can be traced back to medieval England. It was sung in the Mystery Plays, Biblical dramas which were performed in the English midlands around 1500. The story on which the lyrics are based is found in the much earlier Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which was written in the 9th century. This story is quite a bit different, however, as it occurs after Jesus' birth, on the holy family's voyage to Egypt, and involves figs, not cherries. The song, on the other hand, relates events before the birth of Jesus and is quite hard on poor Joseph, who is refusing to get Mary the cherries she's asking for, telling her to ask the man who beguiled her to get the fruit for her. These changes- the cherries and making Joseph churlish and angry- seem to have been made for the mystery plays, no doubt for dramatic effect. Of course, our concert was supposed to be all Canadian Christmas songs this year and obviously The Cherry Tree lyrics predate Canada. The tune to which we sang it, however, is uniquely Canadian. I've mentioned Helen Creighton, the Nova Scotian folklorist, before; she traveled around the province for years, collecting folk stories and songs from remote communities, often recording them. In 1948, she was in Cherry Brook and met a man named William Riley who sang the song for her, to a tune which is unique to the area. It was a choral arrangement of this melody which we sang last night. Here's a link to Helen Creighton's original recording of William Riley singing The Cherry Tree Carol.
"Silently, like thoughts that come and go, the snowflakes fall, each one a gem." - William Hamilton Gibson
Speaking of snowflakes, here's Rosemary Clooney singing "Suzy Snowflake". This song was actually my first exposure to Rosemary, as it was on a children's Christmas album we had as kids. We still listen to it every year when we go home to help Mom & Dad decorate their tree.