OF ALL the seasons and holidays in our Western culture, Christmas has become a source of inspiration for many musical composers and performing artists, both vocal and instrumental, secular and religious. During this festive season celebrating the birth of Christ, the rediscovery and enjoyment of baroque Christmas music is a rich experience. Its style and form surrounds this music with an aura of dignity that gives it a special mystique.
What is baroque music? In Portuguese, barrocomeans “oddly shaped pearls.” Accordingly, the music of the baroque period is irregular, diverse and contradictory in moods and styles. There are three mainstreams of baroque Christmas music: the vocal and accompanied melody, the instrumental or orchestral form and the organ music for church use. Within each of these forms is a diversity of operatic arias, cantatas, oratorios, organ preludes and Christmas carols. The earliest manifestations of baroque music occurred in Italy; and from there it crossed the borders to France, England and Germany.
The Christmas carol is believed to have been “invented” in the small town of Grecia, near Assisi where St. Francis built the first Christmas crib in his church. He then urged the community to sing nativity songs and to dance around the crib. Subsequent Christmas carols have been kept alive through the centuries, as most of them have been handed down from one generation to the next. French and Italian carols often have a pastoral character. In Naples, shepherds would come down from the hills at Christmas time, piping their tunes in the streets before the image of the Madonna and Child.
Arcangelo Corelli, the “archangel of the violin,” composed his best music for Christmas night. His works have warmth and beauty and does not lose its power to evoke peace and joy in the listener. For example, the bagpipe melody and lilting rhythm of his pastorale give a tonal description of the birth of Christ and the angels hovering over Bethlehem. Other Italian composers who wrote Christmas baroque music were Giuseppi Torelli, Francesco Manfredi and Pietro Locatelli. Many music publishers and recording studios have revived the works of Alessandro Scarlatti, father of the equally famous Domenico. Scarlatti's Pastoral Cantata for voices, harpsichord and string orchestra is a magnificent fabric of sound, set to a poem written by Cardinal Pietro Ottobani of Rome. It was first performed on Christmas eve in 1695 at the apostolic palace. The music describes the birth of Christ and concludes with a call to the shepherds to hasten to the manger and salute the newborn Child with their bagpipes.
The joy and spontaneity of French baroque music are exemplified in the series of Noelsby Claude Daquin composed for violins, flutes, oboes and harpsichord. These carols captivated the hearts of the people of Paris. The most famous of these are the Noel en Trio et en Dialogue and the Noel en Musette. In England, the poetic beauty of Henry Purcell's Behold, I Bring Glad Tidings is enhanced by the chorus and string instruments. Here, the relation between melody and harmony is stunning in its simplicity and charm.
Many people today still enjoy listening to oratorios. The oratorio is a dramatized biblical text for singers and orchestra but unlike opera; without scenery, costumes and dramatic action. It was first performed at the end of the 16th century in the San Girolamo della Carita Church in Rome. St. Philip Neri, founder of the Congregation of the Oratorians, had music written for popular stories in the Bible. These were performed after his sermons during the weekly services. Hence, the musical performances came to be known as oratorio, after the congregation in which they were presented.
The most popular oratorio is the Messiah by George Frederic Handel. He wrote his masterpiece in 1742, at a time when his career was going downhill. Several of his operas were not well received by the public. His creditors were pressing upon him and financial ruin was evident. In an outburst of energy and inspiration, he composed the Messiah in 24 days. When the music score was completed, Handel is said to have exclaimed in rapture: “I think God has visited me!”
The famous Pastoral Symphony, the solo He shall feed my flock, and the powerful Hallelujah Chorus are perennial favorites. The world premiere of the Messiah took place at the Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin on April 13, 1742. The story goes that at the English premiere in London in March 1743, King George II was so moved by the majesty of the Hallelujah Chorusthat he rose from his seat and remained standing during its entire rendition. The audience followed the king. Since then, it has been customary for audiences not only to rise during the performance of this chorus but even to join in the singing. Handel's oratorio was addressed to a popular audience and received an immediate response and rousing welcome. It has also embraced the whole world.
Unlike Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach did not enjoy universal acclaim during his lifetime. He spent most of his career as a Church composer and cantor at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Germany, where he wrote one cantata for each Sunday of the year. The Christmas Cantata has a lullaby-like melody and expresses the spirit of faith, hope and love that is associated with the season. For example, the popular Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring has an Advent theme of longing for the coming of the Messiah. It is among Bach's remarkable works. It reveals the strength and simplicity of his Christian faith. Musically, it has a wealth of aesthetics and harmony that rise and swell and burst into life. The same thing can be said of his other works. Bach wrote Advent-Christmas chorale preludes for the organ. These organ preludes are still popular in Catholic and Protestant churches. ABach festival this season would not be complete without the well-loved Christmas Oratorio. Bach composed the Christmas Oratorio in 1734. It consists of six cantatas intended to be performed on six different days between Christmas and Epiphany. In this monumental work, Bach shows his noble vision of the mystery of Christmas, the season of light, life and love. The pastoral mood of the music shows the composer's ability to paint lights, shadows and colors through sound.
Christmas baroque music is inextricably intertwined with the 17th and 18th centuries. But it has timelessness appeal. For Handel, Bach and for many Church composers, the ultimate aim of all music is none else than tribute to the glory of God, and the recreation of mind and heart in contemplation.
Sister Maria Agnes Karasig OP, is a free lance writer and a Dominican contemplative nun based in Summit, N.J.