Sunday, December 16, 2007

My All Time Favorite Christmas Carol

Many years ago when my daughter was a baby - about 1985 - I purchased a Christmas cassette called, "An English Christmas". I henceforth went back and bought as many copies as the store still had because it came to define my idea of Christmas music. There were medieval carols, Polish carols and the star of them all - Gerald Finzi's "In Terra Pax, Opus 39". I had never heard this before and it was one of the most beautiful Christmas arrangements I had ever heard. It is a story set to music. Here is what prompted Gerald Finzi to write "In Terra Pax":

From this web site and article:

"In terra pax is probably Finzi's best known work. It is a setting of Robert Bridges' poem Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913 into which a portion of the Christmas story from the Gospel of St. Luke has been interpolated. Finzi began work on the piece in 1951 but it was not completed until 1954. Finzi gives the somewhat introspective words of the poem to the baritone solo, while the soprano solo and chorus take the part of the angels in the biblical text. The poem reminded Finzi greatly of a particular Christmas Eve party he had attended as a young man living on Chosen Hill Farm in Gloucestershire. They had all come out at midnight into the crisp, cold air, and had heard bells ringing across the countryside from all the villages. These bells became the wonderful "glory to God in the highest" section of In terra pax. After the baritone solo reflects on the angelic song, the chorus enters again, softly repeating "and on earth peace, good will toward men." In terra pax sadly figured indirectly in Finzi's death. During the Three Choirs Festival in 1956, Finzi took Vaughan Williams up to Chosen Hill to show him the spot where he had taken his inspiration for In terra pax. They stopped in at the sexton's cottage, unaware that the sexton's children had recently come down with chicken pox. Finzi, already severely weakened by Hodgkin's lymphoma, radiation therapy and an experimental splenectomy, contracted an encephalitic form of the disease and died on September 27, 1956."

About the best I can do is to link to a playlist - I hope it works. If it does, treat yourself and listen to #1 and #2 on the list - together those are my favorite Christmas music.

When my daughter was a small child, one of our favorite Christmas traditions was for her to put on her pajamas, bring a blanket, and we'd ride around neighborhoods admiring Christmas light displays and playing Christmas music. It was especially effective on a chilly night, a rarity in South Florida, but one which reminded me of Christmasas of my Northeastern childhood. Those English Christmas cassettes each became overplayed and warped in turn until I could no longer listen to them. Later, my husband had a CD made of many of the carols that were on the cassette, but the Gerald Finzi piece could not be found. Until now. I've purchased it on Itunes and will make a new CD for myself - as much of a copy of the old cassette as I can. Between purchasing from Itunes and copying from the CD my husband made I should be able to recreate the best Christmas music collection I've ever had - and enjoy some beautiful music that I feared was forever lost to me....the internet is a wonderful thing, indeed. And the CD won't warp!!

The following are the words of Robert Bridges' poem "Christmas Eve, Noel 1913" as they are incorporated into Finzi's work:

And from many a village
In the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me
Peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds
Ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above
With stars was spangled o’er.

……marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels
Or the bright stars singing.

But to me heard afar
It was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting
As the comfort of Christ.

Between the verse that ends "o'er" and the one that begins, ".....marveling" is where Finzi interpolates the story of the first Christmas from Luke's Gospel. Isn't Bridge's poetry lovely? I can just see in my mind's eye the crisp, cold night far from the city, where the stars carpet the sky with brilliance.......perhaps Our Lord was born on such a night.

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