Friday, December 24, 2010

This Day

In the catalogue of classical Christmas music, there are a few obvious standouts. Handel's The Messiah is probably the most famous, with the Bach Christmas Cantata and Vivaldi's Gloria close seconds. My personal favorite, however, is Ralph Vaughn William's Hodie (This Day). What's it like? Well, it's extremely programmatic, which is to say, it tells a story. This is not music to enjoy, as much as it is to be inspired by. In tone and sonority it's rather like a sacred version of Holst's The Planets. Vaughn Williams has set a variety of sacred and Christmas themed secular texts to music. Parts of the New Testament that deal witht the birth of Christ are interposed with set pieces, arias, which have as their texts mystical poetry in the English tradition of Gerard Manley Hopkins, William Drummond, and the father of the entire genre, John Milton.

Mystical, mysterious, the sonorities are largely in a minor key, which makes the occasional shifts into major chords exceedingly dramatic. In this scene, the Angel of the Lord appears to Joseph, to convince him to "take unto thee, Mary thy wife..." The angel prefaces his comment with "Fear not." Were I to hear such mysterious and turbulent minor chords under an angel's command, I would fear aplenty! But I'm not a saint. Maybe they can withstand more ambiguity than I.

(Note, put the marker to minute 5:00 to begin the Angel's recitation).

In the above section, minute 5:00 through the end of this cut, Vaughn Williams introduces the themes which he will return to twice more in the piece. Note the dramatic shift into major chord on the the word "Jesus!"

Of the several standalone arias in the piece, my favorites are The Oxen (text by Thomas Hardy), sung by the baritone soloist, and Bright Portals of the Sky (text William Drummond), sung by the tenor. The former is an idyllic lullabye, perfect for a Christmas Eve candle-light service. The latter is a glistening, jewellike, piercing stab of mystery, like looking at the face of God.

The absolute highlight for me, however is the Chorus of the Three Kings, which in my mind creates even more mystery and power than Ring Out Ye Crystal Spheres, the thundering epilogue, set to text by Milton, which is the penultimate moment of the cantata.

All in all, with Hodie, Vaughn Williams has used the mystery/mystic traditions of his English heritage (the mystery plays) and set it in a blistering and heartrending 20th Century minor key which only resolves into major keys infrequently but to tremendous dramatic effect in this piece. It's something to listen to in the candle-lit darkness. If you're in a Gothic cathedral, so much the better.

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