Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)

Here are four more neglected classical Christmas works from the twentieth century, which is the second of my two part series. (You can read the first part here.) Without further ado, let’s continue…

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May you be as excited as Will Ferrell this holiday season!

1. Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata (1957)

An American composer and organist who excelled at composing pieces for choir, Daniel Pinkham’s musical language embraced the gamut of twentieth century composition, including both tonal and atonal idioms. His Christmas Cantata, written for choir, organ, and two brass choirs, is perhaps his best-known work.

The piece is divided into three movements – the first opens dramatically, as the choir (singing in Latin) implores the shepherds to tell them what they witnessed at the manger. The music then becomes upbeat and dancelike as the shepherds speak of the marvel of seeing the newborn baby Jesus. (The score here is reminiscent of Stravinsky, full of tricky rhythmic devices and unusual harmonies.)

The second movement is a transcendent setting of the famous Latin text “O Magnum Mysterium,” which recalls the long, flowing melodic lines of Gregorian chant. The third and final movement sets the words of the angels – “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (“Glory to God in the highest”). It begins with soft excitement but gradually grows in volume before ending on a splendorous “Alleluia.” Surprisingly, Pinkham manages to pack a ton of musical material into a tight, economic package – all three movements combined are only about ten minutes total.

Continue reading “Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part II)”

Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part I)

There’s a ton of great classical Christmas music and carols out there but to be honest, there’s only so many times that I can hear “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” or the “Hallelujah Chorus” before wanting to kick a Christmas tree over (OK, not really!) Feeling the same way? Well, as the angel Gabriel said, “Do not be afraid!” In this post (which will be split into two parts), I will bring to light eight lesser-known classical Christmas pieces from the twentieth century, which are sure to provide some variety to your Christmas playlist and help ignite the spirit of the season. Here are the first four:

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Same.

1. John Tavener: Today the Virgin (1989)

Not to be confused with the Renaissance composer John Taverner, the twentieth century English composer John Tavener is often labeled as a “holy minimalist” alongside his contemporaries Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt. While the accuracy of that label is debatable, Tavener’s music is, without a doubt, steeped in spirituality. Specifically, his deep love of the Russian Orthodox religion and subsequent conversion in 1977 informed much of his creative output; many of his pieces set texts from the Orthodox liturgy and evoke the sounds of the church’s rich choral tradition (such as his frequent use of static vocal drones). Tavener (who died in 2013) is probably best remembered for his choral piece Song for Athene, which was heard by over two billion people worldwide during the broadcast of Princess Diana’s funeral in 1997.

Eight years prior, in 1989, Tavener penned the short a cappella choral work Today the Virgin. The piece is a delightful setting of a text by Mother Thekla, which celebrates the wondrous mystery of Mary giving birth to Jesus Christ. Throughout the piece, a single-note vocal drone resonates underneath the words and the repeated refrain – “Rejoice, O World, with the Angels and the Shepherds, give glory to the Child!” – is punctuated by a melismatic “Alleluia,” which increases in length and joyfulness as the work progresses.

Continue reading “Hidden Gems: A Twentieth Century Christmas (Part I)”

Six Pieces for Halloween

Classical music has long been a magnet for the spooky and mysterious. From orchestral works to songs, there’s no shortage of pieces that either sound frightening or have some sort of bizarre or sinister backstory associated with them. So, to celebrate the month of October, here are six pieces to spark the imagination and send shivers up your spine:

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Listen with the lights off… if you dare!

1. Carlo Gesualdo: “Moro, lasso, al mio duolo” (1611)

The life of the Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo is similar in many ways to that of a character from a horror film. First off, in terms of his music, many of Gesualdo’s pieces make ample use of dissonance and other “crunchy” harmonies. Although this doesn’t seem too odd on the surface, some of these harmonies wouldn’t be widely used until the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, which gives Gesualdo’s music an eerily modern feel for the time period in which they were written. Regardless, his use of dissonant harmonies in this particular madrigal (the title of which translates to, “I die, alas, in my suffering”) fits the poem’s theme of longing and emotional agony quite effectively.

Oh, and it just so happens that Gesualdo was also a murderer! One night in 1590, Gesualdo returned to his home in Naples to discover his wife in bed with another man. Furious, he flew into a rage and killed both of them in cold blood. And if this isn’t shocking enough, it turns out that after a thorough investigation, Gesualdo was eventually acquitted. (He was born to a well-off family and held some noble titles, so it clearly must have paid off to know the right people!) Today, Gesualdo has become one of the most infamous figures in music history, both for his stunningly original music and strange biography.

(For those who are interested in reading more about this fascinating figure – and for more grisly details – the music critic Alex Ross wrote a great article about Gesualdo for The New Yorker in 2011, which you can read here.)

Continue reading “Six Pieces for Halloween”