The AD HOC Singers

Louise Lee, Director

In the Bleak Midwinter

with guest trumpeters
Christopher Smith and Michael Mergen

4:00 p.m., Sunday, January 30, 2005
Calvary United Methodist Church
Arlington, Virginia, USA

Program Notes

Concert Program with Texts and Translations


Hans Leo Hassler's works range from light, madrigalian compositions for a few voices to double- and triple-chorus motets in the Venetian early Baroque style, masses, wind-emsemble pieces, and less well-known keyboard music, both sacred and secular. Born at Nuremburg, Germany, he went to Venice at the age of twenty to study with Andrea Gabrieli; he was the first of several important German composers wo sought out the Italian musical scene. Upon his return to Germany he soon became organist for the Fugger banking family at Augsburg, where he remained fifteen years. He was eventually appointed court organist to the Elector of Saxony in Dresden, where ie died. Many of his works show the Italian influence; others, like the motet and mass on "Dixit Maria" are in the Netherlands Renaissance style, with Hassler's hallmark gelodic grace, clear texture, and positive ambiance.

Psalm 133 refers to "brethren" in the senses both of individual family connections and of the larger family of God, whose blessing was desired by pilgrims to Jerusalem. "Oil poured upon the head" is mentioned in several Psalms, including the well-known twenty-third. It seems to have been a gesture of hospitality as well as a rite in the consecration of a priest. [It is found in the book of Leviticus in the Bible, where God instructs Moses on the proper rituals for consecrating the priest Aaron.]

Mt. Hermon, north of Jerusalem, was renowned for its abundant dew. The entire Psalm 133, with its repeated references to "pouring", "running down", and "falling down" depicts a slowly flowing rain of blessings. Hassler's musical setting uses descriptive falling and flowing note passages. The mood seems intimate and convivial; the musical style that of a secular Italian madrigal, although this text also has been set to music for Christian liturgy, particularly for the Lord's Supper, in chant and polyphony by other composers.

II and III

Arnolt Schlick's Maria Zart for organ is based on a German religious song, heard in the upper of the three organ voices. This treatment was hitherto given almost exclusively to liturgical Latin chants. The comparison of Mary to a rose without thorns or blemish has been the inspiration for many beautiful compositions since the Middle Ages.

Mary's son Jesus is the "Flower from the root of Jesse" (son of the 'house of David') in Isaiah's prophecy). The idea of flowering "amid the cold of winter" (an image familiar from the charming "Es ist ein Rose Entsprungen" or "Low, How a Rose e'er Blooming") has given rise to a host of legends and customs in many lands. In German-speaking areas there was a popular belief that apple and other trees blossomed and bore fruit on Christmas Eve. Clement Miles, in Christmas Customs and Traditions relates further:

"In England there was an old belief in trees blossoming at Christmas, connected with the well-known legend of St. Joseph of Arimathea. When the saint settled at Glastonbury he planted his staff in the earth and it put forth leaves; moreover it blossomed every Christmas Eve. Not only the original thorn at Glastonbury but trees of the same species in other parts of England had this characteristic. When in 1752 the New Style was substituted for the Old, making Christmas fall twelve days earlier, folks were curious to see what the thorns would do. At Quainton in Buckinghamshire to thousand people, it is said, went out on the new Christmas Eve to view a blackthorn, which had the Christmas blossoming habit. As no sign of buds was visible they agreed that the new Christmas could not be right, and refused to keep it. At Glastonbury itself nothing happened on December 24, but on January 5, the right day according to the Old Style, the thorn blossomed as usual."


Two organ preludes on Lutheran chorale tunes associated with New Year's Day are "Das Alte Jahr Vergangen Ist" and "In Dir ist Freude" by Bach. The first expresses melancholy at the passing of the year, going well beyond the sentiment in the words of the chorale, but ending on a hopeful note:

"The old year no hath passed away;
The old year no hath passed away;
We thank thee, Jesus Christ, that thou
Hast brought us safe the whole year through;
Midst danger we thy comfort knew
Midst danger we thy comfort knew

"In Dir ist Freude", on the other hand, is full of rejoicing. The chorale melody comes from a balleto by the Italian composer Giovanni Gastoldi (d. 1622) whose works were dispersed beyond the Italian border along with dances and madrigals of other sixteenth- and seventeenth-century composers. In England the same tune, Gastoldi's "A lieta vita", was incorporated almost note for note by Thomas Moley in his own "Sing We and Chant It".

V and VI

Francis Poulenc was born on January 30, 1899. We offer a very short fragment of his cantata "Un soir de Neige" on poems by Paul Eluard.

The French carol "Ce Matin; j'ai recontré le train" may recall a custom in some parts of France and Spain of going out on January 5 or 6 to meet the Magi. Clement Miles, mentioned above, cites the memoirs of the French poet Mistral concerning a Provençal tradition:

"In a charming chapter of his Memoirs Mistral tells us how on Epiphany Eve all the children of his country side used to go out to meet the Kings, bearing cakes for the Magi, dried figs for the pages, and handfuls of hay for their horses. In the glory and color of the sunset young Mistral thought he saw the splendid train; but soon the gorgeous vision died away, and the children stood gaping alone on the darkening highway -- the Kings had passed behind the mountain. After supper the little ones hurried to church, and there in the Chapel of the Nativity beheld the Kings in adoration before the Crib."
In another old French carol desert sands become a more familiar landscape for a farewell to Christmas:
"The Kings ride away in the snow and the rain;
After twelve months we shall see them again."
Although January 6, the Epiphany, marks the official end of most Christmas observances, there are traditions in which decorations and merrymaking last through February 2, when the presentation of the infant Jesus to the old man Simeon in the temple is commemorated. Known in Britain as "Candlemas", the day features lighting, blessing, and processing with candles, which may hark back at least to certain Roman winter festivals and probably to prehistory.

Carol singing from door to door may also be a very ancient custom. Certainly reverence for plants and trees dates from early agricultural times if not before. The return of the seasons, with dark and cold making way for spring, has inspired universal hope.

Sources: The New Interpreter's Bible, Abingdon, 1996 and C.A. Miles, Christmas Customs and Traditions, originally published in 1912, Dover reprint 1976.

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