Christmas Treasures, 2017
Tonight’s program is a blend of old and new, sacred and secular, classical and popular Christmas favorites. We will hear carols from the Middle Ages and modern times, and we will sample the “sweets” of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite over the course of the whole program instead of consuming the entire candy box at once!
ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK: Prelude to Hänsel and Gretel
Since its premiere on December 23, 1893 (conducted by Richard Strauss) Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera has been associated with Christmas. It was the very first radio broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, Christmas Day 1933, and the first complete opera to be broadcast on television—December 23, 1943.
The Prelude (the opera’s overture) opens with a chorale of horns playing the “Evening Prayer” theme from later in the opera. A trumpet fanfare introduces a cheerful theme from the final act, when Gretel releases Hansel from the Witch’s spell. Eventually these and other themes from the opera are woven together for a triumphant climax.
Humperdinck was a disciple of Richard Wagner, and his Hansel and Gretel Prelude shows his talent for inventing tunes that are like children’s nursery songs but treating them with Wagner’s harmony and counterpoint, as in the latter’s own Prelude to Die Meistersinger.
TRADITIONAL: Good Christians, Now Rejoice (arr. Joseph M. Martin)
This carol dates from the 1300s in Germany, where its original verses were a mix of German and Latin, beginning”In dulci jubilo” (“In sweet rejoicing”). By the mid-1500s it was included in at least one Lutheran hymnal. It was popularized in English in the 1850s as “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” and has been further adapted many times. Tonight’s choral arrangement dates from 2004.
PETER ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite: Russian Dance (Trepak); Arabian Dance; Chinese Dance.
Tchaikovsky’s two-act ballet The Nutcracker, with its story taking place on Christmas Eve, was premiered on 18 December 1892, on a double bill that opened with his short opera Iolanta. While the ballet was not immediately popular, the suite of eight numbers he extracted from it—and had already premiered—was a huge success. Eventually the ballet did become a holiday-season favorite around the world.
“Characteristic Dances” was a name Tchaikovsky gave to all but the Overture and Finale (the “Waltz of the Flowers”) of the Nutcracker Suite. The Russian, Arabian and Chinese Dances are all from Act II when Clara and the Nutcracker-Prince enjoy a spectacle devised especially for her. The Russian Dance (with its vision of “candy canes”) is a fast and swirling Trepak. The Arabian Dance (also representing “coffee” to go with the other sweets) is sinewy and haunting, while the Chinese dance (“tea”) is lively and charming.
JOHN RUTTER: Angels’ Carol
John Rutter, born 1945, is one of Britain’s most admired composers of choral music, some of it on a grand scale, sometimes more intimate. He wrote the words as well as music for his bright-hued, flowing “Angels’ Carol” in 1980.
Nutcracker Suite: Dance of the Reed Flutes; Waltz of the Flowers.
The delicate “Dance of the Flutes” represents both Danish shepherdesses and marzipan candy, and of course features the flute section of the orchestra. The “Waltz of the Flowers,” with its memorable harp introduction, is the climax of all the “dessert” entertainments for Clara and the Prince. It’s one of the most graceful and sweeping of all the great waltzes Tchaikovsky created for his ballets and symphonies.
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on Christmas Carols
All his life Vaughan Williams collected and arranged English folk songs. One of his earlier works in this vein (1912) is his Fantasia on Christmas Carols based on old English tunes he had discovered. A cello solo introduces a solo baritone for the first carol, “This is the truth sent from above”—not a Christmas song but one of Creation, the Fall, and Redemption. This carol is scored for strings alone, but as the tempo brightens for the second carol, “Come all you worthy gentlemen,” the full orchestra joins the chorus. The baritone returns for “On Christmas night all Christians sing,” and at the climax, verses of these two carols are interwoven, while the orchestra plays hints of yet other, more familiar carols. The last words wish us happiness for Christmas and the New Year.
HUMPERDINCK: Weihnachten (arr. Richard Proulx)
This lovely song, with much of the same lyrical grace that one hears in Hansel and Gretel, is the first of a set of Weinachtslieder (Christmas Songs) that Humperdinck published in 1898. It describes the joy and peace of Christmas Eve.
Nutcracker Suite: Miniature Overture
Tchaikovsky’s overture to The Nutcracker is “miniature” in the sense of being brief, but also it has a lightness or childlike quality because the composer left out the low strings and low brass, while having the bassoons play mostly in their upper register.
SCOTT GENDAL: It Was My Father’s Custom
“It Was My Father’s Custom” was commissioned by the Madison Symphony Orchestra and Madison Youth Choirs. The composer, who received a Doctor of Musical Studies in Composition degree from UW, has specialized in vocal music, from art song to choral works and musical theatre. He recorded his song “At Last” with soprano Camille Zamora and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Nutcracker Suite: March
The March is heard early in the ballet, as the children wait for their Christmas presents to be given out. It is brisk, joyful and full of anticipation.
IRVING BERLIN: White Christmas (arr. Huff & Moss)
Berlin wrote “White Christmas” for the movie Holiday Inn, released in August 1942, though the song was premiered sooner, on Christmas Day 1941, by Bing Crosby. In the film the song is especially poignant in the final scene, when Crosby’s character is separated from his love on Christmas Eve, working on a movie set with only artificial snow.
Nutcracker Suite: Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
The Sugar Plum Fairy (her French name actually refers to a sugar-coated almond) has ruled the Land of Sweets during the Prince’s absence. As a final tribute to Clara and the Prince she offers this ethereal dance, with its famous celesta part in the orchestra.
MEL TORMÉ/lyrics by Bob Wells: The Christmas Song (arr. Bob Lowden)
Though Mel Tormé himself frequently sang his 1945 song, it was made famous by Nat King Cole, who recorded it in 1946, 1953 and 1961, each version a huge hit.
CHRISTMAS CAROL SING-ALONG (arr. Dan Goeller)
LEROY ANDERSON: Sleigh Ride
Like Tormé’s “Christmas Song,” “Sleigh Ride” was said to have been written, or at least begun, during a summer heat wave (1946). It wasn’t recorded until 1949, a great success for Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. Though a version with lyrics was created in 1950 and recorded with the Andrews Sisters, the original instrumental arrangement reigns supreme with its jaunty rhythm, jazzy passages, jingling bells, whiplash, and trumpet whinny.