TMFW recommends: Robert Shaw, Sir Ralph Vaughn Williams and the Messiah,

December 24, 2010

Over at his personal site, BDA aide de campe and musical director Paul Bowen is playing Christmas music. While we expressed our views on the topic earlier, we thought we’d allow him a few suggestions

As I have time today I will contribute to the Holiday by posting Christmas music that does not suck. There won’t be many offerings as most Christmas music is indeed pretty dreadful. First out of the box is the late Robert Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Chorus with their arrangement of “Bring a Torch Jeanette, Isabella.” The loveliness of this old French carol allows one to forget momentarily that it is highly unlikely that there were any little girls named Jeanette or Isabella in Bethlehem of Judea. And they probably wouldn’t be allowed to go running around with flambeaus. This did not dissuade the author of this traditional French carol much as concerns about historical accuracy did not deter the French from pretty much inventing the damn holiday in the first place.

Most Christmas cantatas in the English tradition have a “lullaby” that is sung by the female voices. The most beautiful of these in my opinion is the lullaby from “Hodie” by English composer Sir Ralph Vaughn Williams. I said RALPH VAUGHN WILLIAMS, Son! Tennnnnn-HUT!

This performance is by the California Baptist University Choral Union. It is a little hot so turn it down a notch. And the conductor takes this a little quick for my tastes but I’m certain that he would care not a whit about my opinion.

Anyway, I seem to recall that the libretto for “Hodie” (pronounced Ho-dee-yay) was written by his wife Ursula Vaughn Williams. I point this out simply because I think that the fact that Sir Ralph (pronounced Rafe) was married to someone named Ursula is pretty fabulous.

I have an uncle up in Quitman named Ralph. He pronounces if Ralf.

Back in Handel’s day, the aristocracy amused themselves during Christmas parties by dressing as the poor shepherds that abided in the fields watching over their flocks by night and doing God knows what else. They would sing Christmas carols while thus in drag. This practice is still followed today in the Heights and gated subdivisions in West Little Rock. Anyway, Handel knew his audience and so he wrote an instrumental interlude before bringing on the shepherds in the Christmas section of “Messiah.” This interlude is called “pifa” which if memory serves, and it will have to because I am too lazy to actually do research, the sonorous sound that Handel wrote into the strings resembles the shepherd’s pipes. It eventually became known as the “Pastoral Symphony” for no other reason than it sounds snootier than a piece about shepherd’s pipes.

Anyway, there is a long “pifa” and a short one which is used if the director of the program wants to Get On With It. I give you the long version just because I think “pifa” is one of the best parts of “Messiah.”

And no, it’s not ‘Handel’s Messiah.”


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