the candle

A hodgepodge of beauty, truth, and goodness.

Tag: Music

Five more days of Christmas!

I’m not letting go of the Christmas season yet. Here’s the King’s Singers with their arrangement of the traditional French carol Noël nouvelet.


Music for Mary, Mother of God

Happy Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God! This is a video a few friends and I recorded on this date last year at beautiful Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle. Please excuse the background noise and the less-than-perfect singing on the bass line. Singing are, from left: Kevin Birnbaum (bass), Alan Stout (baritone), Doug Fullington (tenor 2), and Jesson Mata (tenor 1).

More Christmas listening: ‘Lux Aurumque’

Eric Whitacre is the rock star of the choral world. His innovative “virtual choir” is a phenomenon, watched by millions online. And this lovely piece, “Lux Aurumque,” is perfect for the Christmas season.

The text is a Latin translation (by Charles Anthony Silvestri) of an English poem, “Light and Gold,” by Edward Esch:

calida gravisque
pura velut aurum
et canunt angeli
molliter modo natum.
warm and heavy
as pure gold,
and the angels sing softly
to the newborn babe.

Beauty out of horror

Peter_Paul_Rubens_Massacre_of_the_InnocentsMassacre of the Innocents by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

It’s easy to forget, among all the idyllic imagery of the Babe in the manger, and the shepherds and the angels, and the Wise Men and the star, that the story of the first Christmas gets pretty grisly and gory. But the Church doesn’t let us forget. Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, those babies slaughtered by Herod the king in his jealous attempt to assassinate the newborn King.

When the Wise Men did not return to Herod to tell him where the baby Jesus was, he flew into “a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Mt 2:16). It’s hard to imagine anything worse than the murder of innocent children. And yet, somehow, the Christian tradition has drawn beauty even out of this horror, as in the 16th-century “Coventry Carol”:

P.S. The best recording of this song I know is a suitably stark and terrifying rendition by the King’s Singers.

Oh, to be an ox on the wall in that stable!

Christmas_NightChristmas Night by Paul Gaugin (1848-1903)

One of the great things about the Nativity is that it was the kind of thing that animals could see.

Christmas is not primarily about the more or less abstract ideas we tend to associate with it—like family, and love, and peace, and hope. It’s about a real thing that really happened—a visible event in history. I pray I’ll never get tired of remembering and rejoicing that the Son of God became a little baby boy who was born in a stable in Bethlehem a little more than 2,000 years ago, and that his mother “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7).

The Son of God was there in the stable, and the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. Some shepherds showed up, and later wise men. Angels were all around. They were all praising God—and they can all seem rather abstract, poetic and remote.

But not the animals, which surely were there too. They were just normal animals, doing normal animal-type things—eating, and drinking, and pooping, and unwittingly witnessing the greatest moment in the history of the world thus far.

So Merry Christmas! Let us rejoice today, and every day, in the reality of the Incarnation, witnessed by man and beast alike. And please enjoy another setting of the O Magnum Mysterium, this one by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), performed by New York Polyphony:

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

O great mystery!

Nativity_at_NightNativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1465-c. 1495)

Merry Christmas Eve! My gift to you below: a recording of Morten Lauridsen’s glorious setting (composed in 1994) of the Christmas text O Magnum Mysterium. A few years ago, Lauridsen wrote in The Wall Street Journal about the genesis of the piece:

For “O Magnum Mysterium,” I wanted to create … a deeply felt religious statement, at once uncomplicated and unadorned yet powerful and transformative in its effect upon the listener. …

The most challenging part of this piece for me was the second line of text having to do with the Virgin Mary. She above all was chosen to bear the Christ child and then she endured the horror and sorrow of his death on the cross. How can her significance and suffering be portrayed musically?

After exploring several paths, I decided to depict this by a single note. On the word “Virgo,” the altos sing a dissonant appoggiatura G-sharp. [Note: In this recording, this occurs at 2:51 and 3:15.] It’s the only tone in the entire work that is foreign to the main key of D. That note stands out against a consonant backdrop as if a sonic light has suddenly been focused upon it, edifying its meaning. It is the most important note in the piece.

In composing music to these inspirational words about Christ’s birth and the veneration of the Virgin Mary, I sought to impart … a transforming spiritual experience within what I call “a quiet song of profound inner joy.” I wanted this piece to resonate immediately and deeply into the core of the listener, to illumine through sound.

May your celebration of the great mystery of Christmas be truly bright and blessed! Enjoy the music!

O magnum mysterium, et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderent Dominum natum, jacentem in praesepio! Beata Virgo, cujus viscera meruerunt portare Dominum Christum. Alleluia.
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger! Blessed is the Virgin whose womb was worthy to bear Christ the Lord. Alleluia!

P.S. For what it’s worth, my go-to recording of this piece can be found here.

An interesting approach to the works of mercy

The Boston Globe has a very nice story today about a church I was blessed to attend while I was in college. Highrock Church in Arlington, Mass., is taking an interesting approach to the corporal works of mercy, which should be the constant occupation of all Christians.

Highrock Church wanted to be part of the fabric of the community. So it reached out to help in ways small — and not so small.

Which explains the violins and electric guitars, drums and keyboards, and roof-raising, 41-voice chorus that put on a Christmas spectacular at Highrock last weekend. Every penny in proceeds — about $15,000 — will go to the town. The money pays for a part-time social worker dedicated to helping Arlington’s neediest residents — a salary taxpayers would be hard-pressed to cover since state cuts to aid for cities and towns.

Read the rest here. And here’s a video from one of their six concerts last weekend, featuring what has always been one of my favorite Christmas songs:

In defense of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’

Grigory_Gagarin_ChristmasChristmas by Grigory Gagarin (1811-1893). Not pictured: little drummer boy.

When I was a kid I loved “The Little Drummer Boy.” Maybe it was all those “pa rum pa pum pums,” or maybe it was just that I’d learned a fun version of the song on the piano, but I couldn’t get enough. As I got older, though, I started to find all that pumming a little ridiculous, and the lyrics started to seem rather insipid (“the ox and ass kept time,” really?), and I was pretty sure I’d outgrown the silly little song.

I don’t remember what made me reconsider my disdain for “The Little Drummer Boy,” but during my sophomore year of college I started thinking more about the lyrics, and I found them almost painfully beautiful. Don’t laugh. The song is not as silly or saccharine as you might think. It’s the story of a poor boy who wants to honor the newborn Jesus, but has nothing to offer except his one humble skill. You can feel the pain and humility in his pleading, “I have no gift to bring … that’s fit to give our King.”

But when he asks if he may play for the Baby Jesus, Mary nods her approval. Timekeeping livestock notwithstanding, I always get a little teary-eyed and my heart swells at the lines “I played my drum for him … I played my best for him … Then he smiled at me.”

The little drummer boy has so little to give—he can’t compete with the “finest gifts” of others—but he gives all he has, and that is enough. The Lord is well pleased. The boy’s drumming is like the widow’s mite, and it’s a lesson for all of us. It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor, talented or mediocre—if we give all that we have, all that we are, to the Child in the manger, it is enough. That’s all he wants.

So if you tend to dismiss “The Little Drummer Boy,” give it another chance. The best recording I know is the King’s Singers’ take from their excellent album Christmas. They treat the song with fitting simplicity and dignity, and the result is truly beautiful. Give it a listen.

‘Carol of the Bells,’ futuristic a cappella style

I’m an unabashed fan of Pentatonix, the freakishly talented quintet of kids that won NBC’s a cappella singing competition, “The Sing-Off,” last year. I don’t even particularly like “Carol of the Bells” as a song, but Pentatonix’s creative arrangements (often described as “futuristic”) are almost always worth a listen. In much the same way that I marvel at the alchemy achieved with four simple voice parts in Palestrina’s Sicut cervus, I sometimes have a hard time believing there are only five voices in Pentatonix.

Incredible Christmas carol improv mashup

It’s nice having talented friends.

My friend Lawrence Lam is a pianist who has been known to record improvisations on themes like the Lamentations of Jeremiah. So a few weeks ago I sent him a Facebook message with a proposal: “I think you should record improvisations on Christmas carols and then make them available for me to download.”

He answered the call with a medley that blew my mind—twelve minutes of joyous, powerful music. I counted at least eleven songs that he weaved into his improv session, and there may be a couple I’m missing.

I asked Lawrence tonight how he’d prepared for the recording—did he have a plan? He said he’d jotted down a few carols I’d suggested on a sticky note, but when he got to the piano he realized he’d forgotten the sticky note. So he just played whatever came to mind. No preparation, one take. Yeah, there are a few rough edges—that’s how you know it’s improv—but his recording is now some of my favorite Christmas music.

So do yourself a favor and check out Lawrence Lam’s “Christmas Tinkering“—you can listen online or download it for free. Put it on in the background or take the time to savor the skill and creativity. You’ll enjoy it either way.

And if you don’t recognize the jolly tunes at the beginning and end, you need to follow the advice in this post.