Christmas Oratorio

Kathrin Danzmayr, soprano
Peggy Kriha Dye, soprano
Laurel Semerdjian, alto
Benjamin Bunsold, tenor
Aaron Wardell, baritone
David Danzmayr, conductor


ProMusica welcomes you to a celebration of works appropriate to the season. We open with the rich string sounds of Vaughan Williams, whose Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus” draws on a centuries-old Christmas carol. Next up, excerpts from Handel’s Messiah, a seasonal and audience favorite that needs little introduction. Our  program concludes with Saint-Saëns glorious Christmas Oratorio, a product of a genius in the flush of compositional youth. We hope that this inspiring program puts some extra joy into your holidays!

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958): Five Variants of “Dives and Lazarus”
Scored for harp and string orchestra. Duration is 11 minutes.
We might think the 19th century was dominated by a consistent musical vernacular, a language solidified by the geniuses of Haydn, Mozart and especially Beethoven and recast by composers who followed: in the German-speaking lands, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss; in France, Berlioz and Saint-Saëns; in Italy, Donizetti and Verdi and so on. Each of these composers was profoundly affected by and built upon what came before, infusing the “classical” vernacular with Romantic sensibility. But as the 19th century gave way to the 20th and the Romantic age faded away, a number of composers began to search for new sources of meaningful inspiration. Some sought a conscious break with the Germanic tradition (Debussy, Stravinsky), while others, such as Kodaly, Bartok and Vaughan Williams looked to the music of their own folk. Born when Brahms was 39, Vaughan Williams began his musical life as a romanticist, working with Max Bruch in Berlin. He eventually found his way back home, taking to the countryside, which he scoured collecting hundreds and hundreds of folk songs (his collection eventually numbered to some 800). Vaughan Williams would ultimately arrange and transcribe a number of these and incorporate many of their distinct patterns, rhythms and cadences into his own personal musical style.

Composed for performance during the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Five Variants on “Dives and Lazarus” draws on a folk tune, or rather a Christmas carol, which the composer had set earlier in his English Folk Song Suite. The subject is a parable, the story of the wealthy Dives, or Diverus, who denies the poorer Lazarus food and drink; burning in hell, Dives begs water from Lazarus, who now resides “in the bosom of Abraham.” The tune itself, which had been sung in England at least since the 16th century, is presented at the outset of the introduction and then reflected upon by the entire ensemble, which the composer splits into seven distinct groups, allowing for an exceedingly rich orchestration. Small motives of the theme weave in and out, as if in a tapestry, before bring brought back in recognizable form toward the introduction’s end. Five variants (as opposed to variations) follow, “reminiscences of various versions,” as the composer writes, “ in my own collection and those of others.” Each variant moves directly one into the next and focuses on a different player or group of players. In Variant I, harp chords emerge beneath the melodic string orchestra; Variant II juxtaposes a chordal group with a violin answer, a sort of call and response that gives way to a grand outburst characterized by its duple vs. triple meter; Variant III opens with solo violin and harp before being swept up in a fast-moving ripple of strings; Variant IV offers the first major character change, featuring both a striking harmonic shift from the dark realm of C minor to an ancient modal world, a faster moving tempo and strong rhythmic interplay; Variant V again returns to the prior carol-style, builds to an impressive climax and then returns to a more peaceful world, as a solo cello, harp and then the entire ensemble bring Vaughan Williams’ lush score to a satisfying close.


George Frederick Handel (1685-1759): Excerpts from The Messiah, HWV 5
Scored for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, chorus and an orchestra of strings, oboes, bassoon, trumpets and harpsichord.
Handel’s Messiah, of course, needs no introduction, especially this time of year and in this hall—after all, ProMusica has long been treating its audiences to various approaches to this amazing score. Still, given the profound nature and frequent subtleties of what most would argue is Handel’s magnum opus, a few salient points about the numbers to be performed tonight might be in order.

Composed in 1741, the Messiah was actually a result of the German-born composer looking to cater to British tastes. Handel had come to England in 1712, following training in his native Halle and Hamburg and later in Italy, and it was with Italian-inspired opera that he carved out his early reputation in London. But tastes, even good ones, change with time, and eventually the English grew tired of listening to a language they couldn’t understand. So in the 1730’s Handel, who had become a British subject in 1727, attempted to give his countrymen and women something more to their liking. His first foray into the world of English-language oratorio was Esther, a re-working of an earlier score updated the King’s Theater, Haymarket. The work’s success, led to the production of several more oratorios and though Handel continued to dabble in the operatic world, the overwhelming demand for English stage works eventually convinced the composer to cease composing Italian opera and spend his energy with English-language oratorios (of course, while continuing to compose in a variety of other genres). In 1741, Charles Jennens asked Handel to consider a Passion story he had written. The composer set to work and a mere 24 days later miraculously scratched in the final double bar (then almost immediately commenced work on his next oratorio)! The Messiah actually received its premiere in Dublin, to great success, while back home, the work won over Londoners much more slowly, if surely. Of course, in time Handel’s masterpiece would become nearly synonymous with the word ‘oratorio.’

Gallons upon gallons of ink have since been spent analyzing, deconstructing and reflecting upon Handel’s efforts, so we will simply pinpoint a few particularly interesting features of the work here. First, although the original score does not specify precisely which or how many instruments were intended—in subsequent performances Handel himself adjusted matters depending on the circumstances—Handel most certainly envisioned a handful of strings, oboes, a harpsichord and, for good measure, trumpets, whose sparse usage only magnifies their effect. The oratorio opens with a Sinfony, an orchestral introduction whose seriousness sets the tone for what follows. It’s worth noting that the crisp rhythm (short-long) comprising much of the first part of the Sinfony looks back to the French overtures of Lully, who consciously “invented” this stately gesture as a means of flattering his employer, Louis XIV. The work proper is cast in three large sections—the coming of the Messiah; Christ’s suffering and death; Christ’s resurrection and the redemption of mankind. Handel’s genius, reflected in any number of ways, includes his imaginative and fitting musical imagery, which brilliantly captures the essence and poignancy of Jennens’ text libretto. In the very first aria, “Comfort Ye, my people,” for example, listen for the gentle accompaniment and the soothing repetition of the word “Comfort.” In the 11th aria, “The people walked in darkness,” features the bass line plodding along in unison with the bass soloist; the notes move unevenly here and there which, along with the irregular phrasing, suggests tripping or staggering. Also, note how deeply the word “darkness” is sung, in contrast to “light,” which is both held and sits atop the soloist’s range. Of course, little explanation is required to appreciate Handel’s spirited depictions of joy, whether in “Every valley” (listen again here to the depiction of the words “crooked” and “exalted”) or the virtuosic coloratura soprano writing in “Rejoice.” And finally, whether or not King George II actually stood in homage to the ‘Halleluiah Chorus,’ doing so has become something of a tradition, and for good reason—one can hardly imagine a more glorious conclusion to such a breathtaking work. Little wonder, then, that this chorus became something of a hit already in the composer’s lifetime. More than two and a half centuries later, Handel’s majestic conclusion still has the power to make our hair stand on end.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921): Christmas Oratorio, Op. 12
Scored for soprano, alto, tenor, bass, chorus, strings and harp. Duration is 32 minutes.
Among the most prodigious composers of his generation, Camille Saint-Saëns was granted eighty-six years to live and work. He put his time and talents to tremendous use, penning hundreds and hundreds of scores, including thirteen operas (Samson and Delilah, his most famous), concertos (including the still-popular 2nd Piano Concerto, heard here last season), chamber music of nearly every genre (including duo sonatas, piano trios, quartets, quintets and the beloved Carnival of the Animals, performed by ProMusica last month), songs, dozens and dozens of works for piano and organ and a staggering portfolio of choral music, both secular and sacred, such as the Oratorio de Noël performed tonight.

When his father, a French official, died of consumption less than two months after Camille’s birth, the infant was whisked out of Paris to preserve his health. Having spent his first two years in the care of a nurse, he was returned to his mother at the age of two, where he soon began displaying undeniable musical gifts, including demonstrating perfect pitch by the age of three. Saint-Saëns pursued organ studies at the Conservatoire, where his precocious talent was quickly recognized—indeed, his mother feared he would become too famous too soon. He would go on to experience a rich musical life as a performer, conductor, composer, teacher and organist—no less than Franz Liszt declared him the greatest organist in the world. His compositions, spanning the gamut from the sacred to the profane, reveal a diverse and stunning body of work that attests to critic Harold Schonberg’s 1969 pronouncement that “he was the most remarkable child prodigy in history, and that includes Mozart.”

The Christmas Oratorio was dashed off in two weeks’ time, late in 1858, in order to meet a commission deadline for that year’s Christmas celebration. While the twenty-three year-old composer was simultaneously dispatching his duties as church organist of Madeleine, the official church of the French Empire. Well familiar with the tradition of liturgical music (indeed, he already possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the music of the past), Saint-Saëns modeled his oratorio on the great compositions of the previous centuries, although he cast his score along more intimate lines—his oratorio was intended for a church, not a staged performance. Still, the work, which is set in ten numbers, reveals a wide array of styles, ranging from solo recitatives to operatic-style passages. Saint-Saëns fittingly opens with an instrumental Prelude “in the style of Bach,” though whose pastoral melody is Saint-Saëns’ through and through. Next is a gentle recitative (a traditional style evoking an almost “spoken” melody) as intoned by the soloists, over a slow-moving accompaniment. With the stage now set, the chorus offers a joyful “Gloria.” Two airs follow, the first, set expressively for mezzo, the second, a “Domine” scored for tenor and chorus, much of which betrays Saint-Saëns the operatic aria composer. No. 5, a duet for soprano and baritone, draws on three verses from Psalm 118. It is cast in three sections: the first and third rely on florid passagework, accompanied by organ and harp, while the contrasting middle section, underscored by organ alone, moves in far slower, measured phrases. No. 6, for chorus, offers the first real drama of the work. It is built of two large sections: the first, set to an agitated accompaniment, questions why nations are angry; the latter, a meditative setting of the doxology, offers up praise to the Trinity. Nos. 7-10 build from a trio to a brilliant quintet with chorus that recalls the opening prelude and again, displays the twenty-three year old composer’s dazzling gifts as a melodicist, colorful orchestrator (even when working with a string orchestra) and a commander of form. Having more than aptly demonstrated his dexterous compositional abilities with his multi-layered quintet, Saint-Saëns opts to close his oratorio more humbly with a chorale, a joyous hymn of praise.

(c) Marc Moskovitz