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December 13: The Twelve Days of Christmas December 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Just for Fun, Music.
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…And so the second half of the countdown begins. Out of the 24 days until Christmas, only twelve are left…we’re halfway there! 😀

When I was young, one of the things I enjoyed most about Christmas was singing carols. Not just because I liked the music, or the words, but because I could remember them – all the words to every carol. (I had a near-photographic memory for poetry…useless for practical purposes, but fun.) Ever year I delighted in reaming off verse after obscure verse of carol after carol, while the grownups around me gazed on in astonishment at all those words they could never remember.

All right, I admit it…I was more than a bit of a showoff. 😀

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was one of the best carols for this purpose. It was long and went on and on and on, with every verse adding a further level of complexity. I took great pride in remembering all the drummers drumming and maids a-milking and lords a-leaping and calling birds and swans a-swimming long after all the other singers around me had given up in disgust, or boredom.

I could post a YouTube video of this, but absolutely everyone has heard the Twelve Days of Christmas (probably far more often than they would have liked to.) So instead, here’s my favorite parody, by Frank Kelly. 😀


December 12: Ihr Kinderlein Kommet December 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
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Time for another German carol…one of my all-time favorites.

Last night I turned pages for a friend’s Christmas concert at a church nearby. They were performing Joseph Martin’s “Ceremony of Candles”…a beautiful choral reworking and interweaving of traditional Christmas carols, including “In the Bleak Midwinter”,” Il est Ne Le Divin Enfant”, “Silent Night” and many others. I actually got goosebumps during the performance…not once but several times. Amazing.

My favorite movement was “Invitation to the Manger”, based on the German Christmas carol “Ihr Kinderlein Kommet” – “O Come Little Children.” Martin reworks this simple, childlike carol into a brilliant contrapuntal setting complete with ringing bell-like chords in the piano, sudden shifts of key and a brilliant, jubilant tempo. I felt utterly drawn in – my only regret was that I couldn’t sing along!

I tried to find a usable recording on Youtube, but to no avail. However, here is a beautiful choral setting of Ihr Kinderlein Kommet…a must-listen in any case. Enjoy.

Ihr Kinderlein, kommet, o kommet doch all!
Zur Krippe her kommet in Bethlehems Stall
und seht, was in dieser hochheiligen Nacht
der Vater im Himmel für Freude uns macht!

O seht in der Krippe im nächtlichen Stall,
seht hier bei des Lichtleins hell glänzendem Strahl
den reinliche Windeln, das himmlische Kind,
viel schöner und holder als Engel es sind!

Da liegt es, das Kindlein, auf Heu und auf Stroh,
Maria und Josef betrachten es froh.
Die redlichen Hirten knien betend davor,
hoch oben schwebt jubelnd der Engelein Chor.

O beugt wie die Hirten anbetend die Knie,
erhebet die Hände und danket wie sie!
Stimmt freudig, ihr Kinder, wer wollt sich nicht freun,
stimmt freudig zum Jubel der Engel mit ein!

Oh, come, little children, oh, come, one and all,
To Bethlehem’s stable, in Bethlehem’s stall.
And see with rejoicing this glorious sight,
Our Father in heaven has sent us this night.

Oh, see in the manger, in hallowèd light
A star throws its beam on this holiest sight.
In clean swaddling clothes lies the heavenly Child,
More lovely than angels, this Baby so mild.

Oh, there lies the Christ Child, on hay and on straw;
The shepherds are kneeling before Him with awe.
And Mary and Joseph smile on Him with love,
While angels are singing sweet songs from above.

December 11: Gloucestershire Wassail December 13, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Just for Fun, Music.
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I’ve been going to and hosting a lot of Christmas parties this past week, so I thought I’d post another party song. The “Gloucestershire Wassail” is by far my favorite traditional secular carol. Any time I turn it on it’s bound to bring a smile to my face…it so perfectly conjures up the image of a Christmas party with lots of great food, drink and good music!

This site has some great notes on the origin of wassailing, an ancient English tradition with pagan roots thought to originate between 300-500 AD; “pre-Christian fertility rites where the villagers went through orchards at mid-winter singing and shouting loudly to drive out evil spirits, and pouring cider on the roots of trees to encourage fertility…It was only later that these traditions became associated with “luck visits” made around the neighborhood, together with general merry-making…and “fortified by copious quantities of alcohol”.” 😀

As a vegan, I can’t say I’m crazy about the lyrics, which mainly refer to various animals popular for their meat in English cooking. However, I do love the last verse. Like much of the song, it has the feeling of something joyfully improvised on the spur of the moment…perhaps by a young man in the wassailing group who wished to catch the attention of the “maid in the lily white smock” he’s seen earlier that evening? 😉

…And the rollicking tune is simply irresistible.

My favorite performance is by the Baltimore Consort, but unfortunately it is completely unavailable online. Here’s a close second best, by the Waverly Consort.

Wassail, wassail all over the town
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

So here is to Cherry and to his right cheek
Pray God send our master a good piece of beef
And a good piece of beef that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Dobbin and to his right eye
Pray God send our master a good Christmas pie
A good Christmas pie that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

So here is to Broad Mary and to her broad horn
May God send our master a good crop of corn
And a good crop of corn that may we all see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Fillpail and to her left ear
Pray God send our master a happy New Year
And a happy New Year as e’er he did see
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink to thee

And here is to Colly and to her long tail
Pray God send our master he never may fail
A bowl of strong beer! I pray you draw near
And our jolly wassail it’s then you shall hear

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.

December 10: Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine (and Cradle Song) December 11, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
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Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” is an old German Christmas cradle song (dating back to 1500 and possibly before) whose gentle swaying motion clearly mimics the motion of Mary rocking the newborn Christ Child. Though both the song and the lyrics are simple in themselves, Brahms used the melody to create one of his most beautiful works, “Geistliches Wiegenlied” (Sacred Lullaby) – which I had the wonderful opportunity to perform a few years ago with a chamber ensemble at the university where I studied piano.

The “Geistliches Wiegenlied” is paired in Op. 91 with another song; both are written for contralto, viola, and piano. I love the story of how these works were created:

The songs bear clear relationship to the composer’s friendship with Joachim, the great violinist, and his wife, Amalie, one of the leading contraltos of her day. In September 1864, in honour of the birth of the Joachims’ first-born child, Brahms dispatched an early version of the Sacred Lullaby, a setting of a poem by Emanuel Geibel. Then in 1884, in the wake of the violinist’s unsuccessful divorce proceedings against his wife, the composer revised the old song and composed for it a companion, Quelled Longing. Both songs were published together in 1884 as Brahms’ Op. 91, and this musical pairing can only be understood as a well-meaning effort to resolve the estrangement of his two dear friends – which brought to the public two of the greatest and most powerful expressions of his lyric muse.

Tender, lyrical, gently contrapuntal and approachable to all listeners, this piece is a must-listen. You can hear the “Joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine” melody in the viola at the beginning, and subtly woven throughout the texture of the song…just another example of Brahms’ amazing genius. The performers are Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano), Cecil Aronowitz (viola) and Andre Previn (piano).

– Contrapuntal Platypus

December 9: Riu, Riu, Chiu December 11, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Just for Fun, Music.
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These past few days I’ve been going to and having Christmas parties. Today (yes, December 11; excuse the late post :D) was my piano masterclass and Christmas party. Great music, great cookies and a chance for the students to meet one another – though I seemed utterly unable to persuade anyone to sing carols. Why is our culture apparently terrified of singing?

Now maybe if we lived in Spain…

“Riu, riu, chiu”, a traditional Spanish carol, is just sheer fun to sing and listen to. It’s the perfect Christmas party song. What’s ironic is that the lyrics – a rather stuffy theological metaphor comparing the Immaculate Conception to a river guarding a lamb (the Virgin Mary) from a ravenous wolf (the Devil) – aren’t exactly prime material for a party song. (The later verses do get better though – not that the meaning makes a difference to a non-Spanish speaking listener like me!)

A couple years ago I heard this song done by an all-men’s choir at a university Christmas concert. The guy who did the solo was obviously a native Spanish speaker and he did a fantastic job, rattling off verse after verse of tongue-twisting lyrics. By the look of it, he was enjoying every moment of the performance as much as we were!

I couldn’t find a performance on Youtube to match that one, but the Oxford Camerata does a pretty good job. 😀

English Translation:
Chorus: Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank protects it,
As God kept the wolf from the lamb.

The rabid wolf tried to bite her,
But God Almightly knew how to defend her,
He wished to create her impervious to sin,
Nor was this maid to embody original sin.

He comes to give life to the dead,
He comes to redeem the fall of man;
This Child is the light of day,
He is the very Lamb Saint John prophecied.

A thousand singing herons I saw passing,
Flying overhead, sounding a thousand voices,
Exulting, “Glory be in the heavens, and peace on earth,
For Jesus has been born.”


December 8: Angels We Have Heard on High December 10, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music.
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Another traditional favorite. For me this song has a special association: the December that I was in the play “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

For me this is one of the yearly “must-read” Christmas books. The church in a small, sleepy town prepares for the annual Christmas pageant, which never changes: the “perfect” girl is always Mary, the minister’s son always Joseph, and the little kids always get stuck in the Angel Choir. Then one year, double disaster strikes. The woman in charge of the pageant breaks her leg, and the Hurdmans – “the worst kids in town”, famous for swearing, cigar smoking and stealing – show up at church one day and take over every major role. The main character’s mother and substitute pageant director bravely declares that it will be “the best Christmas pageant ever.” But what will happen on Christmas Eve?

Much as I wanted to be one of the Hurdmans, I – like most of the children who auditioned – were assigned to the Angel Choir, with little to do until the near-final scenes when we trooped onstage singing “Angels We Have Heard on High”. The song was cut short by a fire alarm (you’ll have to read the book to find out why. :D). Fortunately, as I recall we got to sing the entire carol later. My favorite bit were the long “Gloria’s” in the chorus – so much fun to sing!

Here’s a gorgeous recording by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

December 7: Candlelight Carol December 10, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Christianity, Music, Poetry.
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A beautiful gem of a contemporary carol composed by John Rutter. Really there’s nothing one could possibly add by talking about it…so here are two recordings. The first is by a professional ensemble, the second a high school choir – less polished perhaps, but with a certain magic that (to me) the professional recording doesn’t quite match.

Enjoy! 🙂

How do you capture the wind on the water?
How do you count all the stars in the sky?
How can you measure the love of a mother,
Or how can you write down a baby’s first cry?
Candlelight, angel light, firelight and star-glow
Shine on his cradle till breaking of dawn.
Gloria, gloria in excelsis Deo!
Angels are singing; the Christ child is born.
Shepherds and wise men will kneel and adore him,
Seraphim round him their vigil will keep;
Nations proclaim him their Lord and their Saviour,
But Mary will hold him and sing him to sleep.

Find him at Bethlehem laid in a manger:
Christ our Redeemer asleep in the hay.
Godhead incarnate and hope of salvation:
A child with his mother that first Christmas Day.

December 4: Hallelujah! December 4, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in Advent Calendar of Carols, Just for Fun, Music, Through the Looking Glass, Truth is Stranger than Fiction.
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Ok, this isn’t at all the carol I’d planned to post today. But when a friend pointed me to this “Hallelujah Chorus Flash Mob” video this morning, I found it far too awesome not to post.

I sang in the Hallelujah Chorus one December with a local volunteer choir (part of the winter concert for my sister’s school) together with my dad and sister. It was a great experience and I’d love to repeat it someday. Hallelujah! 🙂

No more commentary today…the video speaks for itself. Enjoy! 🙂

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

December 3: O Come all Ye Faithful December 3, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Language, Music, Teaching.
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…Time for a more “traditional” carol.

This is one of the earliest carols I remember learning – one of the first in my “Wee Sing for Christmas” book. One of my clearest memories of carol-singing is of walking through the grocery store’s parking lot towards our car with my mom, singing “Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation” and then asking, “What does ‘exultation‘ mean?”

It’s for this reason that I so regret the near-total decline in Christmas carol singing among kids. All the “traditional” carols – O Come All Ye Faithful, Away in a Manger, Joy to the World – use beautiful, poetic language and an extremely sophisticated vocabulary. No “dumbing down” or attempting to appeal to the “lowest common denominator.” ‘Exultation‘ is not a word your average child will use very often, true, but having this type of word in their vocabulary enriches their literary life immensely. At least, that’s how I always felt when reading books with new words… 😀

I also love the section of the carol that begins “O come let us adore him” – where just one person sings the phrase, then another joins in, and finally the whole choir repeats it together. “O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.” It’s a beautiful musical moment and one that makes this carol ever-popular…and rightfully so.

Enjoy! This is the King’s College Choir of Cambridge.

– The Contrapuntal Platypus

December 2: Do You Hear What I Hear? December 2, 2010

Posted by contrapuntalplatypus in About Me, Advent Calendar of Carols, Language, Music, Saving the World.
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My family’s traditional “first” Christmas carol to sing around the Advent wreath is “The First Noel.” Though I like the words I can’t say I’m crazy about the tune: though nice enough, it’s pretty repetitive (each verse consists of two repetitions of the same phrase and the chorus is only a slight variation on that tune.) Instead, I’ve decided to feature another “shepherd” carol, a little hidden gem that’s rarely sung but I’ve always loved: Do You Hear What I Hear.

One of my favorite children’s books was “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” “Do You Hear What I Hear” has the same simple childlike appeal of back-and-forth question and answer, telling the Christmas story in simple yet compelling images: a star with a tail as big as a kite, a song with a voice as big as the sea, a child sleeping in the night who “will bring us goodness and light.” Beautiful and a refreshing contrast to the complex language of many carols. I didn’t know until I researched it tonight that the song was written in October 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis…a prayer still echoed by so many caught in the middle of conflict today. This is the most famous version, recorded in 1963 by Bing Crosby.

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite,
With a tail as big as a kite.

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,
Do you hear what I hear?
A song, a song high above the trees
With a voice as big as the sea,
With a voice as big as the sea.

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,
Do you know what I know?
In your palace warm, mighty king,
Do you know what I know?
A Child, a Child shivers in the cold
Let us bring him silver and gold,
Let us bring him silver and gold.

Said the king to the people everywhere,
Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere,
Listen to what I say!
The Child, the Child sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light,
He will bring us goodness and light.