Saturday, December 31, 2011

“The Old Year is Past and the New Year is Come”

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Here is a favorite New Year’s toast:

A Happy New Year

The old year is past and the New Year is come,
And all the jolly soldiers are a beating on the drum.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Here's a health to you in water― I wish it was in wine!
And all the money you have got I'm sure it's none of mine.
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Here's a health unto our Master and Missus likewise,
And all the pretty family around the fireside!
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

We wish you Merry Christmas and Happy New Year
Your pockets full of money and your barrels full of beer!
So and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

Collected by Cecil Sharp from Frederick Grossman of Langport in Somerset in 1909 [#368B, p. 506 in Vol. II of Cecil Sharp's Collection of English Folk Songs, Maud Karpeles (Ed.), Oxford University Press, 1974].  More information about Nowell Sing We Clear: http://www.nowellsingweclear.com/

The Seventh Day of Christmas ― The Oxen

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On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today, December 31st, is the Seventh Day of Christmas. It’s also New Year’s Eve, the last day of the calendar year.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church and communities that still follow the older Julian calendar, Christmas (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6) fall on January 7 and January 19, respectively, in the modern Gregorian calendar, meaning that for some Christians, Christmas has yet to arrive. And that’s my rationale for writing about a wonderful Christmas poem, “The Oxen,” by one of my favorite writers, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

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None of the Biblical descriptions of Christ’s birth mentions animals near the manger, but it makes sense that religious leaders embroidered the Bible stories to make them as familiar and appealing as possible to their illiterate parishioners.

Over the centuries, the animals have crept into the Nativity story: the ass and cow, displaced from their stalls by their unexpected stable-mates; perhaps a few hens, drowsing on the rafters; and of course, the sheep, crowding gently around their shepherds as they came into the light and warmth.

To the early Christians, the inclusion of these silent witnesses brought the Heavenly story down to earth, giving human context to God’s great gift, the Christ Child. The inclusion of stable animals at the Nativity was first recorded in the 9th century chant O magnum mysterium, the fourth of the nine responsorial chants sung during Matins on Christmas Day:

O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum,
jacentum in praesepio.
O beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare Dominum Jesum Christum.
Alleluia.

O great mystery and wondrous sacrament,
that beasts should behold the newborn Lord
lying in a manger.
O blessed Virgin, whose womb
hast merited to bear the Lord Jesus Christ.
Alleluia.

I grew up on a farm, where an old legend ― beloved, if not altogether believed ― held that at midnight on Christmas Eve, all the animals in the stable would kneel in prayer, in recognition of the birth of Christ. The story holds the most appeal for little children and, I suppose, those who believe blindly in the stories of the Christian Nativity.

English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) knew the legend well, and used it as a vehicle to express his own views on religion.

The Oxen
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
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Originally published in The Times of London, December 24, 1915; a revised version was published in Moments of Vision, 1918.

A barton is a cow-shed; a coomb is a valley.

The first line of the third stanza originally read: “So fair a fancy few believe;” Hardy later revised it to read “So fair a fancy few would weave”

In sixteen simple lines, in regular meter and with a regular rhyme scheme (abab/cdcd/efef/ghgh), Hardy presents questions which have been central to Western human thought for two millennia or more – is there a God? Was that babe born in Bethlehem, and was that child endowed with some sort of divinity? And is the story worthy of our hope, faith, and worship?

With carefully chosen words, he paints the classic Nativity scene: the children are, like sheep, in a “flock;” the creatures are “meek and mild,” like Jesus (e.g., in Wesley’s hymn, “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild”) and Mary (anonymous 15th century song, “Mary, mother, meek and mild”).

By evoking a childhood memory common to many of us ― gathering around the hearth to hear an elder recount a beloved Christmas story – Hardy draws us in to an intimate place, where we become children once again, ready to hope, ready to believe; and indeed, as he says, most children did believe, and never would have thought to do otherwise: “Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt they were kneeling then.”

Hardy acknowledges that times have changed, and that modern people are less likely to believe the old story: “So fair a fancy few would weave / In these years!”

Still, he acknowledges the human need for security of mind and body, and the tradition of seeking that security in the comfort of religion, despite the “gloom,” that is, despite the uncertainty and unlikelihood of finding that which is sought: “Yet, I feel, / If someone said on Christmas Eve, / “Come; see the oxen kneel … I should go with him in the gloom, / Hoping it might be so.”

“Hoping it might be so.”

At this point, some readers will think, “He hopes that it might be so, and believes that it will be so. He believes; he has faith.”

Others will interpret that last line thus: “He hopes that it might be so, but knows that it will not be so. He does not believe.”

“Hoping it might be so.” Hardy makes no suggestion that it was so, or is so, or would be so.

What he is invoking is the memory of hope, his reminiscence of the mystery he felt on Christmas Eve, when as a little child he heard the tale and wondered if the animals would indeed kneel down in their “strawy pen.” And by crafting this poem so intimately, he draws us in to the story, and takes us back to our childhood’s dream, so that we may feel the full weight of that last line, “Hoping it might be so.” This is an expression of lost faith, a song of nostalgia for the feeling of faith, and perhaps an acknowledgement of the powerful appeal of the Nativity story, especially to children.

I’ve read analyses of this poem that remark on its “sorrow of disbelief,” or say that it “aches with a sense of loss and exclusion” or is marked by “wistful regret or poignant loss.” There may be poignancy and perhaps even wistfulness, but there is no regret, and no a “sorrow of disbelief,” and certainly no impulse to return to the stable.

Hardy composed “The Oxen” in 1915, as World War I was spattering Europe with the blood of millions of young men lost to the carnage of the trenches; it was a time (“In these years!”) when many turned away from God and the comforting religion that many had previously accepted without question (“Nor did it occur to one of us there / To doubt”). Though Hardy had been raised in the Christian tradition, and had even, early on, considered an ecclesiastical career, by the time he wrote this poem (1915), he had long since abandoned his faith and accepted a rational, humanist, atheistic outlook.

No matter your belief, Hardy’s “The Oxen” is a beautifully crafted poem and certainly one of his best. A detailed, nicely referenced analysis and contextual discussion, worthy of your time, may be found here:
http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/hardy/poems/pva141.html

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ setting of “The Oxen” is the central movement of his Christmas cantata Hodie, which I recently performed with The Hartford Chorale and The Hartford Symphony Orchestra. You can read all my essays about the concert series here:

http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Vaughan%20Williams%20Ralph

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Sixth Day of Christmas ― Wolcum Yole!


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On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today, to mark the Sixth Day of Christmas, I’ll share an anonymous 14th-century Christmas text, “Wolcum Yole!”

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The “Twelve days of Christmas” which fall between the Feast of the Nativity (December 25) and Epiphany (January 6) have traditionally been a time of merrymaking and visiting, as well as the celebration of the feast days of several important saints and martyrs. In this anonymous 14th century text, Wolcum! is offered to one and all; the feast days and the winter solstice are marked; Epiphany is anticipated; and the New Year is welcomed with joy.

Here’s the original text, followed by a modern English “translation,” followed by some notes on the text.

Wolcum Yole!
Wolcum be thou hevenè king,
Wolcum, born in one morning,
Wolcum for whom we sall sing!
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye, Stevene and Jon,
Wolcom, Innocentes everyone,
Wolcum, Thomas marter one,
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye, good Newe Yere,
Wolcum, Twelfthe day
both in fere,
Wolcum, Seintes lefe and dere,
Wolcum Yole!

Wolcum be ye, Candelmesse,
Wolcum be ye, Quene of bliss,
Wolcum bothe to more and lesse.
Wolcume Yole!

Wolcum be ye that are here,
Wolcum alle and make good cheer.
Wolcum alle another yere.
Wolcum Yole!


Welcome, Yule!
Welcome be Thou, heavenly King,
Welcome born on this morning,
Welcome for whom we shall sing,
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye, Stephen and John
Welcome, Innocents, ev’ry one,
Welcome, Thomas, Martyred one
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye, good New Year,
Welcome, Twelfth day, almost here
Welcome, Saints, loved and dear,
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye, Candlemas
Welcome be ye, Queen of Bliss,
Welcome, both to more and less,
Welcome, Yule!

Welcome be ye that are here,
Welcome all, and make good cheer,
Welcome all, another year,
Welcome, Yule!



Yole = Yule, a pagan winter solstice festival; also, the feast of Jesus’ nativity, held on December 25

Stevene = St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose feast day is December 26

Jon = St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast day is December 27

Innocentes = Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28), which commemorates the children slain by Herod in his vain attempt to kill the infant Christ

Thomas = Thomas à Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, December 29, 1170; his feast day is December 29

marter = martyr

Newe Year = January 1, the Octave of Christmas, and the start of the New Year

Twelfth Day = Epiphany, January 6, the twelfth day after Christmas; Epiphany, the last day of Christmas in the Western Christian calendar

in fere = “well-nigh” or “in company”

Candelmesse = Candlemas, the blessing of the candles, he Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, celebrated on February 2

more and less = great and small

Thursday, December 29, 2011

New Stamps Feature American Raptors

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On January 20, 2012, the U.S. Postal Service will release some beautiful new stamps featuring five magnificent American birds of prey, painted by Robert Giusti:


From left to right: Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos), Osprey (Pandion haliaetus), and Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus).

Very fine.

Too bad they’re not for standard first-class one-ounce mail, though; I’d buy a hundred. Who uses 85 cent stamps (for three-ounce items) on a regular basis?

More info: http://beyondtheperf.com/2012-preview/#stamp-birds-of-prey

The Fifth Day of Christmas ― Smoking Bishop

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On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Today, to mark the Fifth Day of Christmas, here is a bit of the famous end of the fifth “stave” from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. (Clever Dickens! His “carol” is divided into five musical staffs, or staves. I’ve always loved that!)

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[Scrooge] was early at the office next morning. Oh he was early there. If he could only be there first, and catch Bob Cratchit coming late! That was the thing he had set his heart upon.

And he did it; yes, he did. The clock struck nine. No Bob. A quarter past. No Bob. He was full eighteen minutes and a half behind his time. Scrooge sat with his door wide open, that he might see him come into the Tank.

His hat was off, before he opened the door; his comforter too. He was on his stool in a jiffy; driving away with his pen, as if he were trying to overtake nine o’clock.

“Hallo,” growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?”

“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Bob. “I am behind my time.”

“You are?” repeated Scrooge. “Yes. I think you are. Step this way, if you please.”

“It’s only once a year, sir,” pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank. “It shall not be repeated. I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.”

“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer. And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again; “and therefore I am about to raise your salary.”

Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.

“A merry Christmas, Bob,” said Scrooge, with an earnestness that could not be mistaken, as he clapped him on the back. “A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”


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Well, that’s lovely.

But the question of real importance ― what the Dickens (sorry) is “smoking bishop”?

It’s a festive drink of hot spiced wine, “scented with oranges and infused with port.” (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=890045). Here’s a recipe which, according to NPR, is Dickens’ own.

Perhaps I’ll make some for our family’s ongoing Christmas revels.

Smoking Bishop

Take six Seville oranges and bake them in a moderate oven until pale brown. (If you cannot procure any bitter Seville oranges, use four regular oranges and one large grapefruit.)

Prick each of the oranges with five whole cloves, put them into a warmed ceramic or glass vessel with one-quarter pound of sugar and a bottle of red wine, cover the vessel, and leave it in a warm place for 24 hours.

Take the oranges out of the mixture, cut in half and squeeze the juice, then pour the juice back into the wine.

Pour the mixture into a saucepan through a sieve, add a bottle of port, heat (without boiling), and serve in warmed glasses.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Fourth Day of Christmas ― Baking Favorite Christmas Cookies


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On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Of course, Christmas means, in part, “special, delicious food.” In our household, three baked goods must be had at Christmas: soft white rolls for dinner, pecan pie(s) for D, and sugary-vanilla Christmas cookies, cut into fanciful shapes and decorated with colored sugar.

Though I did most of my Yuletide food preparations in the days immediately before Christmas, I haven’t had a chance to write about any of it until now. For today, the Fourth Day of Christmas, I’ll share my favorite recipe for Christmas cookies.


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In the three decades since I’ve been keeping my own kitchen, I’ve tried plenty of recipes for Christmas cookies. The one I’ve come to favor is my own slight adaptation of “King Arthur’s Special Roll-Out Sugar Cookies,” from the King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion (Woodstock, VT: Countryman Press, ©2004, page 59).

This is a marvelous cookbook, full of practical information and helpful illustrations alongside a wealth of really good recipes. The sugar cookie recipe is easy to mix, shape, bake, and store. The recipe doubles well; the amounts shown below are doubled from the original recipe. The baked cookies keep well in a tightly closed container for two weeks. Yield: About six dozen small- to medium-sized cookies.

In a large flat-bottomed mixing bowl, combine 2 cups soft butter, 2 cups sugar, 1.5 teaspoons salt, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 4 teaspoons vanilla extract. [I omit the almond extract called for in the original recipe.]


Beat these with an electric mixed until light and fluffy. Add 2 eggs and beat well.


Add ½ cup heavy cream, 6 tablespoons cornstarch, and 6 cups King Arthur unbleached all-purpose flour. (Don’t bother with other flour brands; King Arthur is, quite simply, the best flour you can buy.) Mix just until thoroughly blended. Do not over-mix, as this will toughen the dough.


Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a light touch, work the dough with your hands (I hesitate to say “knead,” as this implies a mechanical process) just until the mixture is smooth and completely blended. This should take no more than 8-10 seconds. Divide the dough into four equal portions. Again using a light touch, roll or flatten each piece into a circle about ¾” thick.


Stack the rounds in a baking pan, separating each round with a piece of plastic wrap, and covering the whole stack carefully to prevent drying:


Refrigerate the dough for at least an hour; this will make it easier to roll out.

When you’re ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 350˚F, and prepare the baking sheets. I use baking parchment, which facilitates even browning, catches all the drips and drops and bits of sugar, and makes for a quick and easy clean-up.

When rolling and cutting, work with just one piece of dough at a time; leave the others closely covered in a cool place.

Sprinkle just a bit of flour on the rolling surface (the nice cool marble counter top is great for buttery cookie dough), and gently roll out the dough to between 1/8 and ¼ inch thick. If it’s too thin, it will brown too quickly and may burn. If it’s too thick, the cookies will be doughy instead of crisp.


Use sharp, clean cutters to cut the dough into your preferred shapes. Some of these cutters have been in my family for generations; they’re a bit battered but I wouldn’t trade them for anything.




Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheets.


Dampen the top of each cookie with a tiny amount of water, using a fine-bristled brush; this will help the decorations stay on instead of rolling all over the pan. Damp, not wet.


We prefer simple colored sugars and little rainbow dots, sprinkled with a liberal hand.


Bake the cookies for 10-12 minutes, until they are a light golden color. Watch them carefully after about five minutes. If you are baking two sheets at a time, you may need to rotate them part way through the baking time, to ensure even baking.

Some might say that the cookies in the next photo are overdone and too brown on the edges, but I like them that way.


Remove the cookies to a rack, and let them cool completely before storing them in a tightly closed container.




All my recipes may be viewed here:

They are further organized as follows, with some overlap:


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

“Like Ornaments on a Christmas Tree for Merlot, Pinot, and Chablis”


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Once in a while a perfect gift comes along.

A colleague gave me these three lovely jewel-toned wine stoppers as a Christmas gift:

 

Aren’t they pretty? This is just the sort of elegant thing I love to have but would never splurge to purchase for myself. I’ve long wanted pretty stoppers for wine bottles, but could never justify the expense. How nice, then, to have received these as a gift!

I sent him this bit of doggerel as a thank-you:

When I enjoy a new bottle of wine,
Especially one that’s costly and fine,
I no longer curse the fragments of cork
That chip off when I apply too much torque;
For now I’m at ease, and very proper:
Each flask of wine now sports a stopper!
These baubles are of lovely hue,
Emerald, ruby, and sapphire blue;
Each is a beauty in its own right,
Catching and reflecting the light,
Like ornaments on a Christmas tree
For Merlot, Pinot, and Chablis.

[Yes, the bottles in the photo are Merlot, Toscano, and Sancerre. But those don't rhyme with "Christmas tree."]
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© 2011 Quodlibet. Dissemination, re-use, or duplication prohibited except by express permission of the author.I pay attention and I will find you if you cite, republish, or use my work without credit or without attribution.




Hartford Chorale ― Happy 40th Anniversary!


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On December 4, 2011, The Hartford Chorale, the region’s principal symphonic chorus, celebrated its 40th anniversary. The anniversary happened to fall on the day that the ensemble gave the last of four thrilling performances of Ralph Vaughan Williams Hodie with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra.

You can read more about this music, the performances, and the great reviews, here:
http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/Vaughan%20Williams%20Ralph

After the performance, friends and members of the Chorale continued their celebrations in the Autorino Great Hall at The Bushnell, a dramatic space eminently suitable for a party.


We were honored that Connecticut’s Governor, Dannel Malloy, and his wife Cathy Malloy (who happens to be CEO of the Greater Hartford Arts Council) stopped in to offer their greetings and congratulations to the Chorale’s Music Director, Richard Coffey, and the members of the Chorale:


The Chorale’s Music Director Richard Coffey (left) offered remarks in his usual witty and charming manner.

The Chorale’s Board President Michael Dunne read a proclamation from Hartford Mayor Pedro Segarra declaring December 4, 2011 “Hartford Chorale 40th Anniversary Day in the City of Hartford.” Founding Music Director Henley Denmead was the guest of honor.

The wine flowed freely, its effect all the more pronounced because most of us could not gain access to the single, small food table.

We were all startled when the fire alarm sounded, sending us out to the street. Most of us had the good sense to grab our coats and refill our glasses before we left. (I wish I had taken a photo of a long line of empty wine left on the side of the stairway leading down to the street.) Many members of the Chorale immediately launched into a raucous round of Christmas Carols, while others went to admire the fire trucks and the firefighters.

Just as we were beginning to feel chilled, the “all clear” was sounded and we went back in for what remained of the party. (A spill in the kitchen had caused the smoke.)

The Third Day of Christmas ― Partridges, Plovers, and Popingo-ayes – The Birds of the Twelve Days of Christmas


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On December 26, the “Second Day of Christmas,” I offered my observation that for many Americans, the day after Christmas ― the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

For today, the Third Day of Christmas, I can think of no better place to start than with the traditional song that marks the Twelve Days. Here’s a longer version of my program note for CONCORA’s recent concert series, “Christmas Through the Ages.” (Read about that marvelous concert series here.)

At the end of the essay, I’ve appended a few notes about the birds mentioned in this old song.

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Though we think of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” as a playful recitation of a lover’s generosity, the song probably originated as a children’s game of forfeits, wherein each player had to recite the growing list of gifts in turn, paying a “forfeit,” or penalty, if a mistake were made. The verse may be as old as the thirteenth century, and the first printed version appeared in London around 1780. In recent years (1979), some have claimed that the twelve gifts represent “secrets of Christian belief,” with the partridge in the pear tree representing Christ, and the other gifts symbolizing various numbered ideas (three = Trinity) or people (eleven=faithful disciples) in Christian doctrine, but this interpretation has been shown to be of very recent origin and without evidence as to its authenticity. (http://www.snopes.com/holidays/christmas/12days.asp)

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me…
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A partridge in a pear tree,
Two turtle-doves,
Three French hens,
Four calling birds,
Five golden rings,
Six geese a-laying,
Seven swans a-swimming,
Eight maids a-milking,
Nine ladies dancing,
Ten lords a-leaping,
Eleven pipers piping,
Twelve drummers drumming.


The birders of the world, of which I am one, love this song for its many avian references. Most of the birds named ― the partridge, two turtledoves, six geese, and seven swans ― are familiar and easily imagined. But what of the others? French hens? Calling birds?

The three “French hens” may be nothing more than ordinary farmyard birds, perhaps prepared for the table in a French style.

The four “calling birds” is a bit more complicated. “Calling birds” is probably a corruption of “colley-birds,” or birds that are as black as coal; e.g., blackbirds. The European blackbird is a common thrush, closely related to our American Robin, and like our Robin, a marvelous songster. (I loved hearing this thrush from the woods outside the Moulin des Ruats in Avallon this past July.)

The five “golden rings” have been interpreted to mean five “ring-necked pheasants” or perhaps “goldspinks” (goldfinches), either of which would preserve the use of birds for the first seven gifts. Natives of Georgia, Ring-necked Pheasants were introduced into Eurasia by ancient Greeks and Romans, and later (19th century) into North America.

A different version of the song was enjoyed in Scotland in the early part of the 19th century: “The king sent his lady on the first Yule day, a popingo-aye [parrot]. The later gifts included two partridges, three plovers, a grey goose, three starlings, three goldspinks [goldfinches], three ducks a-merry laying, and three swans a-merry swimming, among other things.

The bird-lovers’ blog, 10,000 Birds, has a nice post on the subject, with some beautiful photos: http://10000birds.com/birds-of-the-twelve-days-of-christmas.htm

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Second Day of Christmas ― What's the Rush?


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For many Americans, today ― the day after Christmas, the twenty-sixth of December ― is the end of the Christmas season.

Today is the day that many families discard their Christmas trees, throw away the Christmas cards that arrived from friends and family, and take down their Christmas decorations. I expect that if I drove around town today, I'd see plenty of discarded Christmas trees, some still festooned with plastic “tinsel,” cast to the side of the road ready for trash pick-up. Some of them will be in large plastic trash bags. It's a pathetic sight that always makes me feel sad.

And of course, today is the day that many stores and retailers will offer “post-Christmas” sales and specials. The big department store near our village is holding an “After-Christmas Blitz and Clearance!” At many discount and grocery stores, today you can buy Christmas decorations and goodies at 50%, 60%, 70% off! The radio stations have already stopped playing Christmas music.

But what’s the rush? Why not enjoy the Christmas season a bit longer? Whatever happened to the Twelve Days of Christmas, which extend from Christmas Day to Epiphany, the sixth day of January?

I suppose that for most Americans, Christmas begins sometime in mid-October, or even earlier, when Christmas decorations and such begin to appear in shopping centers and supermarkets, even before Hallowe’en has come and gone. Thanksgiving, too, is swallowed up by Christmas, especially by the frenzied shopping that seems increasingly to be the central event of Thanksgiving weekend. And of course for many families, the day after Thanksgiving is the day to purchase (or un-box) and decorate a Christmas tree, hang the lights and decorations, and begin listening to Christmas music. So, by the time Christmas arrives, they’ve had enough.

Our family is happily out of step with most of America on this. Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions, and we enjoy them rather slowly.

We did not buy our Christmas tree until December 15 or 16, when K was already home from school and she and D could enjoy going out together to find the perfect tree. D put up the tree and put the lights on it, but we did not decorate the tree until a few nights later, when we could all be together for our “Christmas Carol” tree-decorating tradition. (Read about it here: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/2011/12/christmas-carol.html)


I confess that I did not bake any Christmas cookies until…yesterday. Christmas Day. Here they are: http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/2011/12/merry-christmas.html. We’ll enjoy them as we observe the Twelve Days of Christmas, and K can take some back to school with her to share with friends.

We’ll leave our Christmas tree up until January 6, on which date we’ll also put away the indoor Christmas decorations. We’ll leave the evergreen wreaths on the outside doors until the end of January.

I’m going to try to avoid going into any retail outlets for a while… the Valentine’s Day stuff is probably already on sale.

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POSTSCRIPT: Though we are not a religious family, we enjoy many Christmas traditions. I resolved to enjoy all the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Day until Epiphany on January 6th, and to do so in part by writing a bit each day about some aspect of the Christmas season. All the essays may be read here.

Words Fail Me


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I pride myself on my verbal wit, my snappy retorts, my punning.

But sometimes I run across things that just leave me speechless.

This is one of those things.

I saw this in the holiday candy aisle at the local supermarket. I was looking for those neat chocolate oranges that break into sections. My disappointment in not finding the oranges was nearly assuaged by my delight in finding something so patently absurd as this:

Front of Box

Back of Box

No words can make this seem rational or even clever.

Well, D, K, and I had a good laugh over it, anyway.

Friday, December 23, 2011

“Of Exceptional Standards” –– CONCORA's Bach is “Best Classical”


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Each December, the arts writers at The Hartford Courant offer their assessment of the arts scene in Greater Hartford during the previous year, including their picks for best performances or ensembles in various genres (classical, theater, jazz, etc.)

The “best of” article appeared online last night (December 22), though the dateline is given as December 25. Once again, CONCORA was named as “best classical”:
CONCORA: Hearing Bach makes you Smarter: On Feb. 27, CONCORA's annual Bach performance included the Mass in F Major, and two cantatas (No. 40 and No. 102) both of which contained music that Bach refashioned to form the F major Mass. This program, at Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, also included a performance of the Bach Violin Concerto in A minor with HSO Concertmaster Leonid Sigal as soloist. The annual Bach program by CONCORA has consistently been of exceptional standards and is worth every effort to attend. [citation below]
Tickets for this exceptional event are on sale now at www.concora.org or 860-293-0567. You won’t want to miss our performance of Bach’s exuberant Magnificat.

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I am so very proud to sing with CONCORA, and honored beyond words to be selected as a frequent participant in the annual Bach program. I’m also glad to serve behind the scenes in various capacities in support of the ensemble’s mission “to perpetuate and perform with excellence choral music of the highest quality for the broadest possible audience.”

“A Look at 2011: The Arts In Connecticut.”
“Here's some of the best of 2011 in the arts.”
“The Year In Classical”
Jeffrey Johnson
The Hartford Courant, December 2011
http://www.courant.com/entertainment/hc-best-classical-1222-20111225,0,3744658.story

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Christmas Carol

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It’s a tradition in our family that on the evening that D and K decorate our Christmas tree, I read aloud from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. We never get past the first chapter of the first stave, of course, but we like to do it anyway.
  


I continue with the book on my own, reading it gradually over Christmas week (along with the three or four other books I have going at any one time).

I never tire of A Christmas Carol; I always find some new insight, or clever turn of phrase, or subtle nuance that I had not noticed before.

That’s true for all good books; they bear reading many times over a lifetime.





Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Time Line – "Christmas Through the Ages" with CONCORA

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This morning I spent a few minutes with my folder of music for CONCORA’s third and final performance of “Christmas Through the Ages” which takes place this Thursday evening, December 22 at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, Connecticut. 

CONCORA presents “Christmas Through the Ages”
Richard Coffey, Artistic Director and Conductor
Thursday, December 22, 8:00 p.m.
Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, Route 44, Norfolk, CT
Information, Tickets, and Directions:
http://www.infinityhall.com/ or 866-666-6306

I wanted to be sure that all the music was in its proper place, ready for our warm-up rehearsal on Thursday. And of course, I wanted to spend some time with the music itself, to be sure that I had reviewed any spots where I had been challenged with music, text, or presentation. Most of this can be done just sitting quietly looking at the music and working on it entirely within my thoughts.

As I looked at the music, I felt renewed appreciation for the selection of music from several centuries that makes up “Christmas Through the Ages.” Mr. Coffey has not arranged the program chronologically by date of composition; rather, he has arranged the music to illustrate the Christmas story. It’s nice to hear old works next to newer ones, to hear how composers from different times and traditions add to the grand tradition of Christmas music.

But just for fun, I compiled a chronological list of the pieces on the program; it’s at the end of this post. Some entries appear twice, for example when a contemporary composer has made a new arrangement of an old favorite.

You can read all my posts about CONCORA’s Christmas programs, including lots more information about this upcoming concert, and a listing of all the selections on the program, here:
http://quodlibet-sarah.blogspot.com/search/label/CONCORA%20Christmas

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Ancient
“Ave Maria” ― A setting (2006) by John Rutter (b. 1945) of the text from the Gospel of Luke.

13th Century
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” ― The verse may be as old as the thirteenth century; the first printed version appeared in London around 1780. The 1992 arrangement is by John Rutter (b. 1945).

1328
“In dulci jubilo” ― A setting (1837) by Robert L. Pearsall (1795-1856) of words recorded in 1328 by Heinrich Seuse (ca.1295-1366). The tune was found in a manuscript dating from around 1400 or earlier. Additional verses were printed in hymnals in 1533 (Joseph Klug’s Geistliches Lieder) and 1545 (Valentin Babst’s Geistliches Lieder). The earliest English version was in John Wedderburn's Gude and Godlie Ballatis (c1540). The carol was published in Piae Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum (“Devout ecclesiastical and scholastic songs of the old bishops”), printed in Finland around 1582.

14th Century
“There is No Rose of Such Virtue” ― A 2007 setting of an anonymous 14th-century text by Colin Britt (b. 1985).

14th Century
“A Tender Shoot” ― The words and music are by German-born composer and pianist Otto Goldschmidt (1829-1907). The text is Goldschmidt’s paraphrase of the well-known 14th-century German chorale “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.”

14th Century
“Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming” ― An arrangement (1988) by Jan Sandström (b. 1954) of the famous setting (1609) by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) of the well-known 14th-century German chorale “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.”

1400
“In dulci jubilo” ― A setting (1837) by Robert L. Pearsall (1795-1856) of words recorded in 1328 by Heinrich Seuse (ca.1295-1366). The tune was found in a manuscript dating from around 1400 or earlier. Additional verses were printed in hymnals in 1533 (Joseph Klug’s Geistliches Lieder) and 1545 (Valentin Babst’s Geistliches Lieder). The earliest English version was in John Wedderburn's Gude and Godlie Ballatis (c1540). The carol was published in Piae Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum (“Devout ecclesiastical and scholastic songs of the old bishops”), printed in Finland around 1582.

15th Century
“Alleluya! A New Work Is Come on Hand” ― A 1953 setting of an anonymous 15th century English verse by Peter Wishart (1921-1984).

15th Century
“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” ― An arrangement (1992) by David Willcocks (b. 1919) of a tune first published on a 1760 broadsheet; the lyrics date back to the 15th century.

15th Century
“Sir Christèmas” ― A 1969 setting by William Mathias (1934-1992) of a text attributed to Richard Smart, rector (1435-1477) of Plymtree in Devon, England.

1582
“In dulci jubilo” ― A setting (1837) by Robert L. Pearsall (1795-1856) of words recorded in 1328 by Heinrich Seuse (ca.1295-1366). The tune was found in a manuscript dating from around 1400 or earlier. Additional verses were printed in hymnals in 1533 (Joseph Klug’s Geistliches Lieder) and 1545 (Valentin Babst’s Geistliches Lieder). The earliest English version was in John Wedderburn's Gude and Godlie Ballatis (c1540). The carol was published in Piae Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum (“Devout ecclesiastical and scholastic songs of the old bishops”), printed in Finland around 1582.

1609
“Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming” ― An arrangement (1988) by Jan Sandström (b. 1954) of the famous setting (1609) by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) of the well-known 14th-century German chorale “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.”

1610
“Glory to the Christ Child” ― A setting (2005) by Alan Bullard (b. 1947) of an anonymous text recorded around 1610.

1618
“Oculi Omnium” (“We Turn Our Eyes to Thee”) ― A setting (1618) by Hieronymous Praetorius (1560-1629).

1641
“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” composed in 1734 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) for his Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). The chorale tune (“Ermuntre Dich”) was composed in 1641 by Johann Schop (1590-1667). The original German text is by Johann Rist (1607-1677); the English translation was made by John Troutbeck (1832-1889).

17th Century
“While by My Sheep” (“The Christmas Hymn” or the “Echo Carol”) ― A setting (1895) by Hugo Jüngst (1853-1923) of a 17th-century folk carol. The 16th-century text is “Als ich bei meinen Schafen wacht” by German Jesuit Friedrich Von Spee (1591-1635).

Before 1700
“Masters in This Hall” ― The tune was included in Raoul-Augur Feuillet’s 1703 collection, Recueil de contredanse and was used by Marin Marais (1656-1728) in his 1706 opera Alcyone, who called it Marche pour les Matelots (Sailors’ March). The tune was published as “The Female Saylor” in a 1710 English collection called For the Further Improvement of Dancing. William Morris (1834-1896) (yes, that one) penned the poem “Masters in This Hall” in 1860 expressly for the old French tune. The over-the-top arrangement (2001) performed by CONCORA is by American composer and conductor Mack Wilberg (b. 1955).

1734
“Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light” composed in 1734 by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) for his Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248). The chorale tune (“Ermuntre Dich”) was composed in 1641 by Johann Schop (1590-1667). The original German text is by Johann Rist (1607-1677); the English translation was made by John Troutbeck (1832-1889).

1760
“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” ― An arrangement (1992) by David Willcocks (b. 1919) of a tune first published on a 1760 broadsheet; the lyrics date back to the 15th century.

1780
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” ― The verse may be as old as the thirteenth century; the first printed version appeared in London around 1780. The 1992 arrangement is by John Rutter (b. 1945).

1837
“In dulci jubilo” ― A setting (1837) by Robert L. Pearsall (1795-1856) of words recorded in 1328 by Heinrich Seuse (ca.1295-1366). The tune was found in a manuscript dating from around 1400 or earlier. Additional verses were printed in hymnals in 1533 (Joseph Klug’s Geistliches Lieder) and 1545 (Valentin Babst’s Geistliches Lieder). The earliest English version was in John Wedderburn's Gude and Godlie Ballatis (c1540). The carol was published in Piae Cantiones ecclesiasticae et scholasticae veterum episcoporum (“Devout ecclesiastical and scholastic songs of the old bishops”), printed in Finland around 1582.

1857
“Jingle Bells” ― The words and music (1857) are by James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893); the arrangement (1992) is by David Willcocks (b. 1919).

1871
“See Amid the Winter Snow” (“Hymn for Christmas Day”) ― A setting (1871) by John Goss (1800-1880) of words (1851) by Edward Caswell (1814-1878), in an arrangement (1992) by David Willcocks (b. 1919).

1895
“While by My Sheep” (“The Christmas Hymn” or the “Echo Carol”) ― A setting (1895) by Hugo Jüngst (1853-1923) of a 17th-century folk carol. The 16th-century text is “Als ich bei meinen Schafen wacht” by German Jesuit Friedrich Von Spee (1591-1635).

Late-19th Century
“A Tender Shoot” ― The words and music are by German-born composer and pianist Otto Goldschmidt (1829-1907). The text is Goldschmidt’s paraphrase of the well-known 14th-century German chorale “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.”

1911
“In the Bleak Midwinter” ― A setting (1911) by Harold E. Darke (1888-1976) of the poem composed around 1872 by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).

1953
“Alleluya! A New Work Is Come on Hand” ― A 1953 setting of an anonymous 15th century English verse by Peter Wishart (1921-1984).

1954
“Hymne à la Vierge” (“Hymn to the Virgin”) ― A setting (1954) by Pierre Villette (1926-1998) of a poem by Roland Bouhéret.

1969
“Sir Christèmas” ― A 1969 setting by William Mathias (1934-1992) of a text attributed to Richard Smart, rector (1435-1477) of Plymtree in Devon, England.

1985
“There is No Rose of Such Virtue” ― A 2007 setting of an anonymous 14th-century text by Colin Britt (b. 1985)

1988
“Lo, How a Rose e’er Blooming” ― An arrangement (1988) by Jan Sandström (b. 1954) of the famous setting (1609) by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) of the well-known 14th-century German chorale “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen.”

1992
“God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” ― An arrangement (1992) by David Willcocks (b. 1919) of a tune first published on a 1760 broadsheet; the lyrics date back to the 15th century.

1992
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” ― The verse may be as old as the thirteenth century; the first printed version appeared in London around 1780. The 1992 arrangement is by John Rutter (b. 1945).

1992
“Jingle Bells” ― The words and music (1857) are by James Lord Pierpont (1822-1893); the arrangement (1992) is by David Willcocks (b. 1919).

1992
“See Amid the Winter Snow” (“Hymn for Christmas Day”) ― A setting (1871) by John Goss (1800-1880) of words (1851) by Edward Caswell (1814-1878), in an arrangement (1992) by David Willcocks (b. 1919).

2001
“Masters in This Hall” ― The tune was included in Raoul-Augur Feuillet’s 1703 collection, Recueil de contredanse and was used by Marin Marais (1656-1728) in his 1706 opera Alcyone, who called it Marche pour les Matelots (Sailors’ March). The tune was published as “The Female Saylor” in a 1710 English collection called For the Further Improvement of Dancing. William Morris (1834-1896) (yes, that one) penned the poem “Masters in This Hall” in 1860 expressly for the old French tune. The over-the-top arrangement (2001) performed by CONCORA is by American composer and conductor Mack Wilberg (b. 1955).

2005
“Glory to the Christ Child” ― A setting (2005) by Alan Bullard (b. 1947) of an anonymous text recorded around 1610.

2006
“Ave Maria” ― A setting (2006) by John Rutter (b. 1945) of the text from the Gospel of Luke.

2007
“There is No Rose of Such Virtue” ― A 2007 setting by Colin Britt (b. 1985) of an anonymous 14th-century text.

2010
“Sleep, Little Baby, Sleep” ― A 2010 setting by Robert Cohen (b. 1945) of a poem by Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).

2010
“The Pie Carols” ― Words and music (2010) by Daniel Gawthrop (b. 1949).

Yes, I’m OCD; why do you ask?