In June 1889, while in an asylum at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Vincent van Gogh created one of the world’s most famous paintings. His Starry, Starry Night portrays a brilliant starlit sky, just before sunrise, hovering over an idealized village nestled into the hillside, with its prominent church steeple, while in the foreground, dominating the painting, a tree trunk soars skyward in much the same manner as a church steeple. Like a vision, it can barely hold the energy of the brush strokes. This concert uses that painting as its theme – a starlit sky as muse. Some of the pieces on this programme depict scenes related to Christmas or the winter season, while others simply draw their inspiration from a single star or a starlit sky at any time of the year. It is definitely not difficult to find choral music that makes mention of stars in the text. Whatever the time of year, the stars seem to inspire composers to write music with a certain serenity, peacefulness or majesty about it – sometimes all three.
The Huron Carol has the distinction of being one of the first pieces of Christmas music written in North America. It was composed by the missionary Father Jean de Brébeuf in about 1641 as he was working among the Huron in Ontario. There have been countless arrangements of this carol but this one by Robert B. Anderson is particularly beautiful. It opens with the choir singing “Gloria” before the baritones enter with the well-known theme. Throughout, as the theme is passed among the voices of the choir, other voices continue to sing “Gloria” and it is with this that the piece ends.
Eleanor Daley selected a text by Thomas Hood for her piece The Stars Are With the Voyager. Just as the stars, the moon and the sun are constant, so, too, is love with the lover’s heart. Even though the sun may set, constant love will shine so that night is never night and day becomes even brighter. In typical Eleanor Daley fashion, she molds the music to the words, here in a homophonic nature throughout that is given even more intensity by the undulating piano that accompanies the piece.
Jeff Enns chose the text of a 9th century Latin hymn for Creator of the Stars of Night. Portions of the piece draw from the text of O Come, O Come Emmanuel although the tune is not the traditional one. Hymn-like throughout, there are short sections for a cappella choir, sections for organ (Janet Wilson) alone and then sections for organ and choir together. Enns wrote this piece in 2010 for the Conrad Grebel University College, a Mennonite liberal arts college on the campus of the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
Mark Sirett is another Canadian composer who just seems to keep on composing wonderful pieces for choirs. Les Ētoiles (The Stars) was written for the Oriano Singers of Toronto. Here there is an elusiveness to the stars (or tiny suns as the poet calls them) which blink all night and then flee and are no more when the day arrives. The music makes repeated use of the triplet figure and creates a feeling of openness and spaciousness, augmented by the continued use of triplets in the accompaniment.
The Music of Stillness is by the young American composer Elaine Hagenberg. In an interview she talks about being under a cold dome of stars on a glorious winter evening that radiated stillness and quiet. In this atmosphere she was able to find rest and peace. She continues by saying that one needs to live that moment of serenity and peace. Indeed, the music is just that—calm, tranquil, serene and intoxicating. Part of the text says that “I’ll make this world out of a dream in my lonely mind/I shall find the crystal of peace.” The poet is Sara Teasdale (1884-1933) who seems to have become the poet of choice of many choral composers of late.
Trent Worthington also selected Sara Teasdale as his inspiration for Three Winter Songs. This concert will feature two of them. A Winter Night is the a cappella piece from the trilogy. Its slow tempo prolongs the cold as the speaker peers through the windowpane “starred with frost” unto a cold night with a “cruel” moon and a wind like a “two-edged sword” that makes life so difficult for homeless ones, yet inside the “room is like a bit of June.” Harmonically interesting throughout, the melodic lines are simple and often move chromatically. In contrast, Snow Song is light and portrays a completely different picture of winter. The opening section and the piano accompaniment are meant to sparkle like snowflakes: Fairy snow, blowing everywhere. The poet wishes that she could be like a snowflake and fly effortlessly to her love, perhaps to die on his lips that are warm.
For many years the Amadeus Choir of Toronto sponsored a Christmas Carol and Chanukah Song Competition. The winner in 1995 was Kola Owolabi, who set Star Carol, a poem by Vincent Hui, to music. The piece starts out quietly as it depicts the “radiant star above” as it “hovers o’er the holy Child of love.” The shepherds and kings make their way to the spot as “the angel choruses swell, singing praise to Jesus Christ Emmanuel.” At this point the music bursts forth ecstatically for seven bars before becoming quieter again as the star “casts its beam on all whom God keeps.”
What is the Christmas season without Silent Night, Holy Night? Just when one would think that every possible iteration of the Franz Gruber piece has been arranged, D.F. Cook ( a Newfoundland composer and arranger) came out with his unique arrangement which makes use of jazz harmonies and features a baritone soloist (Gabe Benesh) for verse two. Although the tune is familiar there are times when the listener is surprised at what is heard. No direct mention is made of stars but “all is bright” would indicate their presence and from the age-old story, we know that there were stars that night.
Eriks Ēsenvalds, a Latvian, is an active composer who writes choral works performed by many choirs worldwide. In Stars, the choice of accompaniment (glasses tuned to six different pitches), combined with the poetry of Sara Teasdale creates an ethereal atmosphere designed to transport the audience into a starry realm. “All the dome of heaven like a great hill and myriads with beating hearts of fire, heaven full of stars.”
Izar Ederrak (The Beautiful Star) is the story of a beautiful, shining star, surrounded by eight angels, one of whom is “lovesick” for the star. This piece is written by the Spanish composer Josu Elberdin and is based on a Basque text. The music is chordal for the most part with quite a bit of repetition and creates a sense of longing and yearning. Elberdin’s use of rich harmonies and a memorable melody create thick textures that make this piece a joy to sing as well as to listen to.
Canadian composer Stephanie Martin selected a number of winter proverbs often based in folklore for her work Winter Nights. One of those proverbs is the text for Cold Is the Night: Cold is the night when stars shine bright. As with much of Martin’s music, this piece is simple but so beautiful and so easy to sing. There are sections for sopranos and altos and then tenors and basses, while at other times the melodic interest is moved from voice to voice. Martin knows how to write excellent music that is accessible for so many choirs.
In 1990, Norman Dello Joio wrote a work called Nativity: A Christmas Canticle for the Child. It also includes dialogue and was meant to be staged. The final piece in that canticle is the chorale O! Star That Makes the Stable Bright. When Nativity is staged, this piece is immediately preceded by the stage being lit to suggest a clear night in which the star of the east shines, as the story teller says, “But Joseph took the Babe and his mother in the silent night and departed into Egypt.” The lyrics link the “star of God, the world is me, the Babe shall be of both.” These three together are “wed on one dead tree” which predestines the crucifixion. With similarities to Bach the chorale is hymn-like throughout.
Marjorie Lowry Christie Pickthall was a Canadian poet (1883-1922) who was thought to be the best poet of her generation. It is her poem Stars that Canadian composer Allan Bevan chose to set to music. Bevan has written his piece for two part female chorus and piano and has created a beautiful piece with elegant melodies that remind one of his Ave Maria. Those melodies are used to express a profound and uplifting text. The accompaniment is truly that – a complete entity onto itself.
John Jacob Niles wrote the original words and music for I Wonder As I Wander. It has been arranged countless times and has gained a place in the carol repertory in many countries. In 1981 the esteemed English composer John Rutter made this arrangement. The note on the music indicates that “there should be a lilting, almost conversational flow in delivering this ballad-like carol.” The first verse is for sopranos as is the second verse, but here the three lower voices initially accompany with the words “lulla, lullaby” before giving the melody over to the tenors and basses and giving the accompanying part to the sopranos and altos. The third verse is sung a cappella with verse four scored for solo voice (Louella Friesen) as the choir hums an accompaniment.
Matthew Emery, a young Canadian composer, has been described in the Vancouver Sun a one who “writes with an honesty which enchants.” Good-Night is set to a text by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) who was the first African-American to gain eminence as a poet. Like Silent Night, Holy Night, this piece that does not directly mention stars. It is, however, a suitable piece to include as one of the lines in the poem is “Sleep well, my love, on night’s dark breast, And ease they soul with slumber bright.” There had to be stars on such a night as this! Good-Night can be sung by SSA choir or TBB choir, and it is the latter that you will hear. As the title suggests, this piece is a lullaby that gently says,” Good-night, I love you.”
Just as the first half of the programme ended with one of the most familiar and best-loved carols of the season, so does the concert. Away In A Manger was written in 1882 by William J. Kirkpatrick and since that time has been arranged over and over. This arrangement, by Norwegian born Ola Gjeilo, is extremely simply written which makes the words and the sentiment expressed all the more endearing. It is set for solo voice (Elaine Thaller) over a chorus that vocalizes chord progressions on an “oo” to create a smooth, deep texture which sets this arrangement apart from others. For the final verse the entire soprano section sings the melody while the remaining parts continue harmonizing on an “oo.”
Whether you are looking for a Christmas concert or a winter concert or, for that matter, a starry concert, the selections above will satisfy. Also on this concert will be solos by Rod Epp on piano (Still, Still, Still) and Janet Wilson on organ (The Star, the Sky, the Promise by Gilbert M. Martin).
All the best for the holiday season and much joy and happiness in the New Year!