The stuff of music is not stuff. Music’s physical presence, like dance’s too, is gone forever almost as soon as it is played. As Christmas and the planet Earth become more and more burdened with stuff, permanent stuff at that — at least permanently in the landfill — and people seemingly more and more frantic that they’re not spending enough money, you can feel more and more by contrast how music had to have such an enormous part of the festival. To fill an honest need of another person you love is another thing, but even if there is a physical thing involved, it is not the thing itself but the love to which the thing is a mere shadow and the mutually filled need itself. Carpeting one’s wants and feelings of insufficiency with stuff will always miss.
At its center Christmas is the simplest of celebrations. Its god is created not in a magnificence, but in poverty attended by animals. Except you become as a little child…. I am thinking now of three powerful and simple beauties I have heard this Yuletide, full of integrity and without dilution. The first was the marvelous performance given by Anne Azema in the Boston Camerata’s Medieval Christmas at the Union College Chapel. Like all great singing, hers comes at you directly, no mediation, no hesitation. Her sound, her knowledge, even her appearance, are all part of one thing, and that thing is honest. Like all great artists she makes you know that her voice is the right instrument for the music. She sings an old cantiga with as much passion as another kind of soprano might sing Norma. An update of the Camerata’s first medieval Christmas program, this one was sparely accompanied, most often unaccompanied. The chant and monophonic songs held full sway. They were sung with a sharp and soaring energy which was always interesting, often riveting. This repertoire in a performance like this easily held the attention of a full house for over two hours. This was a performance of early music which was straight out, in no way manufactured. The highest compliment I can give it is that it was simple. And the model for this was the singing of Anne Azema.
Having grown up in the northern hemisphere, the winter Christmas is ingrained in me, but the event is fundamentally connected to mid-winter. The pagan winter solstice festival with its strong connection to nature, namely the Sun, a celebration of the days starting to lengthen and a new year beginning, is tied to Christmas as the scriptural imagery is compatible with the older ritual’s. Zeus, Dionysus, Apollo, and Mithras are all also alleged to have been born on the (northern) winter solstice and St. Chrysostom said of the timing of the Nativity in the 4th Century ‘while the heathen were busied with their profane rites the Christians might perform their holy ones without disturbance’ but also thought it a suitable birthday for the ‘Sun of Righteousness.’ In that sense it naturally and intuitively doesn’t feel like the right festival for the southern hemisphere’s summer solstice. So unique traditions evolve here and the more appealing ones are strongly connected to nature — spending all your time outside enjoying the long daylight while it lasts, roses blooming, surfing, eating seafood, fresh fruit, especially cherries, etc. —, but still are colored by the northern traditions. With his Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, Sydney’s main squeeze for Baroque music and period instrument lovers, Paul Dyer provides the best music for this austral summer solstice Christmas, music which makes natural and festive sense. It is very serious, ‘scholarly’ music, but with the artistic spirit of the Baroque steeping it, it has a bright festive sunny quality too, especially in the style of their playing. Dyer has assembled a varied program of traditional carols played very thoughtfully, Spanish popular music from the 16th Century, late Baroque instrumental music and early Baroque motets and more recently composed pieces. Somehow Dyer’s enthusiasm, sense of occasion and serious-festive-art approach to music allows all this to hang together comfortably.
All the best wishes for the holidays from the Berkshire Review! For more about the artist, Joanna Gabler, see Nature Transfigured.
A hundred small fires light up the close. Animals are everywhere. Sheep cries. At the stroke of the great bell the introit rings out. Rorate coeli desuper. Veni Domine, et noli tardare. Alleluia. This is all most of them will hear. The procession is coming down the close. The costumes struck through and through with gold thread, the books of music full of everlasting beauty, even lapis from the East. This is the color which clothes the Virgin. Light is barely perceptible through the windows. The city of Gloucester leans in on the cathedral like a parent over a child. Those outside attend a rite which they cannot see and cannot hear.