A song for all seasons
It's several months since Christmas, as I write, but I had promised myself to hold on to it. Not for sentimental reasons. Or even in a pious "every-day-is-Christmas" frame of mind. But for its burst of reality: its breakthrough to here-we-all-are, a shareable beginning. You say Thanksgiving is too early to start? This is the year I am determined to be thinking Christmas on the Fourth of July.
It was music that did it -- and again I don't mean the obligatory churning of carols in the supermarket. I mean music that is in some way generational: "able to feedm generations" is the conductor Robert Shaw's phrase for it. I mean music rooted in some kind of necessity, and probably within reach of drama.It may be familiar or not; but some of the best of it surprises us with its comfort.
This happened to me on two different occasions, and in different ways. One occasion was in the big medieval scupture hall at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. The Waverly Consort of singers and instrumentalists were availing themselves of lights and costumes, of shawms and rebecs and an intriguing miniature trombone of a trumpet, to tell the story of Christmas as it might have been told in or around the lofty spaces of a 14th-century cathedral.Their first and earliest music, which happened to be 10th-century Spanish, wound its way out of a drone, a gentle swarming of sound, after which its chanters and players wound theirm way around the high arcaded hall in two processions, surrounding all of us. Then they settled into the drama of surprised shepherds and angels and kings, of Herod and his Secretary of Defense (known in those days as Armiger), of the sacrified children and the deep Christly consolation, of the final paeans of praise to God.
At some point in the middle of it -- perhaps while two trumpets were prancing back and forth between two chordal notes, encouraging the voices in Guillaume Dufay's "Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax"m -- I wrote myself a program note: "Music is an insistence, the keeping of an instant that can use time and then throw it away." Time was of course important as a main ingredient of that music -- shaped into insistent rhythm and spinning out the line of melody.
But the resulting language simply melted both the seasons and the centuries. Suddenly it didn't matter in what part of the year or the millenium we were following the story. The ages and all their people were as close as music could make us, celebrating and keeping this Christmas presence. The instant was a now , not a now and then, and here we all were. So that by the time the eight fine voices, the fiddles, and fifes, and bells wound their way back between us and the lilting forms of Gothic sculpture, the autocracy of time had been weakened, and we were able to declare a degree of independence from it. Doors had opened not only to another age and other countries but to other parts of ourselves. It was a holiday to be unseasonal about.
The actual fireworks for my July Christmas came from another concert, and from a marvellous explosion at its heart.A new piece for chorus, soloists, and orchestra had been commissioned by the Greenwich Choral Society from the young composer Stephen Paulus, and the premiere of "So Hallowed Is the Time" shared a "Christmas Triptych" with two other superb celebrations: J. S. Bach's "Magnificat" and Benjamin Britten's harp-festooned "Ceremony of Carols."
Like the Britten, the Paulus piece is a gathering of medieval and later English poems set for the same musical forces, i.e. instruments as in the Britten. It takes its name and its evocative spirit from its first text, Marcellus' speech on the chill Danish ramparts of Shakespeare's "Hamlet," just after the Ghost has melted into the night air:
Some sasy that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then nom planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.m
That serves as Prelude, and the poems that follow build through Proclamation, Welcoming, The Search ("Where Is This Stupendous Stranger?" by that visionary master Christopher Smart), and The Message (William Drummond's "Run, shepherds, run and solemnize his birth, This is that night -- no, day grown great with bliss, In which the power of Satan broken is . . . ."
At that half-way point, before going on to the later lullaby, to kingly and universal praise, comes the substance of the message, the very birth itself. That cosmic impact is imparted not by caroling or even orchestral trumpeting, but by one solid minute of four kettledrums, fairly pounced upon by their player as he turns from whispered premonition to crackling rolls to an insuperable and striding thunder.
Here, hewing out space for the message beyond the sweetness and customary comfort, is an insistence on this story's startling portent for the world, with great freedom in it and no fear for those who stand and listen and love through time and beyond all time.
I won't expect performances of any of this Christmas music in early July, during the Independence season. I understand that we must wait till December for that. But by midsummer I'll be quite ready to keep that promise -- ready to hear the time-liberated insistence of Dufay's trumpets in excelsis,m and of Paulus's surp rising kettledrums thunderbursting in terra pax hominibus.m