Christmas in Baroque Europe

Listen to audio excerpts: 

Friday, December 19, Emmanuel Church, Boston
Saturday, December 20, Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester


Noëls en Trio                                                          Michel-Richard Delalande (1657-1726)
    Simphonie • Où s’en vont ces gays Bergers • Ritournelle • Une jeune Pucelle   
    Or nous dites Marie • Josephe est bien marié • A minuit fut fait un Réveil

Hodie Christus natus est                                   Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749)

Ay como flecha la niña Rayos                                Francisco  de Santiago (c1578-1644)

Abscheuliche Tiefe des großen Verderbens!          Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767)


Cantata Pastorale                                                             Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725)

Concerto Noël Suisse                                                     Michel Corrette (1707–1795)
    Allegro • Adagio • Allegro   

Gloria                                                                          attrib. to G. F. Handel   (1685-1759)


Kristen Watson, soprano
Deborah Rentz-Moore, mezzo-soprano
Suzanne Stumpf, traverso; Sarah Darling, violin and viola; Abigail Karr, violin
Daniel Ryan, cello; Michael Bahmann, harpsichord

Program notes

This program offers a sampling of the great variety of musical forms, styles, and traditions associated with the Christmas season from across Baroque Europe. While most of the works performed on this program would have been originally heard in liturgical settings, some of the genres, including the French noël and the Spanish villancico, have popular, secular origins.

The instrumental noëls of Michel-Richard Delalande that open this program were a staple of the Christmas season repertory of the Concerts Spirituel in Paris. This famous series of public concerts flourished through much of the eighteenth century.  Delalande held many musical positions at the court of Louis XIV and was known and remembered after his death for his Grands motets, which were customarily performed as the opening and closing selections of the Concerts Spirituel. His noël settings derive much of their charm in their use of variation technique and in the alternations between tutti and soli passages.

Michel Corrette was an important proponent of the concerto in France and wrote dozens of works in the genre for many instrumental combinations. Several of his instrumental works feature noël settings, often with melodies drawn from foreign sources. His Concerto Noël Suisse is primarily a flute concerto that sets  a series of variations on two popular tunes in the first and third movements.

Clerambault’s petit motet Hodie Christus natus est was composed for the Maison Royale de St. Louis at St.-Cyr, a convent school for the daughters of the French nobility. At St.-Cyr, music played an important role in the girls’ education, and while all 250 students were taught music and participated in the liturgical music, a select group would have been chosen to perform motets such as the one included on this program. This joyous work was composed as an antiphon to the Magnificat at second vespers for the Nativity and features graceful solo passages alternating with simpler two-part choral sections .

 The countries of the Iberian peninsula and their colonies made use of the unique musical tradition of the villancico for Christmas celebrations. This extra-liturgical musical form enjoyed great popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries. It used the local, vernacular language in a rhythmically lively, strophic format. The villancico by Santiago included in this program is typical of the style cultivated in the 17th century, employing triple meter with frequent use of hemiola (a “jazzy” shift of metrical accent). Santiago was a composer of Portuguese birth who spent most of his career in Spain, most notably as Maestro de capilla in Madrid, where he did much to improve and augment the musical forces. The ecstatic text of his villacico Ay como flecha la niña Rayos is in praise of the Virgin Mary,  using the metaphor of the sun for its beautiful, descriptive imagery.

Alessandro Scarlatti’s Cantata Pastorale was composed in December 1716 for Christmas Eve celebrations, at a time when Italian tradition favored works that imitated the simple pastoral bagpipe music of the shepherds. The Italianate pastorale movement type may be heard in many works of the period, including the final aria of this cantata. The text tells the Christmas story from the viewpoint of the shepherds, who are absorbing the wonderment of the event.

The prolific and seemingly tireless Georg Philipp Telemann composed at least twenty annual cycles of cantatas totaling over 1,700 for the cities of Eisenach, Frankfurt, and Hamburg. Due to Telemann’s talent and industry as a publisher, his cantatas received wide circulation throughout Germany. The cantata presented on this program is from a  published cycle Telemann engraved himself and sold by subscription. Composed for the Sunday after Christmas, this work’s unusually dark text is supported by flute and viola obbligati in figuration that conveys the turbulent references in the text.

In 2001, exciting news was announced of a newly-discovered work by Handel. An unsigned Gloria was included in a bound 18th-century manuscript of Handel arias owned by the singer William Savage, an associate of Handel and a frequent participant in his operas. The collection was given to the London Royal Academy of Music in 1837, but no association with Handel had been made of the Gloria until musicologist Hans Joachim Marx made a compelling case for Handel’s authorship based upon this provenance and other circumstantial evidence. Whether the work is genuine Handel is still being debated by musicologists. The work does have stylistic similarities with some of his early compositions, especially the Laudate pueri in F Major, HWV 236. Regardless of its true authorship, the work is an attactive, virtuosic addition to the Baroque vocal repertory.

                                    © Daniel Ryan and Suzanne Stumpf