One the joys of our annual cycle of religious and secular observances is how past memories are often rekindled. They arise in personal stories and from music primarily played at this time of year.
Last Friday my wife and had dinner with a 90-year-old couple, still living in their home. The husband is still active in the credit union community. He was 11 years old when WW II broke out.
As we finished the meal with Greek cookies bathed in powdered sugar, they recalled a time as children when war cake was served for dessert. The ingredients include little or no milk, sugar, butter, or eggs, because they were rationed, expensive or hard to obtain. When his father received a 5-pound bag of sugar as a gift for Christmas one year, he immediately turned it over to his church lest he be accused of violating ration limits.
Remembering times past makes them special, no matter what our worries were then.
Musical Joys with New Words
Music is especially potent in calling up special moments. I remember the first time I heard a live performance of the Handel’s Messiah. During the Christmas season I was at Boston Symphony Hall, senior year in college, on a date with a young lady whom I would later marry.
Years later I heard the familiar sounds, but with different words. The oratorio was being sung in Russian, a banned work during the Soviet era. This was one of the first recordings in that language. Listening to words, unknown to me, made it a wholly new experience.
En route to a holiday dinner years later while listening to the local classical music station, I heard a new CD that was also not in English. But it was so buoyant, melodic, and festive that I looked up the station’s playlist to find the title of the CD, Karolju.
It is a suite of original Christmas carols for choir and orchestra by the America composer Christopher Rouse. The work was commissioned and first performed on November 7, 1991 by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
The composer modeled the work and its rhythmic variations after Carl Off’s Carmina Burana. Here is how the composer explained his unusual choice of language.
As I wished to compose the music first, the problem of texts presented itself. Finding appropriate existing texts to fit already composed music would have been virtually impossible, and as I did not trust my own ability to devise a poetically satisfying text, I decided to compose my own texts in a variety of languages (Latin, Swedish, French, Spanish, Russian, Czech, German, and Italian) which, although making reference to words and phrases appropriate to the Christmas season, would not be intelligibly translatable as complete entities. It was rather my intent to match the sound of the language to the musical style of the carol to which it was applied. I resultantly selected words often more for the quality of their sound and the extent to which such sound typified the language of their origin than for their cognitive “meaning” per se.
Though the music of Karolju is original, the first and tenth movements of the work paraphrase the coda of “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana. The third movement also quotes a four-measure phrase from The Nutcracker by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which itself dates back to an 18th-century minuet.
This is the link to all of the individual carols on the album. Many languages are used but to capture the spirit of the season you might open with the Swedish carol #2, for 1:45 minutes.
Enjoy these original sounds of the season’s spirit. Listen as the words, even when not understood, create texture for each musical movement.
Please add your favorite choral sounds at the end of the blog.