Christmas every year offers a wealth of familiar and popular music that is performed all over the Boston area, including of course Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and a number of other highly regarded and much-loved pieces. But the amount of music aimed at Christmas performance over the centuries is enormous, and much of it is never heard at all. The fine Musicians of the Old Post Road have a history of putting together interesting programs, often of music that one has rarely or never heard. Such was the case last weekend, performed in Boston on Friday night, Gloucester on Saturday, and First Unitarian Church in Worcester on Sunday, when I attended.
This concert consisted of music by one French composer and five German composers of the Baroque era, all of whom wrote music to celebrate the feast of Epiphany, the arrival of the Magi in Bethlehem. The Main symbol of Epiphany in German music particularly is the Star that the Wise Men followed in their quest. The seven works performed, vocal and instrumental, avoided the massive drama of the choral climaxes in Messiah, for example, and offered instead delicate and intimate music intended for smaller churches or performances in niches in larger churches, aimed at highlighting the joy of finding a babe in the manger.
The five regular members of the ensemble: flutist Suzanne Stumpf and cellist Daniel Ryan (founders of the organization), violinist Sarah Darling, violist Marcia Cassidy, and keyboard performer Michael Bahmann, here playing on the organ, were joined by guest artists violinist Jesse Irons, mezzo-soprano Catherine Hedberg, soprano Jessica Petrus, and tenor Jason Wang.
Michel Corrette may have been a Frenchman, but he composed a lively “Cantata Noel Allemand” (German Carol Cantata) using a well-known German chorale, Lobt Gott ihr Christen Allzugleich, the choice of material rare for a French composer. He treats the tune as the basis for a set of variations in three movements of different tempi and meter.
I had never previously heard of the composer Christian Geist, who worked especially in Denmark until his death in 1711. Verbum caro factum est is a short quiet polyphonic cantata in which a vocal duet shares the texture with interweaving instrumental parts. A larger and somewhat more assertive work is an aria setting the long-popular chorale for Epiphany, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (with its emphasis on the morning star as the symbol of the feast). The instruments began an elaborate contrapuntal web evoking a celebratory time, when suddenly from the balcony the voice of tenor Jesse Wang sounded forth in long notes, as a cantus firmus, the beloved chorale.
The one composer whose name was surely known the audience was the unbelievably prolific Georg Philipp Telemann, though surely everyone in the audience had missed the cantata Ihr Völker hört (Ye people, hear), as had I, from among his thousand-plus cantatas. It is written for mezzo-soprano solo with a small ensemble including a featured flute. The opening aria, following a brief recitative like statement, becomes a da capo aria referring to the Star, with a lively scurrying flute part suggesting all of humanity responding to this new light. This is followed by a rather lengthy and eventful recitative, first sung as a secco recitative. Suddenly, as the text refers to the moving masses of people responding to the light, the flute returns again and the recitative becomes an arioso, closing in the final aria, a brilliant Hallelujah
Johann Philipp Krieger is another of these worthy German Baroque composers little-known to the general public, but his O Jesu du mein Leben, an Italianate work from about 1680, shows the continuing effective influences from below the Alps, especially the quasi-dramatic interjections from the strings behind the vocal lines.
Gregor Joseph Werner is by no means a household name among Baroque composers, but he was the senior musician in the Esterházy court when the young Haydn was hired there. It was not at all uncommon for folk elements to enter into Christmas music at the time, particularly because of the image of the shepherds visiting the manger in Bethlehem. And Christmas music of the Baroque contains a number of works described as pastorales, evoking the sound of bagpipes traditionally played by Italian shepherds who became the visual model for this part of the story. The droning pedal points in the organ represent the drone of the bagpipes and joyous and energetic parts of the strings suggest that gentle image.
The major work, and the one most extensively advertised, was by Johann Christoph Graupner, a prolific composer who had trained in Leipzig and then moved to Darmstadt. Given the attractiveness of his cantata performed here, it is rather a shame that his principal claim to fame in music history seems to be that he recommended J. S. Bach for the Kapellmeister job in Leipzig after having received an offer and used it mostly to jack up his salary in Darmstadt.
Like Telemann, Graupner composed an enormous number of cantatas, more than 1000. Suzanne Stumpf and Daniel Ryan found and edited his Der Stern aus Jakob bricht hervor GWV 1111/28 (The Star Breaks Forth from Jacob) for this event. They suspect that it is the first modern performance of the work, and certainly the first in North America. Unlike the more thoroughly joyous of the earlier cantatas, this one turns toward a darker internal examination in the path to understanding and salvation. Thus, much of it is actually in a minor key, a rare feature of music intended for the Christmas season. But again, references to the Star bring out decorative elements that highlight the term.
I’d love to hear every one of these rich, delicious and completely unfamiliar works again. Hurrah for the enterprising investigation of repertory by the Musicians of the Old Post Road and equally for their spirited playing and singing
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.