Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Composers of Carols

I’m learning a lot about Christmas carols tonight. For one thing, I had simply no idea that the most popular setting (but by no means the only one) of In the Bleak Midwinter is by Gustav Holst! A setting by Holst’s countryman Harold Darke is lavish and pristine all at once.

Their settings of English poet Christina Rossetti’s text are equaled by that of Katherine Kennicott Davis, no doubt, as Ms Davis is the composer of The Little Drummer Boy. It sure is fun to play that with Mannheim Steamroller, I tell you what. I couldn’t find her setting of Midwinter on Youtube, but I know some choral directors who might steer me towards one; stay tuned and I'll see what I can find. I’m curious about it because it is SSA; the tessitura, or range, is higher than a standard choral scoring. (SSA is soprano-soprano-alto, for those unfamiliar with choral music lingo, as opposed to SATB, for instance). She studied at Wellesley College in Boston, and also with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, I earnestly HOPE I don’t need to tell you how many composers studied with Madame Boulanger... Copland, Carter, Piazzolla, Menotti...

Later in her life, Ms Davis taught at the Shady Hill School for Girls in Philadelphia, but she probably missed by a few years late the organist Lewis Redner. Mr. Redner played at several churches in Philadelphia and dealt in real estate. In his spare time, somehow, he came up with the tune for O Little Town of Bethlehem, somehow hooking up with that carol’s lyricist, Phillips Brooks.  A great-grandson of the founder of the Phillips Academy in Andover, MA. Mr. Brooks was a Rector in the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and is known for having introduced Christianity to Helen Keller during his tenure in Boston. The name of the tune for O Little Town is St. Louis. The irony here is that Katherine Kennicott Davis’ birthplace is... St. Louis, MO.

It is likely that one or more of the afore-mentioned was at least aware of an event that occurred in 1906. The first music to be broadcast on the air, from an AM “station” near Washington, DC, included a solo violin/voice performance of O Holy Night by Canadian-born Reginald Fessenden. It was on Christmas Eve,1906. 20 years before my father’s birthday, to give you some perspective. O Holy Night was written by Adolphe Adam, a Frenchman who studied composition against his father’s wishes in the 18-teens with Ferdinand Hérold, the composer of Zampa. (Here is a link to the overture to that opera). Nadia Boulanger’s father also studied with Hérold. Yikes.

Wow, now I get why people go into academia. You can’t make this stuff up.

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