We invite you to read through Michael Allsen’s program notes for the December 3, 4, and 5 performances of A Madison Symphony Christmas below. Visit his website to download a printable PDF of these program notes and more.

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Program Notes

Welcome to the 2021 edition of “A Madison Symphony Christmas!” This program has become a Madison holiday tradition, and is always among our most popular offerings. The program moves from classical styles in the first half—culminating in Handel’s great “Hallelujah” chorus—to lighter holiday music in the second half. And as always, we end with a Gospel finale…and a chance for you to sing along! We welcome two distinguished vocal soloists, soprano Elizabeth Caballero and tenor Jared Esguerra. This program also features three fine choruses: the Madison Youth Choirs, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir, and our own Madison Symphony Chorus. We are also proud to feature one of the MSO’s own, flutist Stephanie Jutt.

Among the most famous hymns of Christmas, Joy to the World may also the most famous case of misattribution among Christmas hymns. It has traditionally been credited to Handel, and indeed one of its first publishers, the hymn writer William Holford printed it with Handel’s name in the early 1830s, probably because of its close resemblance to a few bits from the ever-familiar Messiah: the choruses “Lift Up Your Heads” and “Glory to God,” and the instrumental sections of the aria “Comfort Ye.” The great Methodist hymn writer Lowell Mason cemented the association with Handel when he revised the tune in 1839 and used it to set a Christmas hymn text by Handel’s contemporary Isaac Watts. This familiar hymn is heard here in an appropriately joyous and grand arrangement by Mack Wilberg, longtime director of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was written in Leipzig for the Christmas season of 1734-35. Not really an “oratorio,” in the dramatic sense of Judas Maccabeus and other contemporary works by Handel, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is instead a series of six self-contained cantatas for Christmas Day and the feasts that follow it. The exuberant Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen (Let honor be sung to you, O God) is the opening chorus of the fifth cantata, serving as a prelude to the stories of the Three Wise Men and King Herod. It is actually one of just three choral movements Bach composed originally for the Christmas Oratorio—the other choruses were all reworkings of earlier material. Set in a three-part form above an unendingly energetic orchestral background, Ehre sei dir is a showcase for Bach’s brilliant fugal writing. A brief middle section is slightly more reserved, before a return of the opening music.

Jonathan Dove (b.1956) is a successful English composer, particularly in the world of opera: following the success of his comic opera Flight in 1998, he has composed nearly 30 operas. Dove has also written extensively for chorus, chamber groups and orchestra. His flute concerto, The Magic Flute Dances, was written for Welsh flutist Emily Beynon, who played its premiere in February 2000 with the Milton Keynes City Orchestra. It is freely based upon Mozart’s 1791 opera The Magic Flute. Dove provides the following imaginative description:

“What happens to the magic flute at the end of Mozart’s opera? Does Tamino give it back to the three ladies? Does it lie in a box, forgotten, at the back of a cupboard? Or does it, perhaps, when no one’s looking, come out and dance, singing to itself about Tamino’s adventures? When Emily Beynon asked me for a concerto that had some connection with Mozart, I thought this could be an opportunity to let the flute out of its box, not to play the music it plays in the opera, but to play the music it has heard other people sing. The concerto begins with music from the moment before Tamino and Pamina walk through fire and water, while the flute plays fragments of ideas it will explore later. The opening chords of the Overture open a door into the imaginary world of the flute, and usher in its first reminiscence: the Queen of the Night, a character with whom it seems particularly fascinated. In the next section the flute dances around ideas from the Overture; a short cadenza (a recollection of Tamino fleeing from the serpent) leads to the moment Tamino sees Pamina’s portrait. The next memories are a little confused—Papageno left alone, no one answering his pipes. His isolation is echoed by that of Pamina, bewildered by Tamino’s silence. The vibraphone announces the three helpful boys; their music becomes a kind of passacaglia. This is followed by a scherzo, made out of Pamina’s and Papageno’s duet; and then, with the flute once again entranced by the Queen of the Night, the opening chords of the Overture return, closing the memory door.”

Though this is clearly a challenging virtuoso piece and music written by a 21st-century composer, Dove handles the quotations from the opera with a mix of seriousness, wit, and good humor worthy of the Mozart original.

Romantic composer Charles Gounod set a lovely cantabile melody above one of Bach’s keyboard preludes to create one of the best-loved sacred songs of all time. Gounod initially improvised this melody over Bach’s Prelude No.1 from The Well-Tempered Clavier in 1853, and it was initially published as an instrumental solo. In 1859 it appeared as a vocal solo with its now-familiar Latin text. The Ave Maria, drawn from the Annunciation story in the Gospel of Luke, is one of the most familiar prayers of the Catholic Church. It is heard here in an arrangement by Dan Goeller, a South Dakota-based conductor, composer, and arranger.

Though hymn-writer George Ratcliffe Woodward penned the words to Ding Dong Merrily on High in 1924, he reached back much earlier for the melody: it was originally a tune included in a 16th-century dance manual, Thionot Arbeau’s Orchesographie (1588) intended to be played with a circle-dance called the bransle. Mack Wilberg’s sprightly arrangement plays up the “dancey” nature of this melody. It begins with girls’ voices and a lively accompaniment of bells and woodwinds, and gradually involves the entire choir and orchestra. Though he was respected in his day as composer of operas and ballet scores (including the well-known Giselle) Adolphe Adam is known to American audiences mostly for his Christmas carol Cantique de Noël. Written in 1847 as a setting of a two-verse Christmas poem by Mary Cappeaux, this carol was later adapted by J. S. Wright as a three-verse English carol, O Holy Night. This performance features an arrangement for tenor voice and orchestra by Dan Goeller.

The distinctive musical style of Englishman John Rutter, together with his skill as choral conductor have made him a familiar name in the world of choral music. (Nearly all of our holiday programs over the last quarter century have featured at least one of his pieces!) His Gloria, composed in 1974, was one of his first works to gain wide attention. It was commissioned by a chorus in Omaha, Nebraska, but in relatively short order it became a favorite of choruses throughout the United States and England. The Gloria text is drawn from the Latin liturgy, and it has proved a fertile source of inspiration to composers from the Middle Ages onwards. Rutter provides the following description of his Gloria: “The Latin text, drawn from the Ordinary of the Mass, is a centuries-old challenge to the composer: exalted, devotional, and jubilant by turns. My setting, which is based upon one of the Gregorian chants associated with the text, divides into three movements roughly corresponding with traditional symphonic structure.” The original version was accompanied by a brass and percussion ensemble, but at this program we feature Rutter’s later arrangement for chorus and full orchestra.

And as always, the finale to our first half is the concluding “Hallelujah” chorus from Part II of George Frideric Handel’s 1741 oratorio Messiah. While this familiar and exuberant chorus is actually the conclusion of the Easter section of the oratorio, it has long since become a standard part of the Christmas season as well.

Deck the Halls is one of the oldest Christmas songs generally heard today—a 400-year-old Welsh carol that features the “fa-la-la” refrains popular in 16th-century madrigals. It is heard here in an arrangement for orchestra by Carmen Dragon. Dragon, a composer, arranger, and conductor, was a fixture of the Hollywood music scene for decades. He conducted music for thousands of hours of radio broadcasts, and composed film scores, winning an Oscar in 1944 for Cover Girl. He remains best-known today for hundreds of orchestral arrangements—mostly created for performances at the Hollywood Bowl—that are mainstays of orchestral “Pops” programs. Dragon wrote his boisterous arrangement of Deck the Halls for a 1957 recording by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

Composer Noel Regney and his wife, lyricist Gloria Shayne Baker wrote the Holiday standard Do You Hear What I Hear? in 1962 and it became a huge hit for Bing Crosby in 1963, selling over a million copies. Though usually heard as a sentimental song to the Baby Jesus, Regney later said “I am amazed that people can think they know the song, and not know it is a prayer for peace.” It was written in October 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when nuclear war seemed imminent. Contrary to their usual practice, Regney wrote the lyric, and his wife wrote the melody. The result was a song that they found so moving that they couldn’t bear to sing it at first. The final stanza, with its “Pray for peace, people everywhere!” makes this as appropriate in 2021 as it was in 1962. Here, the popular choral arrangement by Harry Simeone is combined with a new orchestration by Brant Adams.

Peter Jaffe is a well-regarded conductor and guest conductor who currently leads two orchestras in California: the Stockton Symphony Orchestra and the Folsom Lake Symphony Orchestra. He is also active as an arranger. Jaffe wrote his Symph-Hanukkah for the Stockton Symphony Orchestra in 2018. As its punning title suggests, this is a lighthearted work. Jaffe uses the familiar Dreidel Song to link together several traditional Hanukkah songs: Ma’oz tzur (Rock of Ages), Mi y’malel (Who Can Retell?), Hanukkah chag yafeh (Hanukkah, Beautiful Holiday), Blessing over the Hanukkah Lights, and Sevivon (Spinning Top). This witty medley works in a bit of klezmer style along the way and ends, in what the composer describes as a “blaze of glory,” with O Hanukkah, and a joyful shout.

I Saw Three Ships Come Sailing In is an old English carol, dating from the 17th century or earlier. The notion that ships could somehow sail into the city of Bethlehem is geographical wishful thinking, but the text is metaphorical and joyous, possibly relating to the three wise men who visited the baby Jesus. In this arrangement by James Stephenson, it is combined with the Provençal carol Bring a Torch Jeannette Isabella. This song, which may have existed by the 14th century, might actually have been a “carol” in the original sense of the word. Medieval French carols were dance songs, and in this case it may jave been connected to the ancient Provençal tradition of erecting an elaborate crèche, or nativity scene, to honor the Baby Jesus.

This section of the program ends with a pair of slightly more contemporary holiday songs. The ever-popular The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire), with all of those cozy wintertime images, was actually written during the roasting heat of a California summer. In his autobiography, Mel Tormé related the story how in July 1945, he drove to the home of his lyricist and collaborator Robert Wells in Toluca Lake. He found the lyrics lying on the piano, and when Wells finally appeared sweating and hot even in shorts and a t-shirt, he told Tormé: “It was so damn hot today, I thought I’d write something to cool myself off. All I could think of was Christmas and cold weather.” Tormé replied: “You know, this just might make a song.” The Christmas Song was written in about 45 minutes later that day. Tormé quickly showed the song to his friend Nat Cole, whose 1946 hit recording is now a beloved holiday classic. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year was written by the songwriting team of Eddie Pola and George Wyle. Pola and Wyle, who specialized in silly novelty numbers like I Said My Pajamas (And Put On My Prayers), are largely forgotten today, aside from this exuberant holiday waltz—a big hit for Andy Williams in 1963.

Part of our tradition since 2005 has been to welcome the Mount Zion Gospel Choir to perform on this program, singing works composed and arranged by its codirector Leotha Stanley. They open air set with a Stanley original, The Joy of Christmas, which was introduced at these concerts in 2016. They continue with a medley of Away in a Manger and Yes, This is Jesus. Away in a Manger is relatively unusual among Christmas carols in existing with two equally well-known melodies—it is familiar both as a hymn tune published in 1887 by James Murray and as a lilting “cradle song” written in 1895 by William Kirkpatrick; it is this second version that Mr. Stanley has adapted here. The words first appeared in a Sunday school magazine in 1884, attributed—undoubtedly incorrectly—to Martin Luther. Kirkpatrick, a prolific songwriter, wrote his version of Away in a Manger, itself an adaptation of an earlier hymn tune, for a Christmas musical in Philadelphia. Stanley describes his Yes, This is Jesus as a “reply” to Away in a Manger: an assurance that this baby, born in the humblest of surroundings was indeed the savior. The Mt. Zion Gospel Choir is joined by our soloists and the other two choirs for the finale, Christmas Time is Here. This another Stanley original, with lyrics of reassurance and hope that respond to the “cloud that has been hanging over all of us in the last 18 months.”

And then, friends, it’s your turn to sing!


program notes ©2021 by J. Michael Allsen

To view current and past program notes, please visit Michael Allsen’s website.