A Light in the Darkness: Villancicos for Christmas

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by Colleen Baade

“De la virgen,” Luis Venegas de Henestrosa, Libro de cifra nueva (Alcalá de Henares, 1557)

Around this time of year, a short video clip from the 1967 Christmas episode of The Monkees TV show circulates on social media. If you’ve never heard The Monkees sing “Ríu Ríu Chíu,” I encourage you to watch it. I, along with majority of people who’ve posted comments to the video on YouTube, find their performance of the centuries-old Spanish Christmas carol charming.

“Ríu Ríu Chíu” was published in Venice in 1556 in a small book of songs titled Villancicos de diversos autores, also known to music scholars as the Cancionero de Upsala (Uppsala Songbook) for the university library in Sweden that holds the single surviving copy. At the time of its publication, “Ríu Ríu Chíu” and other villancicos like it were fast becoming what could rightly be considered the most important (and certainly the most popular) musical genre in the Iberian Peninsula and its New World colonies for several centuries. Villancicos — religious songs characterized by dance rhythms and words in the vernacular instead of Latin — were heard in churches all over the Iberian world at all sorts of occasions from saints’ days to nuns’ professions. Early in the 17th century, music theorist Pietro Cerone chided impious churchgoers, normally too lazy to get out of bed, who “when they know there will be villancicos, there is no one anywhere more devout or more vigilant than they are… nor does it bother them to get up at midnight, regardless how cold it may be.”

Some 400 years later, Dulces Voces delights in singing these lively and theologically profound sacred songs from Iberia, two of which are featured on this years’ Christmas program. The anonymous “De la virgen” (“Of the Virgin”) comes from a collection of keyboard music published in Alcalá de Henares just one year after the Uppsala Songbook (and ten years after Miguel de Cervantes was born in that same city). “De la virgen” poses the question “¿De quién?,“ that is, “Of whom [is the Virgin worthy to be mother]?” The answer affirms the Divine Motherhood of Mary, who bore “the eternal God, equal to the Father.” Pedro de Cristo’s “Es nascido” (“He is born”) was likely composed around the same time Pedro Cerone was scolding villancico fans. Its author was a Portuguese monk who served as chapel master at Augustinian monasteries in Coimbra and Lisbon. Like the earlier “De la virgin,” “Es nascido” tells the Christmas story in dialogue form to people who demand to know—“Dinos quien” (“Tell us who”) — just who has been born. The reply explains that the one who is born is the same one whose birth was foretold by the Zechariah, “whose signs are the manger and the stable,” and who is “born into our poverty, so as to give us His riches.”

“De la virgen” and “Es nascido” are featured in A Light in the Darkness, Saturday, December 8, 2018, 7:30pm

Elizabeth Regina: A Note on Versatility from One of Our Singers

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Versatility: curse, virtue, or both?

by Jackie Josten, soprano (mostly)

This is my second year singing with Dulces Voces. I begin Elizabeth Regina singing alto on William Byrd’s O Lord, let they servant Elizabeth and, if I’m brave and don’t chicken out and jump up the octave, I will sing a low E-flat below middle C. Then, on the opener for the second half, I sing soprano on Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Just as the tide was flowing, which takes me up to a high A-flat. Provided everything goes according to plan, I will have sung a full two and a half octaves. If, however, this light, lyric soprano doesn’t quite make it down to that low E-flat in the beginning, we’ll only hear a measly two octaves. I’ll try not to disappoint.

I’m far from the first vocally versatile member of Dulces Voces. Holly, who has been with the group since long before I moved to Lincoln, regularly dumbfounds me with her range. She spends a lot of this concert (and most concerts lately) singing tenor — regularly hitting that low E-flat with ease. She’ll then turn around in rehearsal sometimes and break out into a soprano line higher than anything I’ve sung in public to date. We have other members that jump around on parts as well — Laura and I have been trading off singing soprano and alto, John occasionally hops up to tenor from his usual happy place of bass/baritone, and perhaps most impressive to me, Colleen will sometimes take a break from rehearsing her alto line to sit at the piano and play parts.

The concert’s music itself spans a wide range of affects and requires a lot of musical versatility from all of us. We have the stillest of the still in John Tavener’s The Lord’s Prayer (the instructions in the score literally tell the singers to sing with as little dynamic contrast as possible). Contrast that with the very model of lively Renaissance-era polyphony in Thomas Weelkes’ As Vesta was from Latmos hill descending, which is used in almost every undergraduate music history course as an early example of musical variety and text painting. Never mind that those two pieces of music were written four centuries apart.

As much of a challenge as it is to put together such a diverse collection of songs, the members of Dulces Voces have embraced it and had a lot of fun putting it together. One common thread through it all is everything will be in English, even the one with the Latin title, the Orlando Gibbons Te Deum. And after all, the two Elizabethan eras include most, if not all, of England’s most treasured choral music.

Come hear for yourself, Saturday, June 2, 2018, 7:30pm, St. Mark’s on the Campus, 13th & R in Lincoln, NE.

Hodie!: A Cradle Hymn by David von Kampen

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Hear this live Saturday, December 17, 2016 | 7:30 PM | Holy Trinity Episcopal Church | Lincoln, Nebraska
Printable Program

David von KampenA Cradle Hymn by David von Kampen might have had a rocky start, if you’ll pardon the pun. But it has turned into one of our favorites, and a best selling piece on MusicSpoke. According to David, “I was sitting on the poem for awhile, I knew I wanted to eventually work it into a Howells-esque unaccompanied Christmas piece. I finally got around to doing it when there was a call for scores, a choir in Florida wanted Christmas music. So I wrote the piece over a weekend and sent it off. It didn’t get selected, so I sent it to the Concordia (Nebraska) choir and they premiered it.”

We hope you’ll join us to hear this modern lullaby. It may be cold and snowy, but we hope to bring some beauty and warmth to you tonight.

A Cradle Hymn
Hush, my dear, lie still and slumber;
Holy angels guard thy bed;
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently falling on thy head.

Sleep, my babe, thy food and raiment,
House and home, thy friends provide;
All without thy care, or payment,
All thy wants are well supplied.

How much better thou’rt attended
Than the Son of God could be,
When from heaven He descended,
And became a child like thee!

Soft and easy is thy cradle;
Coarse and hard thy Saviour lay,
When His birthplace was a stable,
And His softest bed was hay.

See the kindly shepherds round him,
Telling wonders from the sky!
When they sought Him, there they found Him,
With his Virgin-Mother by.

See the lovely babe a-dressing;
Lovely infant, how He smiled!
When He wept, the mother’s blessing
Soothed and hushed the holy child.

Lo, He slumbers in His manger,
Where the honest oxen fed;
–Peace, my darling! here’s no danger!
Here’s no ox a-near thy bed!

Mayst thou live to know and fear Him,
Trust and love Him all thy days;
Then go dwell forever near Him,
See His face, and sing His praise!

I could give thee thousand kisses,
Hoping what I most desire;
Not a mother’s fondest wishes
Can to greater joys aspire.
Isaac Watts (17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748)

Hodie!: The Angel Gabriel

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Hear this live Saturday, December 17, 2016 | 7:30 PM | Holy Trinity Episcopal Church | Lincoln, Nebraska
Printable Program

Gabriel Icon, written by Anne Sheedy GardnerThe Archangel Gabriel is an important part of the Christmas story. He is the messenger who visits Mary and announces she will give birth to Jesus. He is the subject of one of our favorite carols,  and we have sung the story of his visit countless times over the years. But music is not the only art form that tells stories. That’s why we are thrilled to have this messenger with us on Saturday evening in the form of an icon. Local artist Anne Sheedy Gardner created, or “wrote,” it using traditional techniques from the sixteenth century and earlier. She used clay, gesso, ground pigments, egg tempura, and 24 karat gold, praying through each brushstroke.

“I encountered my first icons at an early age growing up in San Francisco and then again as a music conservatory student in Rome when I was a teenager.  They called to me. There is tremendous peace in doing this focused, contemplative practice. There is great humility in offering oneself to this process with the hope of eventually helping others in their own spiritual practices.  Sacred art can illuminate all our lives and bring us peace.”

Anne currently studies the Prosopon School Russian influenced/Byzantine techniques with iconographer, Jane Tan Creti. She was educated in Rome, New York City, and London. She recently retired from teaching music at Peru State College. She is on the faculty of the School of Sacred Art in New York City and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska. We hope you will spend a few moments with Gabriel on Saturday evening before or after the concert, or during intermission.

Alma redemptoris mater
Loving Mother of the Redeemer, who remains the gate by which we mortals enter heaven, and star of the sea, help your fallen people who strive to rise. You who gave birth, amazing nature, to your sacred Creator, Virgin prior and following, taking from the mouth of Gabriel that Hail! Have mercy on our sins.

Evening Song: Rest, Ralph Vaughan Williams with text by Christina Rossetti

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Hear this live Saturday, June 4, 2016 | 7:30 PM | St. Matthew’s Episcopal | Lincoln, Nebraska

Printable program

Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)
Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

Christina Rossetti was an English poet of the Victorian era. She and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are considered the greatest female poets of their time. Rossetti’s poetry was also famously set in the popular Christmas songs, In the Bleak Midwinter and Love Came Down at Christmas. We feel fortunate to sing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ stunning setting of Rest (text below).

O Earth, lie heavily upon her eyes;
Seal her sweet eyes weary of watching, Earth;
Lie close around her; leave no room for mirth
With its harsh laughter, nor for sound of sighs.
She hath no questions, she hath no replies,
Hushed in and curtained with a blessed dearth
Of all that irked her from the hour of birth;
With stillness that is almost Paradise.
Darkness more clear than noon-day holdeth her,
Silence more musical than any song;
Even her very heart has ceased to stir:
Until the morning of Eternity
Her rest shall not begin nor end, but be;
And when she wakes she will not think it long.

Rossetti experimented with many poetic forms, and followed the Romantic tradition of meditations on death and loss. Rest follows that tradition, using the Italian Sonnet form (abba abba bcb ddc). Vaughan Williams’ phrasing masterfully follows the speech rhythm and line length of the poetry while adding an emotional undercurrent that cannot be expressed in words. You probably won’t hum this tune as you leave the concert. Instead, you will certain to carry it with you when you leave, in the “silence more musical than song.”

The performance of Rest below is by the King’s Singers.

Evening Song: Lamentation Over Boston, William Billings

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Hear this live Saturday, June 4, 2016 | 7:30 PM | St. Matthew’s Episcopal | Lincoln, Nebraska
Printable program

William Billings (1746 –1800)
William Billings (1746 –1800)

William Billings was born in Boston, and is largely regarded as America’s first choral composer. He was dedicated to the art of singing, and listed as “singing master” in the Boston city directory until 1798. Billings lived during a violent period of America’s history. The Revolution began when he was 29-years old, and lasted until after his death, nearly half of his life. Billings’ Lamentation Over Boston bases its text on Psalm 137 (below), drawing parallels between the Israelites’ lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem and the unrest of his native Boston. It is a powerful and passionate piece of American history.

Psalm 137, King James Version
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

Below is a performance by the Minneapolis-based group, Cantus. We are very pleased that one of our former members, Chris Foss, sings, arranges, and programs music for that stunning group of singers.

Evening Song: Mass for Four Voices, William Byrd

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Hear this live Saturday, June 4, 2016 | 7:30 PM | St. Matthew’s Episcopal | Lincoln, Nebraska
Printable program

William Byrd (c.1540 – 1623)
William Byrd (c.1540 – 1623)

William Byrd was an English Renaissance composer, writing during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Over the years movements of his Mass for Four Voices have become a staple in the Dulces Voces repertoire. We have rarely performed the entire work, so this concert will be a treat for us.

While Byrd composed during the Elizabethan period, the mass itself has characteristics of an earlier Tudor style. Some scholars assert the Mass for Four Voices was modeled after John Taverner’s (c. 1490 – 1545) Mean Mass. Byrd’s Mass peppers semi-choir sections throughout the work. Those sections are delicate confections that are both satisfying to sing and hear. Byrd composed three settings of the Ordinary of the Mass, for four, three, and five voices. The editions were undated, did not name the printer, and were thin to allow them to be concealed. Bibliographic analysis suggests these works were publish in the 1590s, a time when many Catholics feared for their lives, and merely possessing the books would be dangerous. Given the history, it is possible Byrd’s mass was written in an earlier style to further conceal the origin of the composition.

The performance below (not Dulces Voces) is the Gloria movement of the Mass for Four Voices.