He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning. (Amos 5:8)

There can be no lovelier image than that of a sparkling starry sky and the transition from the dark night to the light of dawn with which to start a Christmas programme. In Jonathan Dove’s Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars, the twinkling stars are woven through the entire composition. A great lover of the Christmas period, Benjamin Britten wrote many works for the season. On the programme this time is not the well-known Ceremony of Carols, but Christ's Nativity, a rarely performed Christmas suite for choir. And lastly, we will hear some of the favourite traditional Christmas carols, which cannot be left out this year, either.

Merry Christmas to you!

From darkness to light

The British composer Jonathan Dove (1959) made his breakthrough at the end of the last century with a reworking of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen for chamber music ensemble and with his comic opera Flight. Since then, he has focused chiefly on composing for musical theatre and voice. In 2010 he opened The Last Night of the Proms with A Song of Joys for choir and orchestra.

Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars is an early work of Dove’s. He wrote it at the request of the Royal Academy of Arts for their annual celebration of artists. During his quest for a suitable text, he stumbled upon a verse from the book of Amos in the Hebrew Bible and from Psalm 139 about starlight: “I thought that these images would have a special meaning significance for visual artists. The hymn opens with a musical image of the night sky. A repeated organ motif of twinkling stars sets the choir wondering who made them. The refrain 'seek him' starts in devotional longing but is eventually released into a joyful dance, finally coming to rest in serenity.”

The miracle of birth

For Benjamin Britten’s (1913-1976) Christ’s Nativity, initially titled A King’s Birthday, we return to the year 1931, on the eve of Britten’s career. Britten composed this five-part suite for choir during his second year at the Royal College of Music. The year before, his sister Barbara had given him a book titled Christmas Carols, a selection of poems from various eras on the theme of Christmas. Throughout the five works, Britten plays with a diversity of styles, moods, colours and textures: the suite opens with an agitated Christ’s Nativity and then moves into a soothing Sweet Was the Song. A longing preparation for the coming of the prince in Preparations is followed by a contemplative New King, New Pomp. The cycle ends in great joy, with the exuberant festive Carol of King Cnut. Britten’s Christ’s Nativity was never performed in full during his lifetime, and it was published only in 1994.

Christmas carols

The traditional Christmas carols have a long history. For centuries, they were folk dances that were sung on the occasion of various holidays such as the winter solstice in December. Later, these pagan songs were replaced by Christians with religious hymns. During the English Renaissance, popular Christmas carols were composed and sung by itinerant musicians in town squares or in cafés. And to this day, this tradition is still very strong.

A classic among these carols is Silent Night. The poem was written by Father Joseph Mohr, the music by Franz Xaver Gruber, organist of the St. Nicholas Church in the Austrian town of Oberndorf. On Christmas Eve 1818, the two gentlemen gave the first performance, accompanied by the guitar. Their message of hope spread fast, thanks to merchants and missionaries, to Germany and later throughout the world. The song has now been translated into more than 300 languages and has been added by UNESCO to its list of intangible cultural heritage.

Commentary by Aurélie Walschaert

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