EXPLORING MUSIC: "A Nice Collection, Nicely Played" A Celebration of Advent
The MHS Review 390 Vol. 11 No.12 1987
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David M. Greene
As often noted in these pages I live in a former steel-town in Pennsylvania. It calls itself the Christmas City, ostensibly because it was founded on Christmas Eve (1741), though more probably because that appellation is to its economic advantage, as testified to by the busloads of pilgrims who seek its shrines and souvenir shops every December. To make sure that the visitors get their money's worth and that the Pennsylvania Power and Light Company is rewarded for raising its rates, the citizens one and all vie in a display of appropriate illumination that includes batallions of life-size plastic carollers, Santas, snowmen, elves, and reindeer.
The municipality lights up a giant star (which becomes a giant cross at Easter) on the mountain that overlooks the city, erects a giant Christmas tree (torched by vandals in one recent year), and puts up its own decor. This last includes two sets of giant neon-outlined candles (four to a set) on the Hill-to-Hill Bridge and the municipal plaza. One of these candles is lit for each week of Advent. But no music so far accompanies them.
The purpose of the Advent season is clear: to heighten our consciousness of the meaning of the Nativity whose anniversary (by popular agreement) approaches, and to remind us of the imminence of the Second Coming, when all the wicked will get their comeuppance. (I can't wait to see who they are, can you?) But its history remains rather obscure. It is first called by name at the Council of Tours in 561 A.D., though there are hints that there was some such religious observance at least a century or two earlier. But it seems to have no other basis in Biblical story, i.e. it has nothing to do with such events as the Annunciation or the Visitation.
In our tradition, Advent begins the church year on the Sunday closest to November 30. But among the Christians of Ethiopia it runs from November 11, involving a time period that should make us even wearier of Advent music than some of us usually get of Christmas music. In Rome, of course, Advent music has had a long tradition, for that is when the pipers (the pifferari) come in from some rather mysterious outland and tootle pastoral melodies. But the Church of Rome (or so I read) won't marry you during that season. In England during Advent poor women, carrying Mary-and-Jesus dolls, go door to door begging ha'pence, and in Normandy farm kids run through the fields lighting piles of straw to discourage the mice and rats.
Assuming the Advent-music idea catches on, what should you expect? Dr. John Bull offers variations on a Dutch carol and Buxtehude a set on a familiar Christmas chorale. The two Frenchmen, Charpentier and Corrette, are represented by variations on popular noels, an 18th-century fad. (Note that Charpentier is not the fairly familiar Marc-Antoine, but oneJean-Jacques Beauvarlet, who is listed in none of my reference books.) The Bach and Domenico Scarlatti pieces are pastorales, a genre connected with Christmas because of the pifferari. Byrd's piece is an imitation of change-ringing and has no reference to any particular season.
Advent or no, this is a nice collection, nicely played. Ms. Green (no relation to the undersigned) is, apparently, particularly successful with young audiences, for which skill I envy her.