W.S. George
writer composer

On Beauty in Music

For a while I've been meaning to write on how I perceive the beauty that draws me to two of my favourite art forms; serious music and literature. This is the third time I'm starting this exposition. My earlier attempts were deliberate studies of my favourite nuances in music and language and how they come together to make the music, poems and literature I appreciate worth their while.

I had big ambitions for this; there was so much I could talk about. For days I've been running through countless examples in the least orderly fashion and I've often wondered how I could adequately convey my thoughts in a way that will not bore or confuse you. What's been of more concern to me is how I could let you appreciate what I appreciate. It has been a daunting prospect, just thinking about what is to come. Never have I been able to communicate clearly what makes some music work for me, or what makes some lines in a poem mean so much more than what the poet intended. Doing it in person is hard enough; to convey that through writing?

Prose has never been my forté, nonetheless let me take the bold step and guide you on this subjective journey of appreciation of the sublime and beautiful. Let us begin with music.

Music

Before I dive in I should make this clear: I have no technical training in music theory. Most of what I know has been learned from habit, experience and hours of Youtube Lessons. Forgive me in advance if I make any errors. I didn't know what I was doing.

Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 16, the one we call the Sonata Facile remains the most memorable example of musical development of a theme I experienced. I first heard it at morning assembly while I was at Achimota School. We were blessed to have Mr. Ken Kafui as the choir master of the Aggrey Memorial Chapel Choir. He is one of Ghana's most prominent composers, a man I grew to love more as he exposed me to the depth of music. Most of my love for serious music and chorale come from his distant mentorship. I am yet to show him any of my scores as a thank you for inspiring me.

Ken Kafui's love for music led him to introduce the sometimes reluctant student body to some of the best music most of us will ever know. The main organist of the Aggrey Chapel Choir, a boy I only remember as Nii Kwei (maybe, maybe not, but let's call him Nii) had been learning Mozart's Sonata Facile for a while. One morning, Ken Kafui had him perform the first movement for us. It was a lovely little concert I still remember. Nii sat behind the electronic keyboard mounted before the student body. Ken Kay asked that we all remain silent – it is the most polite thing you can do when listening to music. No humming, no singing along if you already know the tune. The audience must remain courteous while the performer played.

Now, with what little of Mozart's style I knew then, I sat back to enjoy what was to come. The exposition was lively. The bass notes had an almost childlike playfulness I find peculiar to Mozart's music. The second theme got a bit more serious, but still retained the liveliness of the first. The cadence Mozart placed at the end of the theme is a memorable one. He repeated the theme and I got comfortable with what I was listening already becoming familiar with the first movement. Then as unexpected as it was exciting, the development began with a chord in G-minor that jolted me into euphoria. That was the moment when the first movement came alive.

The change of key is sharp and pleasing. The effect changes the character of the music significantly and we find Mozart working his way back as he recapitulates the theme and so ends the sonata. This was one of my most formative moments in music appreciation. Since then, I've always been on the look out for wonderful key changes in music. It's what's made me love a lot of Vivaldi's work lately.

A bit more about Mozart: for a while he gave me a nickname among my roommates and their friends. I must have spent more time listening to Mozart in my third and final years in university than I did any other composer. What I love most about his music is – like I've already mentioned – his playfulness with melodies and harmony. One piece that moves me deeply is the third movement of his Piano Sonata no. 11 in A major . Pay attention, not to the melody (which I know you won't forget) but to the interesting pattern of those bass notes. You should also pay close attention to how the melody and the bass notes come together to make a very exciting harmony. The music is “simple” yet quite complex in its nature. As its a rondo, there's a lot of repetition of the themes in this piece with apparently little variation. It doesn't make this tiresome though. It gives is a change to really absorb what Mozart is trying to tell us.

When the variations do come, you find that they're not that great a departure from the main idea. And they come at the tail end of the piece, leading us to a short, excited cadence.

Going to more “serious” work, let's look at the aria in The Magic Flute "Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen" The aria begins with a very short dramatic crescendo that introduces the first line of the verse “Der Holle” with long notes. Even while she sings her second line, note the playful skipping of the accompanying instruments. It's as though Mozart had this joy in him that always had to come out in his music. You'll hear the accompaniment even as she hits those demanding notes that colour the end of the verse. Note how the instruments echo her staccato faintly. He could have left us to marvel at the performer's talent, but some of these little bits he leaves in his music makes it complete.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro Todesschmerzen,
so bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr."

"Verstoßen sei auf ewig,
verlassen sei auf ewig,
zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
alle Bande der Natur.
wenn nicht durch dich Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, hört, hört, Rachegötter, hört, der Mutter Schwur!

Despite the main attraction of this aria, what fascinates me more are the running notes when the soloist sings “alle Bande der Natur.” Again, note the leisurely pace of the accompanying strings as she prolongs the “Bande” and hear them pick up anticipating her sharp rise that gives this aria its fame. This is what I find most thrilling about this song. It is as though when listening to his music, Mozart wants us to pay special attention to some of those interesting bits as if to say, “You hear what I put in there? Did you?” and I respond to myself, “Of course Amadeus, of course I hear it!”.

I've often imagined myself conducting an orchestra while my sister sings this aria. It will be my joy if I ever get to do this.

I remember spending one Saturday morning listening to a Paul Lewis recording of Piano Quartet K. 478 (3rd Movement Link). I enjoyed this but was mostly absent minded. The music was pleasant and so was the morning. I was alone in my room and, uninterrupted, I had the chance to pace about and think for myself. I was deep in thought when the third movement of the second quartet began. I took no notice of it. I have no idea what was going on in my mind but, just about a minute and twenty seconds into it one short violin sequence arrested me. After so many minutes without interruption I paused and asked loudly “What the hell happened there?” I checked the name of the playing file and started it again, just so I could listen to how he had done it.

For weeks I had been replaying it in my head. I couldn't get it out. To most people I talked music to, I mentioned it. I had a friend come over so she could listen to it. When I was practicing harmonization, I took the melody and harmonized it as best as I could. After that semester, the first thing I did on vacation was play this to my dad and younger brother. I've been in love with that short passage since.

In recent weeks, I have become more acquainted with Mozart's Requiem than I ever was before. I had the chance to rehearse this with the Saint Thomas Acquinas Youth Choir on Legon campus. Before this time I only knew and adored Lacrimosa. We'll come to that one later. These days though, what's most marvelous is the Introit.

This is not the best place to be educated on the Requiem Mass. As far as I'm concerned, it was Mozart's most serious work. And his last. He didn't complete it, according to legend. Or he completed it just before he died. Whichever way this actually went, the Requiem Mass is the saddest I've heard the composer. And it is his most beautiful.

The remarkable thing to note about the Introit is how, for most, they barely know its begun when the music starts. It begins with very low, long notes that begin to crescendo as though they were striding towards the altar in darkness. The music is very grave at the beginning and as it picks up volume (and instruments) the melody becomes slightly more varied, although the strings continue that marching pace. The we hear the trumpets (or what sounds like brass) rise solemnly with the swelling of the strings and reach a climax with three blasts and drum beats. You'll have to strain a little to get those but that loud triumphant climax is one of the sweetest moments of this mass. It ushers us into the chorus, lead by the basses as they sing a prolonged “Requiem aeternam”.

The other voices follow in similar pattern up until the swell of the entire choir and orchestra at “dona aeis domine requiem”. Again, pay attention to the percussion's three beats and the trumpets sounding that triumphant blast we heard when the Introit began. The voices crescendo until “Domine”. This is my favourite part of the entire mass. Well, except what comes next; the solo “Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddetur votum in Jerusalem.”

This is one of the more haunting solos Mozart wrote. Short and beautiful, and it ushers us into “Exaudi”. Notice the string instruments at “veniet”, before the basses repeat “requiem in aeternam”. Also, note how at this recapitulation the accompanying string are very very interesting. More lively, I believe, than at the first statement of the theme. Throughout the Introit, Mozart sticks to long, mournful strains.

We find similar mournful strains begin Lacrimosa although the rhythm is quicker. The little bit of this piece I love most is when the choir sings “Qua resurget ex favilla” punctuated by the strings. Not all recordings emphasize this. In fact, although I've known Lacrimosa longest, it's only with this choir that I noticed the effect of really pronounced strings filling up the rests in the chorus. Also of note is the use of percussion to achieve dramatic effect in this song at crucial places and then at the ending of the music.

While I love Mozart's music, there isn't any period I cherish more than the Baroque. It probably has a lot to do with all the Handel and Haydn I was exposed to when growing up. Handel stands as my favourite baroque composer, although I'm such a fan of Vivaldi, Bach and some of the Scarlattis. No I don't like Pachelbel for very personal reasons.

Baroque music is heavy and “serious” in its nature. In many ways, it carries the essence of what people commonly call “Classical Music”. I love the richness inherent in baroque music and although most people limit themselves to Handel's and Hayden's most famous choruses, there's much much more to be found in their music.

Handel's Water Music is rich in musical ideas that have become a part of popular culture. The Air in Suite F is my favourite. One simple musical idea is taken through several variations and played by several instruments, each colouring it differently as we progress.

A more elaborate piece of Handel's I should dwell on is the overture of his Judas Maccabaeus Oratorio. It begins with a burst of strings and the harpsichord in the exposition. This rather long sequence goes on for over a minute and then is repeated after a very brief passage. The simple consistent rhythm of this first theme leads to a more boisterous introduction by the strings going it alone. Thus begins the second theme. Other strings join at a lower pitch, repeating that motif. The bass instruments finally join in a little late and we have that distinct fullness of baroque music. At this point, I always try to follow the bass notes as they dive deeper and in a sense “do their own thing down there” as the harmony becomes more and more interwoven and complex.

For a brief moment the bass instruments are silent, and then they pick up again. At about this point, I lose track of what is happening. There's so much going on it's easier to sit back and enjoy the blissful confusion. Then, for a brief moment after what sounds like a half-cadence, we hear the isolated strings strumming a melody easy enough to pick up again before they are joined by other instruments, including our trustworthy harpsichord. This short transition leads us to an explosion of sound like a chorus of instruments deep into the overture. We are now in the third theme. Trying to take in all that is happening in this piece is quite the task and, if you're new, then you're in luck. There's so much to discover and love in music so rich. Note how the cadence feels like the notes are cascading down until the abrupt rest. Then, Handel repeats a sequence of notes at reducing pitches until he ends this vibrant theme. And then (depending on the performers, I have noticed), we repeat the second and third themes. I love this overture for its sheer complexity of sound. Each time I listen to it, I pick up something interesting being done by an instrument somewhere. In this repetition, you can do well to pick one instrument and follow it through. It's okay to get lost and just enjoy the whole thing though.

A part of what makes Judas Maccabeus beautiful is the transition from a really vigorous overture to a very mournful chorus “Mourn Ye Afflicted Children”.

Judas Maccabaeus was one of those Handel oratorios I've known for a long time. The first aria I fell completely in love with was “T'is Liberty!” I loved it most for the harpsichord and strings running counterpoint to the soloist. Most of the time I indulged myself in contemplating how these notes worked against and with the melody. Also captivating were the violins mimicking the melody anytime the soloist paused. I thought that simple imitation, reinforcing the musical idea was brilliant.

In a similar way, I love “Come Ever Smiling Liberty”. But a bit more, because of one thing only: the harmony between the soprano and alto voices. This may be one of the most brilliant inventions of choral music. Even in the singing of common hymns I always find myself tingling with glee anytime sopranos and altos sing their parts alone. The harmony between those two parts always moves me, and even more so in my favourite piece in the entire oratorio. It doubles as the tune of my favourite Easter Hymn: “See, the Conquering Hero Comes”.

“See, the Conquering Hero Comes” has been on my playlist since Achimota school. My listening of Handel died down a bit while in the university, but I made it a point to attend on concert held by the University Choir at KNUST. I don't remember if it was a Judas Maccabaeus concert. The oratorio is long and I doubt they actually performed the entire thing. My only memories from that night were of me taking a walk to Queen's Hall with a friend and rushing back (I timed them) to ascend the gallery just in time. I shushed him and watched the two soloists take the mics in front of the choir. So began the first live performance of this anthem I had witnessed. It was perfect.

The choir begins by stating firmly the theme of the anthem. It is like an order to “see the conquering hero, sound the trumpets and beat the drums”. This action is actually carried out by the orchestra, that's what's most brilliant about this anthem. Of course we can only see the hero come by faith, but we do hear the trumpets repeat the theme, and yes, we do hear the drums beat to it. The trumpets are soft and almost like a cushion of music wafting away from the performers. What's more brilliant is, as we delve deeper into the music, there's hardly any accompaniment for a while. Yes, we hear instruments but it's the harmony of the four voices that blend so beautifully which make this anthem strikingly solemn in character. But then the trumpets, we need them. The words of the anthem demand them and they come in to carry the voices with them.

The tune sometimes differs slightly from what we're used to singing in the hymn “Yours is the Glory.” At certain places we have a brief rest just after the first half of the theme is restated. Then comes the soprano alto duet with its remarkably soft accompaniment. The final thing of beauty is the percussion. Yes, the drums eventually come. Many times I've imagined myself on the drums, hitting away as the orchestra plays. Here's where I confess I've always been jealous of the drummer who gets to play during this anthem.

The last oratorio I'll touch on is the rather strange “Crucifixion” by John Stainer. It's weird because it's the only famous one I know written for organ and SATB. It feels like English Church music from start to end. Stainer overdoes the organ work most of the time to my mild annoyance. The “Crucifixion” has its brilliant parts though. The anthem that strikes me as more powerful is “From the Throne of his Cross”.

The awe is in the opening words: “From the throne of his cross the King of Grief cries out to a world of unbelief!” The suddenness of the opening chords could wake you if the rest of the music felt Englishy and lulled you to sleep at church. It is stern, accusing and thrilling. The rest of this anthem imitates the Saviour's cry, asking “Is it nothing to you?” This question is repeated often enough so it gets quite stuck in the head. After a recent listening, I found myself asking this question throughout the following day.

The words of this anthem aren't taken from the Bible. They're like the haunting reflection of a poet considering what Christ must have felt on the cross as men cursed, insulted and killed him. Stainer is a great segue into the next genre of music that appeals to me.

Hymns

Hymns play a central role in the life of a Catholic. We may have borrowed heavily from the Methodists but the Catholic Church's musical tradition is old and worthy. However I will not delve into Masses. Hymns have always been accessible to me. For one, they were short pieces of music I could actually sing if I picked up a book. As a poet, were I to put in the effort, I could write my own hymns. And sing them to existing tunes or make up my own. All of which, I need not say, I have already done. Hymns for me have become a playground. Hymnody provides a convenient framework for testing out musical ideas that can actually be used by real choirs in real churches.

Simple as they are, they do merit some deep discussion. In the following paragraphs, I will delve into a few hymns and why I love them so much.

But before this, a word about hymns in churches these days. It a disease many Catholic churches suffer from: that need to embellish a good hymn with electronic percussion. You hardly find a choir begin without the organist first turning on that awful drumming sound, then slowing the tempo to a comfortable pace before sounding the chord. I absolutely abhor it. The out-of-place drumming drowns out the harmony. Worse is when the organist chooses to be witty by switching from faux piano to an entire string quartet, then some awful electronic synthesized sound you'd expect from Electro House music, then back to the traditional blaring organ because of reasons. I don't know how blunted some people's sense of beauty is, but they make Mass unbearable. Even more awful are lazy, undisciplined choristers who sway this way an that to the kpanlogo beats and bend notes at will, completely disregarding the conductor who must be in control of their voices and movements. The saddest thing is the conductor who only dances to the beat and flails his arms to the cacophony.

These things disturb me. Because of such disrespect I have shied away from my church choir. I'd rather take the extra burden of going to my parish where, the more established choir is disciplined and respects the sanctity of the hymn. Most of the time. Were it not for that discordant mass they sometimes sing (the fruit of their hardworking assistant choirmaster, I learned) I will fly to them every Sunday morning and have my need for good music met.

Now that my feelings have been aired, let us consider Catholic Hymn No. 244 “Jesus is God, the Solid Earth”, as sung to Ellacombe. That is the same tune for the more popular Methodist hymn “The Day of Resurrection”. The words of both hymns are stirring praises to Jesus Christ's Godliness and the power of his Resurrection, but I find true beauty (and by that extension, true worship) in the harmony. Let me illustrate:

Jesus is God: the solid earth
the ocean broad and bright,
the countless stars, like golden dust,
that strew the skies at night,
the wheeling storm, the dreadful fire,
the pleasant wholesome air,
the summer's sun, the winter's frost,
his own creations were.

The choir begins the first half of the first line in unison, proclaiming “Jesus is God” with a strong, sure melody. The very next breath – and this is the part that gives me the shivers – the very next breath is a flowering of harmony. I do not normally pay attention to the tenor voice in this hymn. We're well acquainted with the melody the sopranos sing. My part, bass descends predictably. What stirs me most are the alto notes that fall by a second and makes three steps, hitting their lowest note on a 1/8th and coming back up to C. Those first five notes of the harmony propels me through the music on to the repetition of the line. The effect of singing in unison and then breaking mid sentence into this blissful harmony is startlingly good, if you are lucky to be seated by an alto, I should add. Somehow, the music enhances the words sung at the flowering of the melody. Take note of how apt the verse is on lines three and seven: “like golden dust” and “the winter's frost.”

The beauty of the actual melody of this tune reaches its apex after the theme has been stated. Hymns aren't at all sophisticated. The – for want of a better term – development of the initial idea lasts only two lines of verse, characterised by three brief variations of the first half of the opening theme. But in those three variations we find genius at its height. “the wheeling storm” ushers us into the highest pitches of the melody. The upward, stepwise motion of the first sequence leads naturally to a brief and unstable subdominant (fal) that begins the next half of the fifth line. We pause briefly at “fire” on an unstable supertonic which only wants to fall back to B-flat. Thus the inevitable restatement of that first variation. The parallel between the beginning of the fifth line and the sixth is noteworthy both in music and in verse. The sixth line blends what seemed to be two distinct variations into one longer line that also rests uneasily one step above the tonic. Then comes the restatement of the theme just as the hymn begun: a firm unison that concludes in a happy cadence.

I went into the dynamics of the melody because these are all important in appreciating the hymn. However, those two gems; the blossoming of the harmony right after the unison and the thrilling ascent in the fifth line of each verse make this hymn more memorable than most.

Let me briefly state that my former choir uses this same technique, the unison-to-harmony I just described when singing “Praise to the Lord the Almighty”. The first stating of the theme is done in unison, in forte as if to insist that the Lord is almighty and he is the king of creation. Then the choir breaks into a most marvelous harmony with less projection, before rising at “All ye who hear...!”

Now that I mention this hymn, let me dwell briefly on the gem in it that lights me up. You may have guessed it there: it is that same rise. Here, we repeat the supertonic thrice and linger on the mediant (which, in any key, is splendid!) for three glorious beats. That re-re-re-me is the crown on the King's head in music and in verse. Notice the words we sing here, tied in with the resolution, are so profound spiritually and musically.

1. All ye who hear, now to His temple draw near;
2. Hast thou not seen how thy desires e'er have been...
3. What need or grief ever hath failed of relief?
4. Ponder anew what the Almighty can do,
5. Biddeth them cease, turneth their fury to peace,
6. Sheddeth His light, chaseth the horrors of night,
7. Let the Amen sound from His people again,

All the action in each verse seems to be centered on these lines. The rhyme falls on the mediant and the submediant; the me and the la. The composer(s) must have intended it this way. Or they must have been inspired by the same God to work into music such important statements. Truth be told, anytime I consider this song, the first words that come to mind are not “Praise to the Lord”. No, they are “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do” and then, as though concluding my own nuanced prayer, “Let the Amen sound from His people again.” This thing I have showed you, this jewel of words set to music are the essence of my faith. I sing them to know that God is.

Let us briefly look at a few hymns of national importance. There are two national anthems that stirred me most after I discovered them. None of them include the Ghanaian national anthem, sorry about that. I've got a section on some local choral music, if that will compensate.

La Marseillaise is an anthem of historical significance. It has inspired the anthems of other nations and was sang during the French Revolution before being adopted as the nation's anthem. It was the first of its kind, and its character is seen in many national anthems world wide. One characteristic of La Marseillaise that appeals so much to me is the dark mood the melody dives in when describing some injustice or crime against the people to which the anthem responds immediately in it's thrilling rise at the beginning of the refrain when we sing “Aux armes, citoyens!”. That dramatic rise and call to arms must have been thrilling when sung during the Revolution! Note the rampant use of trumpets and drums that give it a militaristic character.

But, I still hold the anthem of the Soviet Union above La Marseillaise.

Soyuz nerushimyy respublik svobodnykh
Splotila naveki Velikaya Rus’.
Da zdravstvuyet sozdannyy voley narodov
Yedinyy, moguchiy Sovetskiy Soyuz!

After the brief, spare fanfare, the anthem immediately establishes its distinct heroic rhythm. You'll notice this carry throughout the first line and then, from the second we begin a dramatic rise that anticipates a forceful swell. The swell that comes at the third line is both strong and somewhat solemn. This second half of the melody falls gracefully in strength before ending in another rise, anticipating another forceful swell at the chorus.

Slavsya, Otechestvo nashe svobodnoye,
Druzhby narodov nadyozhnyy oplot,
Znamya Sovetskoye, znamya narodnoye
Pust’ ot pobedy k pobede vedyot!

This one is almost victorious! The chorus breaks the stride of the verses but comes back to it towards the end, continuing without much of a pause into the next stanza. This relentless march of music coloured with trumpets and drums gets me anytime this anthem is sang. The words used today are not as idealistic as those that were first sung in the last years of the Second World War, however. I prefer the 1944 version, despite all it signified. In a sense that is what the anthem was supposed to be. The watered down lyrics are no good for me.

Coming back to Ghana, serious music has been gaining more public interest, the way I see it. What's more exciting is, instead of our local choirs performing the works of the European Classical canon, a lot of attention has been put on Ghanaian composers. Here's one guy I met while I was with Pax Choir.

Newlove Annan

Newlove made me understand what could be done with music in our local dialects, with our own idioms and “Ghanaian” character. Probably his most popular anthem remains “But They that Wait”, but by far my favourite is the opening of “Susu Hu Hwe”. Newlove is responsible for most of the local choral music I enjoy. I've said it somewhere that I prefer his music to much of what James Varrick Amarh produces. James, despite his talent, does too much to appeal to a modern audience. I don't find performances of his music as appealing as I find Newlove's, but here's a case where my opinion runs counter to popular taste.

I should mention Ken Kafui one more time. By far one of the most popular Ewe song sang in churches is “Mida Akpe Na Mawu”. You'll think you know it until you hear Ken Kafui himself conduct a choir to sing it the way it was meant to be sung. Almost all choirs get the famous refrain wrong. That was something I learned in Achimota School when, during our student's orientation, the Aggrey Chapel Choir performed this for us. It was from that day that I learned to love and respect this man so much.

I'm sorry I can't find any half-decent performance of some of these songs online. Most performances are either too poorly recorded, just terrible or, too much has been done to make the music “appeal” to modern audiences.

Recent developments that have come with the wider acceptance of choral music by the Ghanaian public distress me. It looks as though with popularity comes the tendency to shift to the more gospel-style. I'm no fan of gospel music. I find it too “commercial”, less “true” to what the music ought to sound like. I'm yet to put a finger on what makes it less interesting. When I do, I will write extensively about it. My tastes are orthodox, I figure.

I find this “disease” of needlessly modernizing good old music appalling. I have to be honest with you though; I used to like it. When I was too young to understand, my favourite pieces of music were from Handel's Young Messiah and an electro version of Mozart's Turkish March. My musical tastes have grown toward the more original, the more authentic since. I recently got myself copies of those two I mentioned and listened with horror at what I used to enjoy! Probably this whole idea of making serious and traditional music modern isn't so evil as I put it. But no, I feel the world is committing a crime and losing the spirit with which some of the best music ever made was composed. I guess I stick to the more traditional when I can for that sake alone; to share in the spirit of the music as it was initially conceived.

This same disease plagues our hymns. I cringe every time I hear some hymn put on the cross and slaughtered by modern vocals, percussion, guitar solos and the like. As I grow to love music more, I may have become even more violent towards such fabrications. I don't keep gospel music on any of my devices and I ruthlessly dig out any trace of what-must-not-be-heard from any collection of music I own.

Friend, the situation is worse with carols.

Carols & Madrigals

So, a few weeks ago, I took on the brave task of digging through the rot on YouTube to find good, traditional Christmas carols I hadn't yet heard. Last bleak Christmas I was only limited to a handful of really great choices a friend pointed out. This year, being on my own I thought it wise to get my own collection of carols to see me through a season of awful music.

I do not need to repeat my rant that most Christmas music performed these days (even sometimes by the King's College Choir) should be turned off, the scores burned, the composers whipped.

Among the rot on Youtube (including jazz takes I utterly disliked) I found a few gems which will last me many Christmases.

The German carol “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging” is one I've hunted since last year. I first heard it – or something close to - it on a recording titled “Jesu Sweet and Mary”. After a year of fruitless searching using that title, I chanced on this while hunting Youtube. The melody is largely the same as that English Language recording.

Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,
Kyrie eleison.
Maria durch ein Dornwald ging,
der hat in sieben Jahrn kein Laub getragen.
Jesus und Maria.

I love this hymn for the melody sang at the third and fourth line of each verse. It has become my favourite hymn since I first heard it and, as I love to test myself at times, I harmonized it once on my music notation software. Needless to say my work is not worth listening.

Now, my attraction to traditional carols are the melodies that carry with them a sense of a time long lost to us. They have some simplicity that feels natural to the human spirit, something difficult to achieve in more modern music. There's no way I could correctly describe this quality but it is, I am certain, something you will know and understand implicitly. I'll just throw in a few examples I find delightful.

The Huron carol has a lovely couplet on the fifth and sixth lines that is a wonder to sing.

'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
"Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria."

"Masters In This Hall" has a really vibrant melody that can be over-the-top depending on the performance. I like the verses because of the dated language, much like I enjoy "Adam Lay Y Bounden".

Masters in this Hall,
    Hear ye news to-day
Brought from over sea,
    And ever I you pray:

Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
    Nowell, sing we clearl
Holpen are all folk on earth,
    Born is God's son so dear:

Nowell! Nowell! Nowell!
    Nowell, sing we loud
God to-day hath poor folk raised
    And cast a-down the proud.

And then the Middle English version of Adam Lay Bounden hymn

Adam lay i-bowndyn,
bowndyn in a bond,
Fowre thowsand wynter
thowt he not to long

And al was for an appil,
an appil that he tok.
As clerkes fyndyn wretyn
in here book.

Ne hadde the appil take ben,
the appil taken ben,
Ne hadde never our lady
a ben hevene quen.

Blyssid be the tyme
that appil take was!
Therefore we mown syngyn
Deo gratias!

Speaking of dated languages, it should come as no surprise how much I enjoy singing the latin versions of the hymns I love. You'll find me happier with "Adeste Fideles", although "O Come All Ye Faithful" has more and richer verses.

Latin plays a crucial role in my other favourite hymns as well. "In Dulci Jubilo" (Pearsall translation) is remarkable for mixing Latin freely with English. I was amazed when I discovered this and the old hymn has risen to the top of my list one more time.

In dulci jubilo
Let us our homage shew:
Our heart's joy reclineth
In praesepio;
And like a bright star shineth
Matris in gremio,
Alpha es et O!

In speaking of the beauty of language, one carol should not be left out. That is "Pat-a-pan". This old carol is written in the Burgundian dialect which I did not know until a few weeks ago. The name is derived from the onomatopoeic chorus imitating a flute “turelurelu” and a drum “patapatapan”.

Although several versions of this carol exist now, I prefer the original Burgundian because of how beautiful the words sound when you pronounce them. It's noticeably different from what you'd expect the French to sound like. “t-WA” becomes “t-WAI”, “r-WA” becomes “r-WEE”, the pronoun “ta” is “t-AI” and so on.

Guillô, pran ton tamborin;
Toi, pran tai fleúte, Rôbin!
Au son de cé instruman,
Turelurelu, patapatapan,
Au son de cé instruman
Je diron Noei gaiman

Now that we get into the beauty of language, this is a good place to stop our focus on music. The next part of this essay will focus on language by taking examples from my favourite poems and why I like them.


© 2017 William Saint George