Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holiday Music #11 - Straight No Chaser

Straight No Chaser, an a cappella men's vocal group formerly out of Indiana University, has an amazing sound, and they have a new CD featuring their popular live version of "The 12 Days of Christmas." If you haven't heard it, just scroll down--I couldn't resist adding it. But, first, for the New Year, here is the group singing "Auld Lang Syne," which is also the free discovery single of the week at iTunes.

And here is a recent version of "The 12 Days of Christmas":

Happy New Year! May 2009 find you healthy and happy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Holiday Music #10 - Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)

"Benjamin Britten must be accepted as the most outstanding English composer working in the mid-20th century, winning a significant international reputation, while remaining thoroughly English in inspiration, a feat his immediate predecessors had been unable fully to achieve."

For the rest of this brief bio of Britten, visit here, his page at the Naxos website, or, for more information, you can go here, his page at Wikipedia.

Britten's A Ceremony of Carols has been familiar to me since my undergraduate days, though Britten also wrote several other compositions for choir or voice that are seasonally themed, such as Winter Words (based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy) for tenor accompanied by piano, and A Boy Was Born, for treble voices plus choir.

A Ceremony of Carols was written for treble voices, soloists, and harp. Britten took the text from a book of medieval poetry he stumbled across while stopping in Nova Scotia en route back to Britain after spending three years in the U.S. Some of the texts he set to music during his voyage, and the rest were completed by 1942. Any of the movements in it are worth a listen, but here are my favorites from the 12-song cycle, as sung by The Sixteen, under the direction of Harry Christophers, both on the CD, Hodie--an English Christmas Collection and in an mp3 collection, A Ceremony of Carols, Britten Choral Works II:

II. Wolcum Yule

III. There is No Rose

V. Balulalow

VI. As Dew in Aprille

VII. This Little Babe

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Holiday Music #9 - two French carols

Here are two of my favorite traditional French carols:

Noël Nouvelet, from the Apollo's Fire cd, Noels & Carols from the Olde World. The soloist reminds me a bit of Custer LaRue, but is either Sandra Simon or Cynthia Roberts (it's not clear online and I don't own the whole CD. Note to Apple and Amazon--make CD liner notes accessible with downloads).

Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant, also on the same cd by baroque orchestra Apollo's Fire:

Joyeux Noël!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Music #8 - Peter, Paul, and Mary

Not having been raised in the Jewish tradition, I don't know a lot of music that is appropriate for The Festival of Lights, but here is a touching song by Peter, Paul, and Mary that was written for this holiday.

Happy Hanukkah!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Inaugural music

Much music is planned for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, including a selection directed by John Williams, played by violinist Itzahk Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Gabriela Montero, and clarinetist Anthony McGill. Other performers include Aretha Franklin, and the San Francisco Girls' Choir as well as the SF Boys' Choir. Here's an article detailing the line-up of performances (musical and otherwise). It's not clear from the wording of the article if Williams is creating an original composition for the event, but I wouldn't be surprised.

I'm supposed to be baking, not blogging! Stay cozy, friends.

Holiday Music # 7 - Alfred Burt (1920-1954)

A favorite carol from the Christmas community choir performance I participated in last year has been running through my head for a day or so: "This Is Christmas," by Alfred Burt. In the 1940's and '50's, Burt wrote fifteen carols, one each year to send as Christmas cards to his family. Today Burt's music has both been recorded by many artists like Julie Andrews (and Andy Williams, be still my heart) and arranged for choral singing. Much information, including audio clips of the carols (and samples of the original art work of the holiday cards) exist at The Alfred Burt Carols website, which is definitely worth a visit. Here is a list of Burt's carols in chronological order, and then snippets of two of my favorites.

Christmas Cometh Caroling (1942)
Jesu Parvule (1943)
What Are the Signs (1944)
Ah, Bleak and Chill the Wintry Wind (1945)
All on A Christmas Morning (1946)
Nigh Bethlehem (1947)
Christ in the Stranger's Guise (1948)
Sleep Baby Mine (1949)
This Is Christmas (1950)
Some Children See Him (1951)
Come, Dear Children (1952)
O, Hearken Ye (1953)
Caroling. Caroling (1954)
We'll Dress the House (1954)
The Star Carol (1954)

1. This is Christmas (also called "Bright, Bright the Holly Berries" sometimes, after the first line of the song). If you go to the Alfred Burt Carol website, you'll hear most of Julie Andrews' recording of the carol, but here is a brisk version by the Camilli String Quartet:

2. Caroling, Caroling. This song was made popular by Nat King Cole, but I think the slow speed at which he sang it makes the song sound lugubrious instead of merry. Here is a version by The Singers Unlimited. Andy Williams also sings this carol (slightly faster than NKC), but that version wasn't available at Amazon.

Happy Solstice Eve!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Poetry Friday - Susan Cooper (b.1935)

The Shortest Day
by Susan Cooper

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Unbeknownst to me until a few days ago, this poem was written by children's author Susan Cooper for The Christmas Revels, an annual celebration that takes place in Cambridge, MA, each year. If you're ever in the Harvard Square area in December, I highly recommend seeing and hearing this ever-changing group of performers.

Poetry Friday is being hosted today by Author Amok. Be sure to check out my tongue-in-cheek original holiday poem, as well, at my other blog, Rockhound Place.

A Poetry Friday special: an original poem

(Flu) Season's Greetings
with apologies to Clement C. Moore
by C. Fiddler

'Twas ten days before Christmas when it was made clear
that, again, things would not be easy this year.
A nasty bug on my stomach assaulted,
and holiday preparations suddenly halted.

No cookies were baked, no presents were wrapped;
plans for a tea party had to be scrapped.
Musical soirées were quickly postponed;
crafting and blogging were now left alone.

But children were healthy, and helpful, oh, yes!
Perhaps they were thinking they had to impress
the man in the red suit--you know the guy:
that magical being that makes reindeer fly.

Whatever their motives, these children were aces
at getting themselves in their mother's good graces.
They helped one another, without much complaint,
and with the washer themselves did acquaint.

Then the day came I could rise without fear,
and hug all my children with thanks most sincere.
Baking and wrapping and crafting ensue
with this, my most lovable crew.

Since now we are busy with holiday joy,
one last simple rhyme we fast will employ--
to our friends far and near we articulate,
"May your holidays be cheery, and your new year be great!"

Poetry Friday is being hosted today by Author Amok. Be sure to check out the posts there and also head on over to my other blog, A Habit of Reading, for a solstice poem by Susan Cooper.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Ice Storm - December 12, 2008

Having lain awake listening to branches (and the occasional tree) drop all night, I was not, when daylight came, prepared to face a lack of electricity and a dog who was too spooked to go outside. It was eerily silent except for the occasional groan of a tree bending underneath its unusual burden, the pop and crash of a branch detaching and descending from its trunk, or the slithering of ice to the ground. The kids and I had a quiet morning by the fire, and then we went out to help DH start clearing away the debris from both the front and back yards. When darkness set in at about 4:30, with the lighting of candles arrived fears and a few tears, but when pizza was delivered a short time later by the person we have now deemed Superpizzaguy, the lights magically turned back on and all was well.

Holiday Music #6 - Revels and Anonymous 4

I had the distinct pleasure of attending two phenomenal live performances of Christmas music this week. The a cappella women's quartet Anonymous 4 was in concert a few days ago here in New England, and they were superb. And yesterday, DS (10) and I braved the perils of parking in Harvard Square and got to see a few friends and many other fantastic musicians in The 38th Annual Christmas Revels--sword dancing, singing, instrumentals, poems, and a mummer's play! Great fun (but we'll be taking the T next time). 'Tis the season to be busy, though, so here, without much comment, are a couple of selections from each group.

From The Christmas Revels--In Celebration of the Winter Solstice: Abbots Bromley Horn Dance.

and, while not strictly a song for the holidays, this one is a Revels tradition:

A little trivia--Susan Cooper (author of The Dark is Rising sequence) wrote the poem, "The Shortest Day," for Revels in 1977. I've known the poem for a few years now, but had no idea it was created for Revels.

From Anonymous 4's cd On Yoolis Night: Medieval Carols and Motets:

A carol, Nowel: Owt of your slepe aryse.

and a song, Gabriel, Fram Heven-King


Monday, December 08, 2008

Music Monday - Holiday Music #5

Today I was reminded of several early music Christmas works that have been favorites of mine since my undergraduate days. One of them made the BBC 50 Greatest Carols list.

1. Psallite unigenito by Michael Praetorius. Praetorius was a late 16th century German composer who was much loved by a music professor of mine. Said professor was also the director of the chamber choir with which I sang for three years, and every year at the holidays we would sing this beautiful, albeit short 4-part song:

Prætorius was also one of the most prolific composers of his generation in Germany, listing over forty volumes of printed music at the end of the Syntagma musicum, including sacred and secular works of all kinds for voices, choirs, instruments, and organ.

From Goldberg, the Early Music Portal, which I just discovered tonight! What a resource.

2. Gaudete (thanks, Barb!). This tune from the Renaissance is in a minor key and has such a rousing beat that it is fun to listen to--the recording I have that I like best is that of John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers on the cd, A Christmas Festival, but that's not available to listen to via an Amazon widget. There's a recording out there somewhere that I like better, but I haven't been able to find it--it uses period instruments and the small group of singers have excellent Latin. But for fun, listen to this recording by Steeleye Span, for the mangled Latin with the added bonus of Cockney accents!

3. O Magnum Mysterium, by Tomás Luis de Victoria. This motet did make the top 50 carols in BBC Music Magazine, coming in pretty high up the list at number fifteen. Victoria was another 16th century composer, this one from Spain. The beginning is gorgeously ethereal (if done correctly, and Chanticleer has one of the best recordings I could find), and the work ends with a rousing Alleluia.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Holiday Music #4 - Traditional Irish

Dating back from the 12th century, the Wexford Carol comes from the town of Enniscorthy in, yes, County Wexford, Ireland. Beginning 'Good people all, this Christmas time,' it has become familiar to many today through John Rutter's beautiful arrangement of 1978 which begins with a melodious, if frighteningly exposed, baritone solo.

From "The 50 Greatest Carols," in the December, 2008 issue of BBC Music Magazine.

I love the medieval sound of this carol. In fact, it's such a favorite that I arranged it for string quartet and used it as my wedding processional--in September! Its sound is due to the fact that it is not in a key like D major, but is rather based around an older mode called Mixolydian, where the seventh note of the scale is a half-tone flatter than it is in the modern major (or Ionian) scale. Sing Do-re-mi-fa-sol-la and then sing ti down a half-step (te), do.There is an excellent written explanation of musical modes here.

This was another carol I remember hearing Julie Andrews sing back in the 1970s, but I also like what is probably its most recent incarnation, on the cd, Songs of Joy & Peace, by Yo-Yo Ma and Friends. The track features Alison Kraus on vocals, Natalie McMaster on fiddle, and Yo-Yo Ma on ukelele (kidding).

Saturday, December 06, 2008

"We'll talk of sunshine and song. . ."

Becky at Farm School has bestowed a Butterfly Award on Rockhound Place--thanks, Becky! It seems, however, that with recognition comes responsibility. Here are the rules for this chain letter-esque award:

1. Link to the person who gave you the award.
2. Post the graphic.
3. Pass the award on to ten other bloggers whose blogs you consider cool (though they can't all be the coolest, can they? Methinks the graphic needs a little more tweaking, but my thanks to hornblower for editing the glaring grammatical goof).

Here are my ten (alphabetically by blogger name, except for the last two blogs):

Barb, a friend and choral companion, at her cozy blog, the cardinal compass, has thought-provoking posts from time to time. Now if we could just get her to post her recipes!

Kathy has wonderful arts-and-crafts ideas posted at her blog, Art Projects for Kids. Many of her posts are seasonally themed.

Kris at At Home Science has book lists, product reviews, and much more. Plus her blog's banner is just beautiful!

My buddy, LB, at 3-Ring Binder, who nudged me into blogging in the first place, has an eclectic blend of art, poetry, pop culture, homeschooling, politics, and more.

I'm sure children's author, Melissa Wiley, has already been tagged with this award, but I give a shout-out to her prolific blog, Here in the Bonny Glen, anyway.

Another friend, Sue, at Never Wear Your Pets on Your Head, is one of the funniest homeschooling moms I know. Look for her articles in Secular Homeschooling Magazine.

Suji at Funschooling always has inspiration for me when I feel like I need it! She shares her homeschooling days, resources, and ideas generously. She has a very creative banner, as well.

Yat-Yee Chong
has insights into the writing-for-children world, and is a regular participant in the Poetry Friday round-up.

I don't know if these last two blogs will appreciate this somewhat girly award or not, but friend and fellow musician, Manoj, posts at both Our Unschooling Adventure and How to Be a Great Vocal Ensemble. I'm hoping he'll post some more singing tips on the latter blog soon!

And now, for your reading pleasure, here is a selection from "To a Butterfly," by William Wordsworth:

I've watched you now a full half-hour,
Self-poised upon that yellow flower;
And, little Butterfly! indeed
I know not if you sleep or feed.
How motionless! - not frozen seas
More motionless! and then
What joy awaits you, when the breeze
Hath found you out among the trees,
And calls you forth again!

This plot of orchard-ground is ours;
My trees they are, my Sister's flowers;
Here rest your wing when they are weary;
Here lodge as in a sanctuary!
Come often to us, fear no wrong;
Sit near us on the bough!
We'll talk of sunshine and of song,
And summer days, when we were young;
Sweet childish days, that were as long
As twenty days are now.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Holiday Music #3 - Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

The cover article of BBC Music Magazine's December, 2008 issue is called "The 50 Greatest Carols, as Voted by the World's Finest Choirmasters." While only two of those choral experts who voted were women (a topic for another day, perhaps), I found myself agreeing by and large with the carols I recognized on the list. Especially intriguing to me was a sidebar written by Harry Christophers, the director of The Sixteen, which was devoted to "5 Ancient Carols," though many of the carols in the top fifty were also composed before 1600. Coming soon--a post on my experience listening to the tracks Christophers recommends. ☺

But today I want to touch on a favorite carol of mine, which was very high up on the BBC list, with text by Christina Rossetti and music by various composers: "In the Bleak Midwinter." I like Gustav Holst's version, which I remember hearing Julie Andrews singing when I was a tween (not that such a term existed way back then).

Even though Holst is well-known for his symphonic work, The Planets, the majority of his works were either choral or vocal, or written for the stage. Holst was largely passed over in my undergraduate music history classes, merely mentioned as a contemporary and friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams and, oh, yes, he wrote that "popular" piece, the one about the solar system or something. Even though I was a music performance major, and we were supposed to be above music that crowds adore, I secretly loved listening to bombastic "Jupiter" and whimsical "Mercury," not to mention vehement "Mars" when I was in a snit (who, me?). And then there was also Holst's other popular orchestral work, St. Paul's Suite, which had plenty of celtic-sounding folksong in it to charm me, too.

Egdon Heath, a tone poem inspired by Thomas Hardy's fictional populated heath, is considered by many to be the finest of Holst's compositions, though I must admit to unfamiliarity with the piece. Ah, well. My holiday wish list and my list of "music with which to acquaint myself" grow ever longer.

"In the Bleak Midwinter," with music by another composer, Harold Darke, is also much sung by choirs around the world. I like this one, too, but the Julie Andrews recording pushes the Holst one over the top for me.

Poetry Friday - Linda Kroll

from Winter, Awake!
by Linda Kroll

The sun hung low in southern skies.
The days grew short; then nights were long,
With bright Orion striding high
Above the quiet farms and towns.
At last the harvest work was done.
The stalks of corn were stacked in shocks.
Potatoes, pumpkins, apples, plums
Were picked and canned and stored and packed.
The wren and robin young were grown.
Their songs had ceased; the flocks were gone.
Great vees of geese had honked good-bye.
The monarch butterflies had flown.
But still fall lingered, fair and fine,
With misty mornings, hazy days,
While waiting nature watched for hints
Of cutting cold and biting winds,
For sullen skies of snowy flakes.

But Winter would not wake.

This is the text on the first page of Linda Kroll's and Ruth Lieberherr's beautiful book, Winter Awake. The rest of this lovely poem and gorgeous illustrations fill the book, which is perfect for this time of year here in New England. The weather keeps flip-flopping, and only the tiniest little flakes of snow have been seen, much to my children's chagrin. But the signs are all around. The trees are mostly bare, the geese have come and gone, the tops of ponds are slushy even when daytime temperatures reach fifty degrees. We're looking forward to celebrating the solstice here in just a little over two weeks, so books like Winter, Awake are at the top of our list of favorite winter books.

Other wintery books that are either books of poetry or poetic in nature that we like include A Snowflake Fell--Poems about Winter (compiled by Laura Whipple; illustrated by Hatsuki Hori), Winter Poems (selected by Barbara Rogasky; illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman), Winter Lights--A Season in Poems & Quilts (by Anna Grossnickle Hines), Winter King, Summer Queen (written by Mary Lister; illustrated by Diana Mayo), and Winter Lullaby (by Barbara Seuling; illustrated by Greg Newbold). I'll be posting more of our favorite winter and holiday books soon. Happy December, everyone!

Poetry Friday is being hosted today at Mommy's Favorite Children's Books.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Holiday Music #2 - Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

It's not Music Monday today, but now that I've figured out that I can embed an Amazon widget in my post and not just on my sidebar, I'm planning to be a lot more vocal about the music I favor. I have just a little bit of a preference for classical music, and early music in particular, but that doesn't mean I won't have plenty to say about music from other genres!

2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, so I expect to see and hear a lot of Mendelssohn's music performed next year. Other than the oratorio, Elijah, I didn't have a lot of familiarity with other choral works by the composer. My lack of knowledge is taking a swift turn for the better, however, as the community chorus I sing with will be performing not one, not two, but three of Mendelssohn's choral compositions in an early spring concert. Of these three works, particularly appropriate for the holiday season is the Magnificat in D, which the composer wrote when he was just thirteen.

I would have loved to have included a snippet of the Magnificat here, but it turns out that Amazon does not have an mp3 available of any of its sections, though I did find out that Wake Forest Public Radio will be presenting an American broadcast debut of the Magnificat, as sung by the Yale Schola Cantorum under the musical direction of Simon Carrington, formerly of the King's Singers and now professor of conducting at the Yale School of Music. I've already put it in my calendar to tune in online on the 28th at noon.

So instead, here is another, more well known tune by Mendelssohn. Enjoy!

Monday, December 01, 2008

Music Monday - Holiday Music #1

This is that time of the year--you know, the one when you hear Jingle Bells ad nauseam. So, in order to combat ear fatigue, I give you a few of my favorites, starting now. I hope I've figured out how to embed these little snippets of songs!

The cd I always reach for first as soon as Thanksgiving is over is Bright Day Star by the Baltimore Consort, which you can still find at iTunes or as mp3 files at Amazon even though copies are no longer being released from the recording label. I've waxed poetic about the voice of BC member Custer LaRue before, but it's the instrumentals in the first track that I love best. Enjoy!