In keeping with our theme of using the works of living composers this year, our Christmas services will be overflowing with music fitting this description. We will feature works of David Barton (b. 1983), June Nixon (b. 1942), J. William Greene (b. 1956), Mark Schweizer (b. 1956), and our own Cleamon Downs (b. 1948). I have composed the psalms to be sung on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and thankfully, I also qualify as a living composer. It is exciting to know that the field of church music is alive and well with composers writing music within our own parish as well as all over the country.
The Christmas eve service will begin with Cleamon Downs' setting of the Latin text, O Magnum Mysterium. This is a favorite Christmas text of many composers, and it "sets the stage" for our service in an ethereal, joyful, and distinctive way. The Latin is translated as, "O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord, lying in a manger!" This idea of the Christ being born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough may inspire many feelings within us, but it clearly reminds us of the absolute humility with which God entered our earthly realm. Cleamon's music expresses the tenderness and awe of this moment of the Incarnation beautifully. Listen as the single note at the beginning of the piece divides repeatedly in a descending figure almost as an illustration of God coming down to earth.
The offertory anthem will be a setting of Sussex Carol by June Nixon. You have most likely heard this carol before, but Nixon's arrangement infuses it with new life by means of inventive harmonies and a dance-like accompaniment. The words themselves express the exact message of the Gospel reading on Christmas Eve. The last verse is printed below.
"All out of darkness we have light,
Which made the angels sing this night:
'Glory to God and peace to men,
Now and for evermore, Amen!'"
It is hard to pin down the exact details of how Sussex Carol came to be, but we know that the text and tune we sing today came from Mrs. Harriet Verrall of Monk's Gate, near Horsham, Sussex. Apparently, this woman was visited by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and Cecil James Sharp (1859-1924), two of the most ardent collectors of English folk tunes in the 20th century, and they wrote down what she sang. Basically, nothing is known about Verrall, and so this adds to the charm of this popular carol.
There will be many more anthems and carols during our Christmas services, and it is not possible to write about all of them here. However, I hope what I have written will leave you eager to hear our Christmas music. The choirs have been hard at work all season preparing for a beautiful Christmas. We hope that our efforts will bring added meaning to your Christmas celebrations this year.