Christmas Music

Donald Erb

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Writing a piece of music related to Christmas in an idiom of today presented, to say the least, a challenge. When Mr. Lane called me concerning the commission, he suggested the possible use of a traditional Christmas melody in some way, and this is ultimately what I did.

The melody employed is the Advent chorale, ?Veni Emmanuel,? known to most as ?O Come Emanuel.? The way I have used this melody has many historic precedents. The parody mass of the sixteenth century borrowed musical material from pre-existent pieces. This borrowing was done in at least two ways, sometimes separately, sometimes combined. One was the hidden use of the melody in one of the choral parts, usually the tenor. Another was the borrowing of an entire musical composition.

Yet another musical procedure which forms a precedent for this piece is the chorale variation. A chorale formed the basis for a series of variation movements in which fragments of the chorale could often be heard. Both the parody mass and the chorale variation were used by composers as a framework upon which to weave an entirely new piece.

In Christmasmusic I have used ?O Come Emanuel? as both a source of musical motives or shapes and as a quoted melody. In the first of the two movements, [three fragments were used as compositional material: (i) B A C (ii) B B B (iii) A B G]. Near the close of this movement, the string basses quote the entire melody. It will not, I think, be audible to the listener. This again is in keeping with the sixteenth century practice of hiding a borrowed melody in the tenor (carrying) voice of a motet. The second movement uses the final cadence of the melody as a source [G A F# E D E]. Toward the end of this movement, the melody becomes gradually more audible until near the close it is quoted in a rather direct and discernible manner.

The two movements are of extremely diverse character. The first movement is basically quiet and mysterious. The second is energetic and has an earthy quality. They are quite different in effect and intent. How do they tie in with the spirit of the season? The festival of Christmas has, it seems to me, two quite opposite aspects to it. Christmas is sacred and secular; it encompasses the service and the office party, the church and the department store, prayers and feasting, the cr

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Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra for its 50th anniversary.
Composition Date 1967
Duration 00:07:00
Orchestration 3 2 2 2 - 2 2 1 0; 2Perc. Pno. Cel. Hpsd. Hp. Str.
Premiere 21st, 1967. Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Louis Lane.

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