Carol Cantata III by Robert Russell Bennett
Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) is probably best known as orchestrator and arranger for Broadway musicals—as many as 300 of them!– including “Showboat”, “South Pacific”, “My Fair Lady”, and “The Sound of Music”. A characteristically outspoken man –”Nobody asked for my opinion, and maybe nobody wants it… They’re going to get it anyway…”–he says of his craft, “No orchestration should ever try to be bigger or better than the music orchestrated.” He admits, nonetheless, that he has not always adhered to his own rule. But he also poses unanswerable questions: “What is a melody? Why is it attractive or unattractive? Which melodies are inspired and inspiring, and which ones lose you after a few bars? I don’t know, and can’t tell you…”. Commenting specifically on his four Carol Cantatas, of which this is the third, he adds, “There hardly seems to be any end to the number of beautiful words and melodies that have been inspired by the birth and childhood of Jesus…Doing all the arrangements for [a musical], one has to work with one or two big song hits… In the Cantatas one goes from one big song hit to another. Not only a hit, but one that has refused to die through centuries. Whether this example of immortality is in the words, the music, or the imperishable nature of the faith that is in them, they are the stuff good things are made of.”
Bennett’s Cantata features four traditional carols, but two others, In Dulci Jubilo and Deck the Halls, are cleverly juxtaposed into an intermezzo, while the reprise of The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy at the end of the Cantata contains original composition as well. The calypso origins of this latter carol brought it to widespread attention in the early 1960’s with renditions by Harry Belafonte and other folksingers.
O Come O Come Emanuel
The tune, “Veni Emanuel”, was originally a plainsong, i.e., written without a stated meter or time signature. It probably originated in Europe in the 11th or 12th centuries, and its text likely was Latin. The familiar adaptation used here is the work of Thomas Helmore, a nineteenth-century hymnodist.
In Dulci Jubilo
Familiar to most through its English lyric, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice”, this is also very early music, dating from 14th-century Germany. The Latin text was used in services in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; J. S. Bach reset the verse “Ubi sunt gaudia“.
Deck the Halls
While these verses are listed as “traditional” they are of later origin than the music, which is from a secular Welch song, “Nos Galan”. The words are probably English, and their focus on the celebratory aspects of the New Years’ season eclipses any sacredness that Christmas might otherwise convey upon Yuletide.
Wassail Song(We’ve Been A While A-Wandering)
This is one of many ‘wassail’ songs which use similar texts, but which have different melodies and moods. “Wassail”, derived from the Middle English or Old Norse “wes heil”, is both the name of a drink and the act of drinking, and represents an English seasonal custom. This is one of many carols of the “Waits”, troubadors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The tune in this version carries the name “Leeds” and is known to have been sung in the north of England. The repeated chorus– which here reads “For ’tis Christmas-time, and we travel far and near; May God bless you and send you a happy New Year”— begins in G-major and moves into minor with the word “send”, thus returning to the minor modality of the verse. Many of the other “Wassail” songs, in contrast, use a different text in their choruses: “Love and joy come to you, and to you your wassail too; May God bless you and send you a happy New Year, may God send you a happy New Year.” Some of these songs use major key throughout, while others follow the progression used here. Bennett is not alone in using the alternative chorus; the English composer Gustav Holst used it in his carol medley, “Christmas Day”, and it also appears in a Robert Shaw medley which resembles Bennett’s.
Carol of the Birds
This carol is of Catalan origin. It made its appearance in this country more or less contemporaneously with
The Virgin Mary
…, but via different routes; one of its first outings was as an unaccompanied cello solo, played, as an encore, in the Kennedy White House in a ground-breaking 1961 recital by the Catalonian master, Pablo Casals.