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CD117   A Christmas Album



A Christmas Album

Music by Rodney Lister, Virgil Thomson,
Conrad Susa, Carlisle Floyd & Charles Ives

  • Notes by Rodney Lister
  • Complete texts
  • 76'44" total playing time

CD117      $15.95

Purchase from Canticle Distributing

The Choir of The Church of the Advent, Boston MA
Edith Ho & Mark Dwyer, conductors

The Harvard Glee Club
Jameson Marvin, music director
Kevin Leong, conductor

Rodney Lister & friends

Rodney Lister Virgil Thomson
The Stones
The Oxen
Kings and Shepherd
The Holly and the Ivy
Remember Adam's Fall
Song for the Stable
Scenes from the Holy Infancy
Charles Ives Conrad Susa
Christmas Carol
I Sing of a Maiden
Carlisle Floyd  
Long, Long Ago

Listen Listen:

Christmas Carol by Rodney Lister

The Holly and the Ivy arranged by Rodney Lister


Notes by Rodney Lister

Most of the music on this disc was written by me, and I chose the music which I didn't write. I have been interested in music and poetry about Christmas about as long as I can remember, and over the course of my life as a composer I have had occasion to write a certain amount of it. Many of these pieces have been for chorus, and most of those were first performed by Edith Ho at The Church of the Advent. This recording is in many ways my own Christmas Album, consisting of music and words which have been meaningful to me as well as pieces written mostly as Christmas presents for friends. I have enjoyed all this music, and my friends have as well. I hope others will also find them to be a source of pleasure.

Nativitie, a setting of one of the sonnets from the La Carona cycle by John Donne, was written in 1988. It is set in a manner which is a sort of elablorated Anglican chant. The text of Chorale is from For the Time Being, W.H. Auden's long poem about Christmas. Chorale was written in 1982 as a 50th birthday present for Malcolm Peyton, my composition teacher at New England Conservatory. The Stones is a setting of the poem Christmas Hymn by Richard Wilbur, which has been widely used as a hymn text. My setting, a Christmas present for the English composer Michael Finnissy and his partner Philip Adams, is fancier than a simple hymn treatment.

I have known Thomas Hardy's peom The Oxen since I was in high school. As the plane was landing in Nashville, Tennessee, at the beginning of a Christmas visit to my parents, it suddenly came to me that I should do a setting of it. I had not thought about doing it before that moment, but I spent time during the visit starting and finishing it. There are three versions of the accompaniment: one for organ, one for piano, four-hands, and the third for orchestra. The version of this recording is dedicated to Andrew Mead, former rector of The Church of the Afdvent, and his family. It was first performed by the Harvard Glee Club conducted by Jameson Marvin in 1988.

Conrad Susa, now living and teaching in San Francisco, had been a Ford Foundation Composer in residence in the Public Schools of Nashville, Tennessee, where I grew up. Although he had come and gone before I began to study music, he was friends with Gregory Colson, the choirmaster of St. George's Epicopal Church in Nashville, where I eventually sang in the choir. Greg's wife Betty was one of my teachers, so I knew Susa and some of his music. In fact, Conrad was one of the first live composers I ever met. I Sing of A Maiden was written in 1965 as a Christmas card for Greg and Betty and I've known it since that time. There have been different versions since the first, but I like this one best. Long Long Ago is a piece I've come to know much more recently. Richard Travers, my colleague at Newton North High School (Newton, MA) intorduced me to it.

Inlcuded are two Christmas Carols by Charles Ives. Mary Westbrook Geha sings one from 114 Songs; Denise Konicek sings Ives's arrangement of the tune and words written by his daughter Edith in 1924 when she was ten years old.

This recording also includes several pieces by another of my teachers, Virgil Thomson. Virgil said that although he loved church music as he loved the theater, he was much happier back stage than in the audience in both places, where he was in neither place a good consumer. His music is in many cases infused with the church music of his childhood (Southern Baptist) and his early professional career (Anglican). Scenes from the Holy Infancy is a three movement setting of selections from the King James version of St. Matthew's Gospel dealing with an angel's announcement of Jesus's birth to Joseph, the search of the Wise Men for Jesus, their encounter with Herod, and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. They invoke Anglican chant in the first, parlor songs in the second, and southern hymn tunes in the third. The work was written in 1937, and was first performed in that year. Remember Adams Fall and The Holly and the Ivy were parts of a series of settings of old English texts which Thomson wrote in 1955.

The texts of Kings and Shepherds are poems by the Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, whose work is influenced equally by Christian symbols and the techniques and images of Icelandic sagas, particularly the Orkneyinga Saga. The poems, presented in my ordering, depict the three kings, each having come to his own dead end, meeting under the star, which they follow determinedly until they reach Christ. On finding their goal and offering their gifts, they have an encounter with shepherds. The final poem folds the story of the kings' search for salvation into every person's individual story and into the recurring patterns of communal agrarian activities in Orkney as well as of seasons and years.

The music for Kings and Shepherds was written at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, during January of 1992. The notes of the piece are drawn (in ways that almost certainly aren't immediately audible) from the southern hymn tune Star in the East. The music, which is modeled after the Kleine Geitstliche Konzerte of Heinrich Schütz and is also influenced by some of the vocal works of my teacher, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, has a sparse, pared-down quality reflective of the character of the poetry as well as the intense single-minded state of mind which the kings would have had to have had. Three is an important number in the piece: there are, of course, three kings, but also three singers and three instruments, each of the three movements has three parts. There are four instruemntal sections called Sonatas. The first is an introduction to the piece. Each of the others features one of the instruemnts: the violin in Sonata II (representing the star), the horn in Sonata III, and the oboe (representing the Shepherd Boy's pipe) in Sonata IV. I took great pains to make sure that the use of the singers is not all representational. Every time the texts depict the kings, the music deals with the situation in a different way so that one never associates a given singer with a particular king. One other noticeable thing is the use of microtones in the horn part of Sonata III. This piece uses natural harmonics for the horn extensively for dramatic effect. Kings and Shepherds is dedicated to Elizabeth and Archie Bevan, Orcadian friends who I met through Max.

I'm an admirer of the music of Percy Grainger. Grainger dedicated all of his folksong arrangements "lovingly and reverently to the memory of Edvard Grieg." All of the folk music arrangements I've done are lovingly and reverently dedicated to the memory of Percy Grainger. These include three of the concluding choral pieces on this disc. The Holly and the Ivy was for a long time my favorite Christmas carol - espcially since it really is a carol. This arrangement - which, incidentally, has a different harmonization for every one of the many repetitions of the tune - was a Christmas present for Douglas Robbe, who for several years was the administrator of The Church of the Advent. I first encountered The Truth Sent From Above inthe Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols, and then found further stanzas in other sources. The origiinal version was for violin, clarinet, and double bass. Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, a Polish Christmas carol, was a present for my friend Liz Grange.

William J. Kirkpatrick's Cradle Song was not the tune for Away In a Manger that I grew up with, although I've come to like it quite a bit. At some point I got interested in trying to write a piece which would use both tunes for those words, a tricky task, since the harmonic underpinnings of the two tunes are considerably different. In this arrangement the "other tune" appears only in the organ part. The idea of the piece is to risk the danger of the listeners dying of sugar shock. To that end, I made some small changes to the words of Kirkpatrick's original text. This arrangement is dedicated to my nephew and niece, Jonathan and Katelyn Lister.