Saturday, December 31, 2011

In With The New

With its highs and its lows 2011 is over and much in the world has changed - in the big wide world at large and in our own small corner of it. Though much has changed much has remained the same.  Love, family and friends have been as the always have been, and hope always will be, the important things in my world.   And for that - and for them -  I am grateful.  And though I am raising a toast to auld lang syne (days gone by) I also raise a toast to the year to come - may we have all good things in the New Year but should there be bad may we have the strength to overcome it.

This reminds me of a New Year's Eve dinner many years ago in our first house in Aylmer - and yes we did wear tuxedos.  A left click will take you to all the words of Robbie Burn's immortal lyrics.

When I grew up New Year's Eve was a time when neighbours dropped in for a drink - my father didn't drink but he worked for a distillery so there was always something in the house - we had a family dinner and then we listened to the radio and at midnight as Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians played Auld Lang Syne we exchanged kisses and hugs and then went to bed.  Tonight will be much the same.  No great carry on - maybe a bit of reflection and maybe even some Guy Lombardo.

Wishing all those near and dear to me the happiest and healthiest of 2012.

31 dicembre/December - San Silvestro

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lunedi Lunacy Early

Soooo Canadian eh?

29 dicembre/December - San Davide Regno di Giuda e Israele

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Carol for Christmas VII - The Innocents

More years ago than I care to remember I was part of a group performing the "Nativity" from the Coventry Mysteries at St Thomas Huron Street in Toronto.  In the spirit of the original we performed the pageants on stages set up around the church and the audience followed from stage to stage.  The plays had been freely adapted by our director Don Mcgill - whose voice was known to anyone who listened to CBC radio in the 1960-70s - but keeping a good deal of the language of the original at times it was almost like performing in a foreign tongue.  To this day I remember that "mickle" is Middle English for "great".  And I had a role in the pageants involving Mickle Herod - Herod the Great, his interview with the Magi and the Slaughter of the Innocents.

This Slaughter of the Innocents is one of the
Rotterdam Bible tiles adorning the walls of the
kitchen at Wachau Castle in Saxony.
My dear friend Jim was a big man - well over six feet five and stocky - and he got the "big" role of Herod and I - smaller and, in those days, slimer - was his snivelling, groveling clerk.  Herod was of course the "bad Jew" - and was always dressed in black and gold with flaming red hair, red side-locks, a large hook nose and a bombastic bellow meant to elicit laughter from the crowd.  In those first performances he would probably have been the butt of catcalls, heckling and perhaps even the odd piece of rotten fruit. That half-comic, half-villainous Herod of the Mysteries was to greatly influence the portrayal of Jews in both Marlowe and Shakespeare.  Until Edmund Kean's sympathetic Shylock in 1814, perhaps the most famous Jewish character in English literature had been played as a repulsive and evil clown.  It has been suggested that the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech would have been greeted with great laughter in Shakespeare's time.
The face of Herod is created by the bodies of
 the innocents he is said to have slaughter in this
grotesque painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Innsbruck

In our version Don had Jim ignore Hamlet's advise to the players that they must not "out-Herod Herod".  A great bellowing figure in black with a flame red beard and side-locks wielding a gigantic scimitar he chased me - cringing, whinging and dodging - around in a knockabout routine - sort of the Frick and Frack of Middle England. 

Being St Thomas music was very much a part of the performance as it would have been during the Middle Ages.  As I noted earlier many carols were meant to accompany these pageants and were sung - and perhaps even danced - as interludes as the wagons moved from place to place.  Though the Coventry Carol did not appear in written form until the early 1500s it is quite possible it was written earlier as musical accompaniment for the Slaughter of the Innocents in the Cycle of Mysteries that had been presented by the the Shearmen and Tailors' Guild at Coventry beginning in 1392.

There are many versions available but I find this one by the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers has a particularly lovely blending of voices.

Though there is a great deal of ambiguity in the lyrics - the only know copy of the original text was burned in 1875 and it has come down to us in two very bad transcription - it is both a lullaby and a lament.  A mother - perhaps the Virgin herself - rocks her child and sees in its future a sad ending.

Historically this is some doubt about the events as described in St Mathew's Gospel - there is no historical record of such a massacre.  It is recorded that Herod had his own young sons put to death to secure his throne.  Perhaps Mathew expanded on this event as a link to the prophecy of Jeremiah concerning the coming of the Messiah: A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and greet mourning, Rachel weeping for her children.   And perhaps that is what we are really hearing in this simple but beautiful carol - Rachel weeping for her own and all children lost to violence.

28 dicembre/December - Strege degli Santi Innocenti
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Winter Storm Warning

At the beginning of the month we were being told it was going to be a green Christmas with no or at least very little snow.  However as someone said on Christmas day, weather forecasting is much like medicine - a very unspecific science.

Fortunately for the drive down to Montreal on the 24th the ice from earlier in the week had melted away, the roads were clear and the sun was shining.  However much to Nicky and Nora's consternation it was hovering at -17c (-25c with the wind chill - anyone remember when we didn't even know there was a wind chill????).  This was not a temperature much to the liking of two hot blooded little Italian HFH and the next day when it was coupled with 10cm of snow it was even less enjoyed.  Needless to say driving in Montreal on Christmas Day was an experience.  But again luckily for us the weather on the 26th was sunny and again the roads were clear for the ride back to Ottawa. 

Our street is looking very romantic at the moment - almost the perfect covering of snow we all wanted for Christmas but were told by the weather people not to count on!

However this morning brought with it a "winter storm warning" red alert which had the good grace to hold off until our guests had made their way home from lunch.  However it is now in full force and the good people at the weather office are predicting 10 to 15 cms of the fluffy white stuff mixed with freezing rain.

In the meantime coat and booted HFH decided that it wasn't that bad after all - Nicky bounded through the snow like the little thoroughbred he is and our Nora plowed her way  around the block in that no-nonsense manner of her's looking for squirrels to devour.   And I decided that while it was still all relatively white, fluffy and virginal I'd do a walk around our block and take a few pictures.

I have to admit the Christmas lights do take on a special glow when covered by a  dusting of snow and filtered through the gently falling flakes.

It all seems so romantic, lovely and Christmas card-like. And I'm telling you right now that I'm posting this so when I struggle into work and back tomorrow and I curse the Canadian winter I will be reminded how romantic I thought it was tonight.

27 dicembre/December - San Giovanni apotolo ed evangelist

Monday, December 26, 2011

Lunedi Lunacy

To All My Left-wing and Liberal Friends:
Please accept with no obligation, implied or explicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the summer/winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasion and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all. I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2012, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make Canada a great nation. Not to imply that this country is necessarily greater than any other country in the world. Also, this wish is made without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee.

To My Right-wing Friends:
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

With thanks to Vicki for the initial wish - I am assuming she considers me right-wing?????

26 dicembre/December - San Stefano protomartire

Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Greeting for the Day

To all our friends and family where ever you might be




25 dicembre/December - il giorno di Natale

Saturday, December 24, 2011

A Carol for Christmas VI - Silent Night 1914

The most famous story about, perhaps the most popular of Christmas carols, "Silent Night" involves a broken organ in the Nikolaus-Kirche in Oberndorf in 1818.  Legend says that Joseph Mohr brought the lyrics to Franz Gruber and asked for a melody that he could play on his guitar.  Whither that is fact or legend is a small point - it is a carol that has been recorded by artists as varied in musical genre as Mahalia Jackson, Kathleen, Battle,  Luciano Pavarotti and Annie Lennox and translated into at least 40 different languages.

It is this universality that led to one of the strangest episodes of the First Great War: the Christmas truces of 1914.  Those unexpected episodes leading up to Christmas of that year when British, German and to some small extent French troops left their trenches and met in New Man's Land.  For a brief time in that bloody conflict men exchanged greetings, cigarettes, played football and it is said sang carols together - the one carol each knew, in their own language, was Silent Night.

I've chosen not one of the many versions of this beloved carol that is on YouTube but a song that commemorates that fragile and brief peace.  It appears that Cormac MacConnell who wrote the song may have altered the year but captures the spirit of those amazing moments; and Jerry Lynch brings a sincere beauty to even the sad brutality of the last verse.

And this is for all my dear friends and all those serving overseas - may there soon be a peace that will bring you home to your families and loved ones so there is never again a need for a Christmas truce.

24 dicembre/December - La Vigilia di Natale
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Friday, December 23, 2011

Spaghetti Frittata - From Our Christmas Pot Luck

The gang at work did a pot-luck lunch today so I thought I'd bring a touch of Italy to the festivities with a spaghetti frittata.  I first had this quintessential Neapolitan dish at Leon d'Oro, a quintessential Neapolitan trattoria in Piazza Dante.  My friend Wendy loving and accurately described this friendly family run restaurant, that she visited last month,  over at Flavor of Italy.

This is a great way to use up left-over spaghetti, vegetables or whatever catches your fancy.  Its a good buffet dish, a lunch/brunch dish with a salad or as a primi for a more elaborate dinner.

1/2 lb of spaghetti*
3 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
4 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
Fresh ground pepper
Other ingredients can be added - almost anything that you would normally use with spaghetti - bacon, cooked zucchini, roast peppers, basil, canned tomatoes or left-over tomato sauce. 

  1. Cook spaghetti until just slightly al dente - it will undergo further cooking later.
  2. Drain and toss while still hot with butter, Parmesan and parsley and allow to cool completely
  3. Lightly beat eggs in a small bowl with salt and pepper
  4. Add the beaten eggs to the spaghetti and mix thoroughly
  5. If you are using other ingredients they should be added and thoroughly mixed in at this point.
  6. Spray a 11-12 inch non-stick skillet with Pam or 2 tablespoons of butter and heat over a medium burner until foam subsides.
  7. Pour mixture into skillet and spread to an even thickness over the bottom of the pan.
  8. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes without touching the pan.  The tilt the pan slightly and bring the edge closer to the centre of the heat.  Cook for  minute or so and then rotate the pan about a 1/4 turn and cook for another minute.  Continue until a full circle has been completed.  This will make sure it is cooked evenly. Lift the edge with a spatula to see if a nice golden crust has formed on the underside.
  9. Place a platter slightly larger than the pan upside down over the pan and turn it over.  Let the frittata plop onto the plater.  Grease the pan again and side the frittata back into the pan.  
  10. Repeat the cooking process above until the second side has formed a good golden crust.
  11. Transfer to a cutting board and cut into wedges.  

It can be served hot, lukewarm or at room temperature but never just out of the refrigerator.

23 dicembre/decembre - San Giovanni da Kety

A Carol for Christmas V - For Dolly

On Christmas morning 1745 Dorothy Byrom received a special gift. Though he had several children little Dolly was John Byrom’s particular favourite and he had promised her that he would write something just for her to celebrate the Feast Day. Amongst the presents waiting for her that morning Dolly found an envelope and an excited little girl opened it before anything else. To her delight it was a poem bearing the heading Christmas Day for Dolly. We know it better by its first line: Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn.

John Byrom's original text of "Christians awake, salute the happy morn"
which little Dolly found amongst her Christmas gifts on that morning in 1745.

It was to be published the following year in Harrop's Manchester Mercury and was set to music in 1750 by John Wainwright. Little is known about the composer – he was organist at the Collegiate Church in Manchester and in 1766 published a collection of Hymns, Psalms and Chants. 
Somewhere in my collection I have a recording of this joyous carol by The Huddersfield Choral Society – arguably the premiere amateur choir in the British Isles – and again was hoping to find them on YouTube. Unfortunately their full-throated – is there anything quite like an English choir in full voice? – rendition was not there but I did find an equally delightful if smaller scaled version.

This quartet of well-known British singers recorded it in 1948 for Victor.  Regarded as one of the great English oratorio singers of the 20th century Isobel Baillie was a petit Scottish soprano with a silvery voice. She is joined by Gladys Ripley, a well-respect contralto who was a great favourite of Sir Adrian Boult, tenor John McHugh and Australian baritone Harold Williams.   Perhaps this is the way it was sung in the Byrom great room and many other homes on Christmas mornings after Wainwright had set it to music.

23 dicembre/December - San Giovanni da Kety
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Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Carol for Christmas IV - Advent

As we sat at our cappuccino frappes in the trendy café at the Colonnade on Bloor St back in the early 70s my friend John peered over his black forest cake – keep in mind it was the 70s – and demanded to know why they were playing Christmas carols when it was only December 15th. He summoned a rather perplexed waiter and asked for an explanation as to why we were not hearing Advent carols. The poor waiter, and I must admit I until that time, had never heard of Advent carols. But as I quickly found out carols were meant for any festive occasion and though it was a minor penitential season in the church calendar indeed carols had been written to be sung in sacred and secular settings.

I was first introduced to the Advent carol "Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending" on a recording by Maddy Prior that Bob Kerr often played on the lead up to Christmas. In her rendition Maddy follows John Wesley’s admonition to “sing lustily and with great courage” and brought out the dance-like qualities of the melody. There seems to be some discussion as to the origins of Helmsley, the most popular - and possibly original - tune setting with some suggestion it may have come from a folk opera written by Michael Arne and subsequently arranged by either Thomas Oliver or Martin Madan.  Madan was definitely the author of a revised version of the original text.  Written in 1752 John Cennick's text  had  distinct anti-Semitic overtones and was Evangelical fire and brimstone at its best.  Six years Charles Wesley adapted it and gave it a more hopeful and finally exultant mode. Then  in 1760  Madan made further refinements to the lyrics to bring us to the version most often heard today.  It is also possible at that time that he arranged the music as we most commonly know it.

I had hoped to find Maddy's very individual jig-like rendition on video but failing that there is a beautiful version by the Lichfield Cathedral Choir.  Lichfield is one of the cathedrals in England that is not often on the tourist path which is a shame as these picture reveal that it would be well worth the visit.  I believe the descant arrangement on the final verse is by Ralph Vaughn Williams.

I was reminded of this carol last Sunday when we attended a concert by the choirs of the Basilica of Notre Dame here in Ottawa. I'm sure its Wesleyan authors would have been astounded to hear it sung in a Roman Catholic church. And sung "Lustily and with great courage".

22 dicembre/December - San Demitrio

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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Marco's Presepe

Over the past few Christmastides I’ve posted entries about crèches – those traditional tableaux that retell the story that is the Christian origins of the Feast Days. In my travels I’ve always found a certain comforting familiarity in seeing the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child in places as far away as Saigon and as nearby as Sussex Drive. As the location changed so did the world surrounding those three figures – often touching reflecting the lives of the people and place.

In our own household there are three nativity scenes that have been bought in our travels and set up at various times in our households in Ottawa, Mexico, Cairo, Chicago, Warsaw, Aylmer and Roma. Limited surfaces in the new apartment have meant that again choices had to be made. Sadly the charming corn husk figurines, including a slightly wall-eyed wise man, of the crèche from New Mexico have been left in their box to be used another time. The carved szopka I bought in Warsaw – though not the traditional colourful to the point of gaudy scene – has found a spot on a credenza in the living room. And I was able to find a place for the exuberance of Emanuele Luzzati’s pop-up presepe – a Genovese’s take on the traditions of Napoli.  Which is probably where this whole obsession - and yes I admit it is an obsession - with crèches came into being.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York continues its tradition, begun in 1957, of displaying the incredible collection of Neapolitan presepe figures collected by the late Loretta Hines Howard.  Well over 200 18th century figures from her collection are displayed on and around the gigantic tree set in front of the enormous medieval choir screen.

I first became acquainted with the elaborate crèches of Napoli when, sometime in the early 70s,  the late lamented Gourmet Magazine featured the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum in New York on is cover and in its lead article for Christmas. The elaborately robed angels watching over an even more elaborately costumed Mary and Joseph caught my, at the time decidedly baroque,  fancy. I recall immediately wanting to do an angel theme on the tree that year but that was long before angels became ubiquitous in Christmas stores so I settled for the somewhat less heaven-bound theme of toy soldiers.

A few years later my friend Naomi and I made a day trip to New York to see a matinee of Amedeus with Ian Mckellan, do a bit of shopping at Bloomies and see the tree.  Set against the imposing choir screen it proved as magical as I had imagined from the photo and word picture that Gourmet had painted.  It was only later that I discovered the story behind the elaborate display - how the humble presepe with its painted terra cotta figures that appeared in almost every Napoletano home had been elevated to a high art form by King Ferdinand in an effort to foster industry and the arts in his kingdom.

Though I saw many manger scenes during the four Christmases I spent in Italy I was never able to get to Napoli over the holidays so missed seeing the hundreds of public - and for the privileged, private - presepe on display throughout that most marvellous of cities.  And on the three occasions I did get there I never did make it to Via San Gregorio Armeno - the street of the presepe makers.  But that just might have been a good thing - I'm sure the temptation to recreate my own presepe Napoletano would have been far to strong.

Knowing my fondness for these little scenes and I'm sure knowing that I wouldn't find too many here in Ottawa my friend Marco thought he'd share his presepe with me, if only digitally.  In his apartment in Trastevere he has a traditional Napoletano nativity scene, given to him by his mother and father as a reminder of the traditions of his childhood.  Not the elaborate-gowned and bejewelled figures of that courtly New York tree nor the resin creations sold today but the simple painted terra cotta figures  that you would find in many homes near Piazza San Carlo or off Via Toledo in earlier times.  It is wonderful to share it with him if only at a distance - mille grazie caro.

But in common with all those nativity scenes I love so much - the crèches, szopka, presepe call them what you will - there is world outside the stable.  Recognizable figures people the little village - more Campania than Bethlehem - the shepherd boy, the bagpipe player, the fishwife and - perhaps my favourite - the sleeping shepherd who is missing the great events taking place nearby.  Perhaps that is what gives these scenes their charm -  that as a great event is taking place people are going about their business - some stopping, other continuing on with their daily routine and a few sleeping and missing the whole thing.  In other words - life!

A few other entries I've posted over the past few years on nativity scenes:
The Presepe Maker

A Procession of Presepe

A Polish Presepe

Borgo Nights

21 dicembre/December - San Pietro Canisio
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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

And Call It Lights


"Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long time of intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival, and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura, that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies."
Jewish Antiquities XII

*Blessed are you, Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us by his commandments, and has commanded us to kindle the lights of Hanukah.

20 dicembre/December - La primera noche de Chanukkà

Monday, December 19, 2011

Lunedi Lunacy

From the unfamiliar music of the season to the ... uh... "familiar".

With thanks to Cathy, who has brought us so much wonderful music in the past few months.

19 dicembre/December - Santi Dario, Zosimo, Paolo e Secondo

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Carol for Christmas III - The Watchman's Cry

Before the creation of the unified Metropolitan Police in 1829 the twisting alleyways and dark streets of London were guarded at night by watchmen. In medieval times the watch fell to local householders who, as part of their civic duty, were required to serve a watch, patrolling the streets from 8 or 9 o'clock at night until sunrise. Unpaid and unarmed they were expected to challenge any villainous characters lurking in the boundaries of their parish.  As the city grew so did the problems of urban unrest and the task of patrolling the streets and seeing to the disreputable and unruly fell to a salaried force of watchmen.  The rising merchant class saw an advantage to get a full night's sleep and in paying a small tax to have their homes and boundaries guarded by a paid force.

The Watchmen at St Marylebone prepare for their nightly duties.
The Microcosm of London published 1808-1810.

The watchmen were employed by parish and city councils and armed with little more than their lantern, a staff and their dogs their duty was to apprehend loose women, drunks, armed thugs and, perhaps worse, gentlemen out on a rout and take them to the local watchhouse.  They would then be turned over to the authorities to be seen to and punished - often harshly - for their criminal deeds or unseemly behavior.   The watchmen were often ridiculed in the playhouse and literature  - Shakespeare takes the mickey in Much Ado About Nothing with bumbling Dogberry and his coherts - but still to the average householder the watchman's cry of the clock and assurance that all was well - if indeed it had not disturbed them from their sleep - allowed them to rest easier. 

Though by 1924 the watchman's cry had long disappeared from the streets of London it was to reappear in the carol "Past Three A Clock and A Cold Frosty Morning" in The Cambridge Carol-Book, Being Fifty-Two Songs for Christmas, Easter and Other Seasons, published by the Society for Promoting Christian KnowledgeGeorge Ratcliffe Woodward wrote the text and the music was arranged by Charles Wood.  An Anglican clergyman, Woodward was fascinated by old carols and  known for his ability to write verse in a pseudo-Renaissance style and frequently Wood collaborated with him,  adapted his lyrics to old melodies or composed new tunes in the old style.  A teacher at the Royal College of Music Wood counted Ralph Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells amongst his students.  His settings of the Anglican mass and various canticles and anthems can still be heard in many churches with traditional choirs in England and Canada.

The refrain that gives the carol its title is based on the actual cry of the watchman and appears as a refrain to a song in Playford's Dancing Master in 1665.  The tune itself is based on an old  melody used by Waites.  Like the watchmen the Waites or town pipers were paid by their local civic or parish council to play on special occasions and to awaken people on dark winter mornings with the shrill sound of their pipes and shawms.    

This version of Woodward and Woods' carol is performed by the Stairwell Carollers, an a cappella choir from here in Ottawa. 

Throughout the year the Stairwell Carollers raise money for local charities with concerts and the sale of CDs.  As the name suggests they specialize in "carols" in the old sense of the word - music for secular and sacred feasts.

18 dicembre/December - San Malachia Profeta

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Decking the Halls

Though the halls are not being decked as elaborately as they were in the past - during our time in Mexico City our Ambassador's wife remarked that our apartment looked like Eaton's windows at Christmas - there are still a good number of decorations that are being used to give our current residence a feel of Christmas.  Many of them have been around for years and have a significance not just to the season but to celebrations and events of the past.

I bought these two little carollers at the Bay on Rideau Street here in Ottawa
back in the early 80s - I don't recall seeing anything like them since. 
They may have found a place on one of our earlier trees but for the longest time
they have sung their carols perched on this evergreen bough.

More years ago than I care to think I bought two little papier-mâché and felt carollers and made a decoration for the crown of the eight foot high armoire that graced our various living rooms - and is now found a home with my brother-in-law and his wife - for many years.  It was a large piece of furniture with stunning feathered mahogany veneer and dated from the early 1800s.  Laurent's mother had save it when someone had thrown it out to be hauled away as garbage.  It dominated any room it was in but strangely the one place that it fit in perfectly was the small living room of our first house.  A house which figured mightily in my go-for-broke if not quite baroque Christmas decorating phase.  Sans armoire in our homes abroad the two little carollers became decorations for the front door and are serving that purpose once again this year. And they are also serving as the link to the postings to my favourite Christmas carols on the sidebar at the right.

The new tree with my silver balls in place.
A time honoured tradition continues.
Several people have asked - well okay no one really ask but its a good way of making a transition - about our tradition of Silver Christmas balls.  Well there had been some discussion about whither they would be put on the tree this year.  In other years we had a nine foot tree that fit with room to spare in the houses or apartments we lived in - unfortunately the our current apartment is a bit more restrictive.  So the good people at St Vincent gratefully took the old very large tree and the good people at Canadian Tire gratefully took our money for a new much smaller tree.  However we no longer have room for all the ornaments that have been collected over the past 40 or so years.  Some hard choices had to be made - the silver flowers of Christmas didn't go up but the Wedgewood ornaments did; the blown glass apples and oranges from Poland didn't go up but the Russian enamel did.  There was some talk about the trouble involved in getting my silver balls all bright and sparkling for the tree and the amount of time it would take but that argument gave way to a wave of nostalgia -  did we honestly want to break a 34 year old tradition?

Even in Mexico I don't recall the tarnish being so bad - they were almost black.
Ah well that's why silver polish and elbow grease were made I suppose?

So last Saturday silver polish in rubber gloved hand and an old frayed flannel nightshirt torn into usable strips I set to work polishing my balls.  Oh for god's sake Cecilia stop it - I can bloody well hear you chortling from here!  I don't think I've ever seen them so tarnished even in the soup-like pollution that was Mexico City.  The sea air in the shipment?  Adjustment to the relatively unpolluted but humid air of Ottawa?  Who knows but tarnished they were and it took almost 4 hours to clean all 30 of them.  But polished and gleaming they were put on the tree in an unbroken tradition that reaches back to 1979.  Somethings you just don't toy with - I guess  my silver balls are one them.

17 dicembre/December - San Giovanni di Matha

A Carol for Christmas II - Mary's Joy

By the 1870s the Oxford Movement had led to the establishment of Anglo-Catholicism, a branch of the Church of England which had revived and embraced many of the rites, rituals and worship practices, if not all of the dogma, of Catholicism.   In parishes such as mine in Toronto the traditional Anglican services of Matins and Evensong were no longer the centre of worship but the celebration of Mass was considered a daily duty of faith and on high holidays an act of obligation.  Easter and Christmas were the two major days of the Church year but many other feast days dotted the calendar  including those bearing the name of Mary.  Marian worship was not as strong as in the practices of our Roman neighbours however on special feast days the Angelus was rung and said and the Rosary was encouraged as a source of private meditation.

Christmas Carols New and Old was born out of the Protestant tradition of the established Anglican church of its period however the Reverend H. R. Bramely was known to be a disciple of the  Oxford Tracticians and a strong High Church man.  It is little wonder than that a Marian carol found its way, surreptitiously perhaps,  into that first series of carols published in 1871.

The Seven Joys of Mary were popular in the devotional and artistic life of Medieval parishes and religious houses so it seems only natural that it should have become a carol - in the old sense of the word - to be sung at festive occasions.  Though not originally meant specifically for Christmas its introduction into Bramely and Stainer's collection has led to it being consider appropriate for the season. Again it is not a carol that was or is sung in churches (to the more Protestant it smacked of "Popery", to the High Church it was perhaps too frivolous in melody to be comfortable amongst the smells and bells)  however it was often sung in homes and by carollers as the season approached.

For some reason this carol is very popular in Eastern Canada -  its jig like melody does have a bit of that down-East Callie mood to it.  I recall that Rita McNeil always included it in her Christmas concerts and the version I've chosen to post is by Great Big Sea from Newfoundland.  Their version conjures up thoughts of an extended family around the kitchen fire, eating and drinking and celebrating the season as a cold wind blows snow off the  North Atlantic.  It is rather amusing, and comfortable, to see that in this rendition from Newfoundland - and it appears that versions differ from region to region -   at least three of the things that gave the Holy Virgin pleasure in her son growing up were things that gave every good Christian mother joy.

Thought I don't believe in advertising on my blog I believe also that artists should get credit, and recompense, for their work, so I'll mention that this is from an album called Atlantic Standards and is available at iTunes.  There are some lovely and little known pieces on it that I'm happy to have in my Christmas collection.

17 dicembre/December - San Giovanni de Matha

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Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Carol for Christmas - A Hymn for Christmas Day

The cover of the last (1878)  "library" edition
of Bramley and Stainers Christmas Carols New and Old.
In 1871 Henry Ramsden Bramley and Sir John Stainer published Christmas Carols New and Old,  a book of hymns and songs that could to be said to be responsible for the revival of the Christmas Carol in Victorian England and the English speaking world.  The two had met at in 1860 at Magdalen College, Oxford where Bramely was a fellow of the College and Stainer had been appointed organist.  At the beginning of the 1870s they  collaborated on a book of Christmas music - Bramley acting as editor, translator and in some cases lyricist while Stainer saw to the music and included arrangements thought suitable for use in church and parlor.

That first slim volume was to be expanded to a series of three hymnals and from twenty to seventy carols by the time the last combined edition was published in 1878.  In those seven years Bramley and Stainer introduced most of the carols that we hear in concerts, office parties, on TV specials, in shopping malls and at church during Christmastide.

That first edition included carols which we now take as givens at this time of year but for their time were if not new were certainly not well known - God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, The First Nowell, What Child is This and Good King Wenceslas.  A wonderful interactive copy of that first series can be thumbed through at the Internet Archive - and notice the use of "f" or the "long s" in the lyrics.

The second book in the series included a carol which was often sung at Festal Evensongs during the Christmas season at St. Thomas and which  became one of my favourites.   "See amid the winter's snow" was published under the title A Song for Christmas and I particularly remember the wonderful descant and organ variations that Walter McNutt and his choir wove around it on those solemn evenings on Huron Street.  The text was by Edward Caswall, an Anglican priest who followed Newman's example and joined the Oratorians, and set to music by Sir John Gross who was known for the popular hymn Praise My Soul the King of Heaven.

I searched for a version that could perhaps bring back memories of those candlelit and garland festooned services at St Thomas's but came across this version by Annie Lennox that is as moving and memorable in its own way.  In 2010 Annie released an album of Christmas carols and songs and toured  extensively in North American during the time leading up to the holiday.  Though there are several postings on YouTube of the studio recording, one of which can be heard here, however  I choose a live recording that she did on a syndicated American morning show.  Despite the inanities of the hosts in the post performance segment - which can be fortunately avoided - there is a joy that shines through and illuminates the true meaning of this carol in her performance.  

The standard editions of Bramley and Stainers carol books (as in the Internet Archive edition) were simply the words and music.  However there was a more elaborate "library edition" published for the home archives.  The illustrations were done by famous engravers of the period - the winter landscape for Caswell and Gross lovely carol was created by Edward Dalziel  one of the four Dalziel brothers who were popular engravers and lithographers of the period. 

The first page of "See amid the winter's snow"
illustrated by Edward Dalziel.

The "library" editions were illustrated and
annotated with the history of the carol

In the introduction to the final combined volume in 1878 Bramley and Stainer wrote:
The following collection of Christmas Carols, new and old, has been formed with the purpose of providing a single source, easily accessible, from which those who are so disposed may make choice of songs, suitable in words and music, for the sacred and joyous season of our Lord's Nativity.

The time-honoured and delightful custom of thus celebrating the Birthday of the Holy Child seems, with some change of form, to be steadily and rapidly gaining ground. Instead of the itinerant ballad-singer or the little bands of wandering children, the practice of singing Carols in Divine Service, or by a full choir at some fixed meeting, is becoming prevalent.

Among the Carols here given are some which are best suited for the old simple mode of rendering; others which require more ample means for their performance. Some, from their legendary, festive, or otherwise less serious character, are unfit for use within the Church.

With this brief account of the purpose and nature of their undertaking they again submit the result to those orthodox lovers of music who desire to keep the Feast of Christmas with mirth which shall not overstep the bounds of reverence.

Henry Ramsden Bramley and John Stainer
London, 1878

I can't be alone in feeling that their stated purpose and nature was more than achieved.

15 dicembre/December - Beato Carlo Steeb

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A Carol for Christmas - Prologue

"Well what other sort of carols are there?" you may ask?  Well there are all sorts of carols - Advent, Easter or just for general rejoicing.  The word carol appears to have been derived from the French "carole" or possibly the latin "carula" but in either case it meant music to be played and sung during a circular dance at a festive time.   During the 1100s they were particularly popular as dance melodies but were gradually incorporated in to processions of a religious nature or as an accompaniment to the Mystery Plays that were popular throughout Europe.

After having heard the news the Shepherds carol the birth
of the Christ Child in this 12th century manuscript.

In France they became the folk-like noels heard in Provence and the countryside eventually finding their way in the 16th century into the music of Charpentier, Campra and other courtly composers.  In Germany the Lutheran church encouraged music at Christmas and Luther himself wrote several carols for use at Christmastide.  In England many of the carols were written to be sung outside the church as bands of carollers went awassailing from house to house, a tradition which reached back to the pagan times and accounts for the secular sound of so many of the carols that are popular today.

Brady and Tate's New Version of the Psalms of David
included "While Shepherds Watched",
the first Christmas carol in an Anglican hymnal.
In the 17th century carols were banned in England by the Puritans as frivolous and an unsuccessful attempt was made to turn December 25th into a fast day.  It was revived as a feast day with  the Restoration of the Monarchy and the reestablishment of the Church of England however it didn't regain its full significance until the 19th century.  Though many carols and Christmas songs were written the only hymn accepted at Yuletide in the Anglican church in 1700 was "While shepherds watched" when it appeared in a supplement to the New Version of the Psalms of David by Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate.  It was to be joined by two other carols in 1782 - Wesley's "Hark the Herald Angels" being one of them.  More carols were introduced in English country churches and by the 1870s had become a part of Christmas services throughout England and the colonies.

A wealth of Christmas text and music was added to Hymns Ancient and Modern in the period from 1850s onward and many of the popular carols we know and love today were composed at that time.  It was also a time when many of the earlier carols were arranged or reset to new tunes often having been translated from the Latin.

A band of children in Yorkshire, carrying greenery as symbols of rebirth, go from house to house singing carols in the tradition of wassail.  In exchange for their song and blessings on the house they would receive food, drink and sometimes small coins.

As I was growing up in the 50s and 60s a few popular standards - Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels and While Shepherds et al - seemed to be the only ones heard.  But during the 70s  I had the good fortune to be introduced to a treasury of Christmas music every week day afternoon by Bob Kerr on his programme Off the Record.  Much of what I enjoy today as music at Christmas I can trace back to his incredible eclectic mix of music for the season that encompassed so many periods, cultures and languages.  At the same time I became involved at St Thomas Anglican Church in Toronto and there discovered  Christmas carols that were part of a vital music tradition in the parish.  

Though I still love the old familiar carols there are so many beautiful songs that sing to the heart of the season and that make my Christmas a rich and happy time.  Over the next few days I'm planning to post a few of my favourites from those less well-known carols.  Hopefully they will bring you as much joy as they do me.

15 dicembre/December - Santa Maria Crocifissa di Rosa

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