Christmas in music, sweetness and humility

The gold of the stuccoes powders in the chiaroscuro. The audience in the Royal Chapel at Versailles holds their breath. “Schlafe, mein Liebster, genie of the Ruh'” (‘ Sleep, my darling, enjoy your rest “), sings the countertenor Hugh Cutting, in a suave dialogue with the wind instruments. On this Sunday in December, John Eliot Gardiner conducts theChristmas oratorio by Johann Sebastian Bach, composed for the city of Leipzig in 1734. The texts in German, inspired by the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, are illuminated by arias and choruses guiding the listener within the mystery of the Nativity. To do this, Bach combines the tenderness of swaying, hypnotic rhythms, and the dancing joy entrusted to the sparkle of the brass.

“This complementarity between the calm of meditation and the expression of joy creates a dramaturgy that can be found in many works written for the time. Advent and on Christmas Day, analyzes the conductor Sébastien Daucé. Familiar in particular with Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704) to whom he devoted many recordings and concerts, the musician specifies the outlines: “The slowness of the tempo, a very rich harmony and a skilful counterpoint that hide behind a great simplicity. Without them, this simplicity could quickly turn out to be boring and the sweetness become sugary. But Charpentier knows how to make sweetness consistent and exciting! »

Live a collective sensory experience

Christmas or the strength of gentleness? Composer and choir director Lise Borel is convinced of this. Artistic director of the festival of children’s voices which is held until January 8 at theroyal abbey of Fontevraud (1), she feels “Inhabited by this question of gentleness. Christmas is precisely the time, whether one is a believer or not, when one comes together, for example to share a concert, collectively live a sensory experience “.

Former master at Radio France where she now teaches, the artist highlights the voice, the privileged ambassador of this common fervor. “Because it has been in each of us since our early years, because it evokes nursery rhymes hummed in the family, because it is a familiar springing up…” And even more, according to Lise Borel, the child’s voice, “with its celestial character that fascinates and caresses”.

She evokes in particular her memories of a young singer immersed in the radiant atmosphere of which Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) halos the eleven songs of A Ceremony of Carols. Written during the war for Christmas time, they use the texts of traditional songs. The arpeggios of a harp join the freshness of youthful timbres, in the service of a subtle and refined, shimmering and mischievous writing.

An address to the listener

“Whether it’s old, classic or current pieces, Christmas music “envelops” the listener, comforting him with its velvetyargues Lise Borel. They care about the public, speak directly to each of us. » As a composer or artistic director, the young woman carries this conviction. Last year, in residence at Fontevraud, she delivered Eleanor’s Christmas (from Aquitaine) “in homage to the mother, the poetess close to nature”.

This year, she discussed at length with the composer Valerio Sannicandro, author of Triptychsfor three masters of children, who will be created in the abbey on January 7th. “Without denying his style or his uniqueness, Valerio took care to give pleasure to his young performers as well as to his audience. His music enhances the place, like a sound wrap of the huge abbey. »

The night and the silence

Christmas is also the shortest days of the year, the night that extends for a long time: ” Sweet night holy night… ” A great inspiration for musicians, darkness – and the light that warms it – is found in majesty in the hollow of notes and chords. In his PastoralIn nativitatem Domini canticumMarc-Antoine Charpentier scored a symphony of the night to the delectable climate of suspended expectation. “For one of the first times in the history of music, the composer indicates on his score the word “sourdines”notes Sébastien Daucé. He thus asks the instruments for a reserved, intimate emission, which obliges us to lend an ear, to show delicacy. Like the shepherds in front of the cradle of the child Jesus. »

The conductor sees in this page a marvel of art but also “a spiritual exercise. Even softer than the muffled timbres, bars of silence interrupt the musical flow twice: we listen, we meditate, we listen, we meditate…” This “pampered” interiority in each listener will then be joyfully shattered by the Awakening of the shepherds, “possessed by their naive joy”.

Through the history of music

From the motet O Oriens by Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) to the nine “meditations” on The Nativity of the Lord that their creator, Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), wanted fingerprints “emotion and sincerity first” ; hymnals by Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) adapting titles from German folklore to chorale The Lamb by John Tavener (1944-2013) on the poem Innocent by William Blake, the works celebrating Christmas nourish an immense and admirable corpus.

There is a (very) good place The Childhood of Christ by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869), series of drawn paintings “like old illuminated missals”, in the words of the composer himself. Here again, “a silence whose duration should represent the value of about eight or nine measures” install the peaceful vision from the stable in Bethlehem. To reinforce the immemorial atmosphere of his oratorio, the musician used a subterfuge… Following the story of the Child’s sleep, here is the tender and friendly song of protective angels.

Berlioz initially led people to believe that it was the work of a certain Pierre Ducré, master of music at the Sainte-Chapelle in the 17th century. He thus justified the old accents borrowed from the hymns heard in his native Dauphiné for “naturally bring naive and soft music“. This marvelous sweetness, tender and serious at the same time, concludes The Childhood of Christwhile the narrator and the chorus transform the picturesqueness of the narrative into metaphysical questioning:

O my soul, what is left for you to do,
What to break your pride in front of such a mystery? …
O my heart, fill yourself with serious and pure love
Who alone can open to us the heavenly abode.

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Christmas in music, sweetness and humility

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