According to the famous German Christmas carol “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”, Jesus was born “in the cold midwinter, in the middle of the night”. The light that disperses the cold and darkness is a central topic of Christmastide art and music, and an element of many winter-time traditions the world over. At Christmas, Christians celebrate the redemption of mankind at a time of darkness, expressed through the imagery of light. With their new album entitled “O nata lux”, the Zurich Chamber Singers highlight this symbolism as it has been represented for many centuries in the western art music tradition. They illustrate how light forms a thread through Advent into the Christmas story, as portrayed in strophic songs and motets over five centuries, from the 16th to the 21st century.
This narrative begins with two works whose lyrics admittedly are not part of the Advent or Christmas liturgy, but which are dedicated in musical form to the symbol of light: “O nata lux de lumine” (O light, born of light) is the Latin text of a hymn that is sung in many churches to celebrate the transfiguration of Christ. It describes an account taken from the Gospel according to Luke, telling of how Jesus went with the disciples Peter, James and John up a mountain to pray, where he was suddenly surrounded by heavenly light. The powerful narrative is featured here twice: first in a five-part motet by the English composer Thomas Tallis (c.1505–1585), in which the ever-increasing light is portrayed by the whole choir in the language of powerful homophony, shining out in prominently placed interventions.
This motet is featured alongside a contemporary work to the same text: “O nata lux” by Rhiannon Randle (b.1993). A work commissioned in 2018 by the Zurich Chamber Singers, it has close musical ties with Tallis’s work from over four hundred years earlier. Written in memory of her grandmother, Randle’s choral work is at times meditatively introverted, then again self-assured with consolation and confidence. Randle has developed her unmistakable sense of what the human voice can do in her many years as composer and musician, shaping it in British choirs and on the operatic stage. In “O nata lux”, her own choral language is blended with the Renaissance vocal polyphony of Tallis to an almost Brucknerian tapestry of sound.
Whether in liturgical texts like “O nata lux de lumine” or in Advent stanzas, light symbolises hope and a looking forward to the wonder of Christmas. The darkness of Advent finds mention in the verses of “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen”, here in the familiar four-part harmony of Michael Praetorius (1571–1621). The-symbolism of light appears even more prominently in the Advent hymn “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland” by Lucas Osiander the Elder (1534–1604) to words by Martin Luther, in which the Christmas stable scene is vividly described:
Your crib shines bright and clear,
the night shows a new light is here.
Darkness shall not come within,
may faith stay ever in the light.
This programme complements these two early modern congregational hymns with the arrangement by Stephan Claas (b.1968) of “Maria durch ein Dornwald ging”, a 19th-century pilgrim song that became one of the world’s best loved German-language Christmas carols.
The rich repertoire of French choral music for the Nativity is illustrated in three pastoral songs. The Biblical account of the heavenly host is flooded with symbolic light: the angels suddenly appear to the shepherds tending their flocks and turn night into day. There is “an angel brighter than a torch” (“une ange plus reluisant qu’un flambeau”) in the song “Nous étions trois bergerettes”, arranged by Madeleine Perissas (1906–1971). This light soon drives the night away, as impressively described in the song “Ô nuit brillante” for male voice choir: “O shining night, night of living splendour, your radiant light brings day to my heart.” (“Ô nuit brillante, nuit de vive splendeur, ta lumière éclatante fait le jour dans mon cœur.”) The warmth of this nocturnal light is vividly set to music by Abbé Joseph Bovet (1879–1951), a Swiss priest who wrote more than 2000 works including the third pastoral song in this group, “Quittez vos houlettes” (leave your sheep-hooks), again for men’s voices.
The motet for double choir “A Hymn to the Virgin” by Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) brings us to the third group of Christmas songs. Composed by the sixteen-year-old Britten during his time at Gresham School, where his studies were often interrupted by ill health, the piece is a macaronic text combining English and Latin. This work too begins with a description of the light which the Virgin Mary, “bright as a star of the sea”, shines as “mother and maiden”: (“Of one that is so fair and bright velut maris stella, brighter than the day is light: Parens et puella.”)
After all these songs and motets, we have arrived musically at the stable in Bethlehem: three German Weihnachtslieder describe the scene around the crib. One is the shepherds’ cradle song, a folk song from Kłodzko in Poland, that Max Bruch (1838–1920) arranged in 1915; the other two Christmas songs are by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Both “O Jesulein süss” and “Ich steh’ an deiner Krippen hier” were written by Bach for Georg Christian Schemelli’s hymn-book of 1736. Originally composed as two-part settings for voice and figured bass, they are heard here in four-part arrangements. As in Martin Luther’s “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland”, we learn here of the baby Jesus radiant in the manger: “I lay in death’s deepest night, thou didst become my Sun (...) O Sun, that kindled the true light of faith in me, how fair are thy rays.”
Two compositions to the text “O magnum mysterium” look back from this Nativity scene to the coming of the light in the Advent darkness – expressed in the two works “O nata lux” by Tallis and Randle. The four-part polyphonic motet “O magnum mysterium” von Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611) here precedes a setting of the same text by the Finnish composer Marcus Paus (b.1976). In this work for choir and marimba, built round an extended, meditative marimba solo, the composer explores in sound all the expressive potential of this text. He writes: “The beginning of the piece came to me at once; I knew that I must exploit the cathedral tones of the low marimba tremolos for their hidden expressive power, which one would scarcely expect given the physical properties of the instrument, and which speak to us as from a distant world.”
This programme closes with the great eight-part Magnificat by Hieronymus Praetorius (1560–1629). Following the North German Lutheran tradition, Christmas carols are here interpolated between the lines: “Joseph, lieber Joseph mein” and “In dulci jubilo”. The musical narrative of this programme, begun in the gloom of early Advent, culminates in this composition oscillating between liturgically strict vocal polyphony and secular Christmas airs. Here too one hears the Latin-and-vernacular alternation of macaronic verse: “Our heart’s delight lies in praesepio (in the manger), and shines like the sun.” Our Christmas journey ends with the poem by Christina Rossetti, “In the bleak midwinter”, set to music by Gustav Holst (1874–1934). Even after Christmas a certain chill and darkness may prevail. But now, after our visit to the radiant Christ child in the Christmas crib, we carry the light of Christmas forward into the new year.