Angèle Dubeau, O.C., C.Q., O.M., C.A.L.Q., DFA
One of the most prominent violin virtuosos of her generation, Angèle Dubeau has led an exceptional career for over 40 years in the great concert halls of [...]
Silent night! Holy night! Hearing just a few notes of this eternal carol is enough to envelop us in a sweet tranquility and inner peace that goes well beyond the meaning of the words written by Joseph Mohr and music famous song by Franz Xaver Gruber. Jumbled memories arise of snow-covered countryside, crackling fires, delicious aromas filling the house, the joyful shouts of excited children unwrapping presents. Has Christmas turned into mere nostalgia, or can we rediscover the true meaning of this celebration? Angèle Dubeau thinks we can and, through both popular songs and carols works associated with the Nativity, she offers here a voyage through a world with diverse origins and traditions. This musical tour and celebration of the Nativity will take you to Finland, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, the United Kingdom, Russia, and, closer to home, Mexico and Canada, with the Huron Carol.
In Scandinavia, Christmas celebrations begin on December 13, the feast day of Saint Lucy, when a young girl is chosen in each village to represent her. Clothed in white and a crown of candles, she goes from house to house—along with a retinue of girls in white dresses and boys with pointy, star-spangled hats—bringing light, the symbol of life and renewal, for the coming year. In Finland, the official festivities begin with a declaration of “Christmas Peace” broadcast live on December 24 from Turku Cathedral. A few moments later, Christmas bells ring out across the country, as conveyed by Joulun Kellot (“Christmas Bells”), an interpretation written by Armas Toivo Valdemar Maasalo. Juleniss, the Finnish equivalent of Santa Claus, rewards good children during the night that follows; one wonders if he is tempted to hum the song Julvisa (“Christmas Song”, subtitled Give me no Splendour, Gold or Pomp), written by a young Jean Sibelius.
While Christmas in Italy might first bring to mind panettone, a Christmas sweet bread invented in Milan around 1490 that is served stuffed with cream, topped with a sauce or covered in chocolate, the country is above all the cradle of the Nativity scene. Indeed, Francis of Assisi created one of the first “living” nativity scenes in 1223, with villagers playing various character roles. Whether miniature or almost life size, these reproductions of the manger scene quickly became a tradition, with Italian families setting them up nine days before Christ’s birthday. It is not surprising, then, that two of Italy’s most well-known Baroque composers, Antonio Vivaldi and Guiseppe Torelli, dedicated idyllic concertos to “the holy birth.”
In France, cantiques de Noël remain the most important part of popular celebrations of the Nativity. By the 16th century, numerous versions of these carols existed in a variety of regional dialects, and they were distributed by door-to-door salesmen who also carried “Christmas Bibles” and engraved prints (often with a carol on the back). Here, Angèle Dubeau performs Noël nouvelet, Laissez paître vos bêtes and La Vierge à la crèche, set to a text by Alphonse Daudet.
In Germany, Christmas is Weihnachten (holy nights), and this is where the tradition of the Christmas tree originates. Legend has it that Saint Boniface (ca. 680–754) used the triangular shape of the evergreen tree to explain the concept of the Trinity to the pagans. The first mention of the modern Christmas tree dates back to 1521 in the Alsatian town of Sélestat. Even before this, however, the Christmas mystery plays performed in church squares frequently made use of trees decorated with fruit, offerings, decorations and candles (the candle tradition being attributed to Martin Luther). Two centuries later, Johann Melchior Molter wrote a delicate concerto grosso, inspired by the scene of the adoration of the shepherds.
In central America, Mexicans celebrate Las Posadas (the inns) which, starting December 16, commemorates Joseph and Mary’s search for lodging. As night falls, a procession sets off, led by children carrying a small decorated platform bearing statues of Joseph and Mary, who is riding a donkey. As the procession of villagers winds through the streets singing litanies, they knock at various doors along the route. Each time they are turned away with the cruel words “There is no room,” until the procession arrives at the appointed house or church. Then, the doors are flung wide in the open spirit of Christmas and the celebration begins, concluding with the breaking of a piñata, refreshments and dancing. The lullaby performed here, entitled “Sleep, Holy Infant”, comes from Dave Brubeck’s Christmas cantata, “La Fiesta de la Posada”, written to a text by his wife, Iola Brubeck and arranged by Russell Gloyd especially for Angèle Dubeau. Upon hearing the recording, Mr. Brubeck’s reaction was: “This is fantastic. She is playing from her heart.”
Orthodox Russians have always liked to transform religious events into celebrations, hence the string quartet Jour de Fête by Alexander Glazunov, which evokes the festivities held on the night of January 6 to 7, Christ’s birthday on the Julian calendar. After the church service, everyone sits down to “Holy Supper,” which cannot be started until the first star appears in the sky, an homage to the star that guided the Magi. After the feast, tradition dictates that a plate of braided bread called kalach is left on the table between two candles, in honour of deceased members of the family. Angèle Dubeau offers here one of the rare recordings of this work.
Christmas is celebrated enthusiastically in the United Kingdom. Houses are decorated with bright lights, children sing Christmas carols (such as “Holy Boy” by John Ireland) in the street, collecting spare change for the poor, and Christmas pudding is the traditional post-Christmas-dinner dessert. Another important tradition began here: the sending of Christmas cards, a custom that began in the 15th century and expanded significantly in the 18th century with the development of lithography.
The Huron carol Jesous Ahatonhia (Jesus is born) was written by the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf in 1641. Hoping to better convey the meaning of Christmas, the priest adapted the text to the reality of the First Nations people. Hence, Jesus is wrapped in rabbit skins, he sleeps in a bark lodge, the adoring shepherds are replaced with hunters, and three Indian chiefs take the place of the Magi. Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy based her work Huron Carol Interlude on the carol. The interlude of the title refers to the third movement of her string quintet Dance Me Through the Panic, from which she borrowed shimmering colours and a sense of melancholy, imbuing the carol melody with a very particular mood and evoking, in her own words, an “imagery of ice, snow, solitude and prayer.” When she heard this Angèle Dubeau’s rendition of her work, the composer wrote: “This is a wonderfully performed and produced interpretation of Huron Carol Interlude. There is a rich, full sound, with a perfect sense of pacing and colour. It expresses my ideas beautifully. Heartfelt thanks and congratulations to Angèle Dubeau!”
© Lucie Renaud
Translation: Peter Christensen