Embrace the Holiday Spirit With This Famous Masterwork
Feel the crisp night air. See the snowflakes falling gently to the ground. Hear the sound of people singing from an old church nearby. The holiday season is upon us, with all its wonder and beauty.
Composer Alfred Reed brings those wondrous feelings to music life in his timeless work for concert band, Russian Christmas Music. He composed the piece in 1944, then made some revisions before arriving at the published work (1968) that’s still played today. Russian Christmas Music is a staple of concert band literature (like his Armenian Dances, which I’ve discussed previously).
Reed used an old Russian carol (“Carol of the Russian Children”) as the thematic basis for the piece. You can hear it at the YouTube link below, or you can find the sheet music at IMSLP.
Now, on to the piece!
While Russian Christmas Music is performed as one continual piece, there are four distinct sections.
Children’s Carol (beginning-3:04)
We begin solemnly, with a sustained low note and a slowly repeated chime. It sounds like a call to Mass. We hear carol singing from the clarinet section, slow and haunting — a beautiful lush sound. Other instruments join in as the song continues into its next part (the lyrics talk about the “shaggy pony, shaggy oxen,” 1:12), some call and answer between woodwind and brass.
We add another layer of voices at 1:36, continuing to build in volume and range, until we hit a beautiful major chord at 1:54. The chime and low drone renew their presence, bringing us back down to our previous somber tone.
The clarinet choir begins its theme again (2:06), but does not play it through entirely. The brass join in at 2:30 with a hymn-like chord progression. The woodwinds answer at 2:47, their line reminiscent of choral amen responses still heard in churches today.
Antiphonal Chant (3:05-6:46)
With a crescendo, the percussion lead us into the next section of the piece. At 3:08, the trombones initiate the chant, with a response from the woodwinds at 3:16. “Antiphonal” traditionally means something is sung or played back and forth between two groups. The trombones lead the chant again at 3:28, but this time the other brass join in for the answer (3:37). The brass continue with long chords that serve as a transition into the next theme of the chant.
At 3:58, the clarinets play a more upbeat chant, with other instruments adding to it in layers, creating a short fugue as it builds. Triumphant, the brass come in at 4:10, starting with the clarinet chant theme, then switching to the trombones’ chant theme (4:16).
The woodwinds come in with the fast chant at 4:30, with the brass punctuating each phrase. There’s a whirlwind of sound, culminating in a tense chord (with a run of woodwinds in the background), a cymbal crash, then a single pitch from the lower brass. The revelry dies down into a more subdued manner, with the clarinets playing a descending line that feels like they’re lowering down piously onto bended knee (4:50).
The English horn enters at 5:05 with a gorgeous solo. Seriously, these are the types of beautiful lines this instrument was made for! Listen closely to this melody; it will come back later in the piece. The English horn finishes its statement, and the flutes and oboes bring back a bit of liveliness (5:37) without overdoing it. There’s a horn call, and the clarinets respond with another pious statement (5:44).
At 5:57, the English horn returns with another lovely melody. The upper winds enter again with their dance, this time joined by the clarinet line we heard earlier at 4:50. Another horn call finishes the antiphonal chant section and prepares us for the village song.
Village Song (6:47-10:09)
Once again, the clarinets are featured as they provide the initial theme of the Village Song (I swear that’s not the only reason I like this piece!) This time, however, there’s a wonderful string bass pizzicato line underneath the rich, smooth chords of the clarinet choir. This section has a folk song feel to it, though I don’t believe it was taken from an existing melody like the Children’s Carol. This section is in 6/4 (six beats per measure with the quarter note serving as the beat).
At 7:20, more instruments come in, creating a very organ-like sonority. Notice that despite the added voices, the volume has not increased much. The instrumentation is reduced again at 7:28, but the oboe remains with the clarinet choir and bells take over for the string bass. We have one more round of fuller orchestration (7:37) followed by the oboe and bell feature (7:44).
One small horn call at 7:51 leads into the second verse, so to speak, of the Village Song. Reed continues to alter the orchestration of each phrase, exploring tone colors. The oboe run at 8:23 signals a turn into new territory. We hear slight changes to the melody, with some additional ornamentation in the horn at 8:27 and 8:31. We still hear some familiar sounds until 8:42, when he introduces a new note (A♭, when we’ve largely been in the key of G minor here). It’s repeated at 8:46 and 8:50, reinforcing that something is different. The phrase winds down, ending in a lovely major chord (9:01). There’s one more horn call, then the pious clarinet phrase from the antiphonal chant.
We’re treated to another English horn solo at 9:22, though this time it stretches upward more before coming back down. The horns reply, not with the horn call we heard earlier, but more of an “amen” feeling that prepares us for the Cathedral Chorus.
Cathedral Chorus (10:10-end)
A low drone from the bass voices begins this last section. Above that, we start to hear gongs, cymbals, bells, and chimes. The trombones come in with a new motif, which is repeated and extended. It repeats again, this time breaking out into a glorious chord (10:59). More and more layers of brass enter with a repeated small motif; eventually, the middle and upper woodwinds add their voices.
As the texture builds, the rhythm quickens from using half notes in places to using quarter notes. The overall tempo doesn’t increase all that much, but thanks to using shorter notes we feel like the pace is quickening. This builds until 11:32, where most of the ensemble moves as one in quarter notes with the brass sounding their calls between phrases. Notice the pace did get a bit faster and it still feels as if we’re building toward something.
At 11:45, we hear a wonderful wall of sound – most of the ensemble has a long, short, long chord motif, the timpani is wailing away underneath, the high winds are buzzing furiously above, there’s assorted percussion crashing about, and the horns and trombones have an answering call. We still continue to build, pushing everything to the limit, reaching ever further until we hear four powerful chords at 12:17. The entire ensemble cuts off together, then comes in as one with a mighty statement at 12:23, finally tapering down into quietness. (I’ve talked before about the ends of notes being as important as the beginnings. Here’s another perfect example of that.)
Remember the English horn theme from earlier? The clarinets pick up that theme at 12:36. I love how the oboe subtly joins them at 13:29 – it takes an excellent oboist to blend that entrance so well without sounding like an injured duck. After the oboe’s understated entrance, more instruments start joining in. We start building once again, this time toward the final push of the piece. The horns give an extra nudge at 13:46, encouraging us onward.
An explosion of sound
The trumpets and horns explode in a powerful rendition of the English horn theme at 13:53, with a glorious cacophony happening in the other instruments between phrases – low brass thundering, high winds twinkling, chimes ringing joyfully. The woodwinds take over the melody at 14:10 so that the high brass can play a fanfare (14:16). They return to the melody for the next phrase, but the horns join the woodwind line at 14:23 and completely own it.
As we go into the next
The chimes are ringing throughout the land and you can hear the high winds swirling fervently in the atmosphere. The brass
Such a powerful piece! If you don’t feel some sort of emotion during the Cathedral Chorus section, you obviously don’t have a soul.
So that wraps up my final post for 2014. Merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate, and I wish all of my readers a lovely holiday season!
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