Programme: Nowell, Nowell

A snowy tree with the words Nowell, Nowell: Vivamus

Thursday 15 December 2022

Join Vivamus for a selection of festive favourites by famed American, British and German composers as well as anonymous bearers of musical traditions extending back to the eighth century. The concert will also feature organ works and a number of audience carols.


Zion hört die Wächter singen (J. S. Bach, 1685–1750)

J. S. Bach’s church cantata Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (Awake, calls the voice to us) was composed for the 27th Sunday after Trinity and received its premiere on 25 November 1731. It completed Bach’s second annual cycle of choral cantatas and is based on Philipp Nicolai’s hymn of the same name. Zion hört die Wächter singen (Zion hears her watchmen’s voices) is the fourth movement of the cantata and is based on the second verse of Nicolai’s hymn. The scholar Christoph Wolff has claimed that Bach performed the cantata only once.

Venite, Gaudete! (Adrian Peacock, 1963–)

Venite, Gaudete! starts with a single line singing a continually repeated musical phrase, which gradually expands and intensifies, paving the way for some thrilling double-choir writing and a suitably jubilant culmination.

Audience carol: O come, o come, Emmanuel (15th-century French melody, adapted and arranged by David Willcocks, 1919–2015)

With its origins in monastic life in the eighth or ninth century, this hymn for Advent and Christmas is set to a tune subsequently found in a manuscript containing processional chants for burials. Performed tonight in an arrangement by the renowned Sir David Willcocks – one of many Willcocks arrangements in tonight’s programme – the tune has been quoted by musicians from Respighi to U2.

Gaudete in Domino semper (Rufus Frowde, b. 1978)

Gaudete in Domino semper, an Introit for the third Sunday of Advent, was premiered by Vivamus at St James’s Church, Spanish Place on 9 December 2016 conducted by the composer with Richard Hills (organ). The piece combines an upbeat refrain repeated mainly in the upper three voices with quotations from ancient chant introduced by the basses and then boldly reintroduced at the end of the piece. It was also recorded from home during lockdown by members of the choir in late 2021.

Find out more about our Musical Director, Rufus Frowde.

The truth from above (traditional English, arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1872–1958)

The truth from above has a complex textual and performance history. Whether performed in versions collected (or part-collected) in Herefordshire or Shropshire, the text notably attempts to describe a broader span of the life of Jesus than many other Christmas carols.

Angelus ad virginem (14th century Irish, arranged David Willcocks, 1919–2015)

Angelus ad virginem was a popular medieval and renaissance song, appearing in six manuscripts from the late 13th to mid-16th century in England, France and Ireland, with Latin words – Angelus ad virginem – and English words – Gabriel fram evene king. The song makes an appearance in Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale, in which the piety of the singer is set in doubt.

I sing of a Maiden (Matthew Martin, b. 1976)

I sing of a Maiden is a calm and reflective setting of words found in a manuscript that may have belonged to a wandering minstrel. The abundance of recent musical settings of this text is perhaps a fitting response to a text explicitly intended to be sung but for which no original melody survives.

Audience carol: It came upon the midnight clear (traditional, adapted by Arthur Sullivan, 1842–1900, descant by David Hill, b. 1957)

It came upon the midnight clear is an 1849 poem and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. Writing during a period of personal melancholy, and with news of European revolutions and the US–Mexico War fresh in his mind, Sears portrayed the world as dark, full of ‘sin and strife,’ and not hearing the Christmas message.

Organ solo: In dulci jubilo (BWV 729; J. S. Bach, 1685–1750)

In dulci jubilo (Latin for ‘in sweet rejoicing’) is a traditional Christmas carol. In its original setting, the carol is a text in German and Latin dating from the Middle Ages. Subsequent translations into English broadened its fame and Robert Pearsallʼs 1837 Latin/English translation is a mainstay of the Christmas Nine Lessons and Carols repertoire. Not Bach’s only piece drawing on the original carol melody, his chorale prelude based on the tune (BWV 729), originally written to accompany congregational singing in Arnstadt, is a traditional postlude for Christmas services.

Find out more about our organist, Richard Hills.

Jesus Christ the apple tree (Elizabeth Poston, 1905–87)

Jesus Christ the apple tree is a poem, perhaps intended for use as a carol, written in the 18th century. Its first known appearance in a hymn book was in 1784 in Divine Hymns, or Spiritual Songs: for the use of Religious Assemblies and Private Christians compiled by Joshua Smith, a lay Baptist minister from New Hampshire. It is, however, thought to have originated in Britain.

I saw three ships (traditional English, arranged by John Rutter, b. 1945)

Versions of I saw three ships have been collected in locations from Cornwall to Cork to Kentucky. ‘Three ships’ has been alleged to refer to three ships bearing the purported relics of the Magi to Cologne Cathedral in the 12th century; the coat of arms of Wenceslaus II, King of Bohemia; and to the camels used by the Magi.

Bethlehem Down (Peter Warlock, 1894–1930)

Peter Warlock is the pseudonym of Philip Arnold Heseltine, a British composer and music critic with an interest in occult practices. He is best known as a composer of songs, including tonight’s lullaby-like setting, perhaps a contribution to the composer’s reputation as a miniaturist.

Audience carol: The first Nowell (traditional English, arranged by David Willcocks, 1919–2015)

The first Nowell is thought to have Cornish origins. The melody consists of a musical phrase repeated twice and then a refrain that is a variation on that phrase. While Nowell is an Early Modern English synonym of ‘Christmas’ from the French ‘Noël,’ versions of the carol have been recorded in recent years by Whitney Houston and the cast of Glee, as well as self-proclaimed Queen of Christmas, Mariah Carey.

The Shepherd’s Carol (Bob Chilcott, b. 1955)

The text is a poem by Clive Sansom (1910–81) that narrates the experience of the shepherds, drawn by starlight to the baby Jesus. The melody of folk-like simplicity is supported by languid and atmospheric harmonies. Marked ‘Gentle and with flexibility,’ the music moves freely between seven different time signatures in the course of fewer than fifty bars.

Joys seven (traditional English, arranged by Stephen Cleobury, 1948–2019)

This carol, which uses the same melody for successive stanzas, is a lively treatment of the traditional text with a memorable melody and original harmonies. The text may be inspired by the trope of the Seven Joys of the Virgin in the devotional literature and art of medieval Europe, although in this version, some of the joys appear bittersweet, to say the least.

Organ improvisation (Richard Hills, b. 1980)

Find out more about our organist, Richard Hills.

Audience carol: Good King Wenceslas (Piae Cantiones, arranged by Bob Chilcott, b. 1955)

Good King Wenceslas tells the story of a Bohemian king going on a wintry journey to give alms to a poor peasant on the Feast of Stephen (26 December, the Second Day of Christmas). The legend is thought to be based on the life of the historical Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia (907–935).

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