There are Christmas cantatas, and then there are Christmas cantatas.
Growing up Methodist, with a little Sunday-night Baptist on the side, there was always a Christmas cantata. Although I grew up and played for fairly liturgical Methodist churches as a young organist, there was always a major choral work presented on a Sunday morning in December, “the Christmas cantata.”
Yes, we sang Advent hymns and anthems in Advent, I am proud to say, but that one Sunday brought the official Christmas cantata, upon which we had been working for weeks. There was usually a dress rehearsal, and often other instruments complimenting the organ or piano accompaniments.
Occasionally, and only occasionally, thank God, there were track-tape accompaniments, but gratefully I have had therapy since then and appear to be okay now.
Johann Sebastian Bach and other Baroque parish musicians wrote cantatas for their choirs. Bach composed the most, even one per week for a goodly number of years. He reportedly wrote more than 200 in his lifetime, many of which have survived. He wrote his cantatas in cycles for the Church year. And some of Bach’s cantatas are actually secular. The supreme church musician, Bach appears to have also been practical.
A cantata (from the Italian verb cantare, “to sing”) describes a vocal work, often with choir and instrumental accompaniment. Often there are multiple movements.
If a cantata is a more modest-sized choral work, then the oratorio is a larger-scaled work. Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and Mendelssohn’s Elijah are considered oratorios. Even larger-scaled, dramatically staged works are operas, and we have everyone from the German Gluck to the French Lully to all the great Italian composers to thank for those.
One of my beloved Yale professors always said, “Always program contemporary works by contemporary American composers. If we don’t perform their music, how will they be inspired to write good music for us?” And he was exactly correct.
This Christmas Eve, our Christmas cantata is one of those.
Daniel Rogers Pinkham, Jr. (1923-2006) was an important American composer, organist and harpsichordist. A native of Massachusetts, he studied composition and the organ n boarding school at Phillips Andover Academy. In undergraduate and graduate school at Harvard, he studied with music theorist Walter Piston (yes, author of the music theory textbook) and composition with Aaron Copland. He studied organ with E. Power Biggs, harpsichord with Wanda Landowska, and composition with Samuel Barber (yes, of Amahl and the Night Visitors and Adagio for Strings fame) and Arthur Honegger. He subsequently studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire with Nadia Boulanger. Not a bad pedigree, I’d say.
Pinkham taught at the Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory and for 46 years was organist of King’s Chapel in Boston, a very interesting Anglican-turned-Episcopalian-turned-Unitarian parish church. The American Revolutionary War had a little something to do with this evolution. Today King’s Chapel is a Unitarian parish, which uses its own Book of Common Prayer.
Written for choir and two brass ensembles, the Parish Choir will offer this beautiful, interesting choral work during the Christmas Prelude at 10:30 PM on Christmas Eve. Organist Dr. Jane Gamble will play the Brass II part on the organ (a built-in option by the composer) while our stellar professional brass quintet and timpani plays the Brass I parts.
Make no mistake, this work is contemporary-sounding but captivating, sublime, lush and exciting all at the same time. The first movement boldly sets the stage: “Shepherds, tell us your story. Speak to us!” The second movement, “O wondrous mystery, that even lowly beasts might behold him,” centers on a chant-like melody that is passed back and forth between the solo trumpet and organ.
And the rhythmic rifts of the third movement, “Glory to God in the highest,” were so good that Pinkham stole from himself and published an additional piece for organ and brass alone that I have played at Episcopal bishops' consecrations and ordinations and such.
Both the first and third movements end with loud, high Alleluias, just as the angels reportedly sang around the hills of Bethlehem a few centuries ago.
Christmas Eve music this year may just hit multiple marks all around. Our 11 p.m. liturgy will include everything from a bold Pinkham cantata to traditional carols with grand brass/timpani fanfares and quiet carols with sweet descants. And our 10:30 p.m. Christmas prelude will begin with a single organ flute stop and a solo voice singing “Once in royal David’s city.
Be sure to be here on Christmas Eve before the 10:30 p.m. steeple bell chimes the hour. And Merry Christmas!