There is no question that music is an enormous part of the holiday season. We all have favorite Christmas carols, although we might disagree on the timing of when to sing them. Pop culture has given us fun, seasonal songs that have reached American Standard status; I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas, and Have Yourself a Merry Christmas are just a few, and the more recent Walking on the Air (from the Snowman).
Thanksgiving dinner dishes are barely cleared before The Garners pull out the stack of Christmas CDs (yes, well, we have decades of music). For the next several weeks we rarely cook a meal, bake a cookie, wrap a gift, or sit by the tree with egg nog without instrumentals from Charlie Brown Christmas, George Winston, John Doan, Windham Hill, The Itinerent Band…and carols by Anuna, Waverly Consort, Sting, The Chipmunks, and Oxford Camerata. A similar stack accompanies us in the car on travels to co-op, shopping and night-time drives to look at neighborhood lights.
It is altogether a different kind of enjoyment to curl up on the couch in front of the tree, candles lit, a cup of hot spiced chai and my score in hand, to listen and follow along to more demanding Christmas classics like the very familiar Handel’s Messiah, and lesser known but stunning works in their right, like Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and Ottorino Resphigi’s Laud to the Nativity.
As a young adult, I was fortunate to participate in a wonderful community choir program that brought beautiful classic Christmas works to the public. Ottorino Resphigi’s Laud to the Nativity, was one I had never heard before. It is a delightful operetta featuring the Angel, a Shepherd, and Mary, sung by a coloratura soprano, tenor and mezzo-soprano, and joined throughout by a choir of shepherds and angels.
Resphigi is famous for his beautiful orchestrations, his inclusion of older musical forms from the Baroque and Renaissance periods, and his rich tone-painting. Composed later in his life, Lauda per la Nativita del Signore uses the older musical motifs to charming effect with instrumentation that is comparatively minimal: 2 flutes, an oboe, English horn, 2 bassoons, and 4-hand piano. Amidst the lush twentieth-century harmonic progressions, a careful listener can catch a bit of Baroque in the angels, plain chant among the Shepherds and delightful bits of medieval dances and madrigals and carols throughout.
The text, attributed to Jacophone da Todi, a 13th Century Umbrian friar, is inspired by the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, and takes the form of a dialogue between first the Angel and the Shepherd, then shepherds and Mary, with shepherd and angel choruses interspersed. This work truly celebrates the beauty of the humble Incarnation of our Messiah.
Lord, you have descended
from heaven to earth,
as the Angel says,
and our hearts burn
to find you in such
a lowly cattle-shed;
O fountain of all beauty
to such poverty you have stooped.
We are all moved by different things, but the tentative offering by the shepherds of their cloaks, poor garments worn in our work in the fields…so His pure flesh will not smell of hay, in which to wrap the holy infant, and their hesitant and reverential request to touch the enfleshed Son of God, never fail to enlarge my heart. Don’t we all wish we could touch Jesus, or at the very least, the hem of his garment?
Joyful will we leave if we can touch him for a moment;
This favor we ask of you,
we who are only shepherds,
men of humble calling
This work is very simply staged. Resphigi’s wife, Elsa, a composer in her own right offers these suggestions for the staging of this work: “The stage should represent an Italian manger of the 15th or 16th century and in its essential details can draw inspiration from the paintings and frescoes of that period.” There are so many beautiful paintings of the Nativity, but I have always loved the one by Lorenzo Lotto where baby Jesus reaches up to touch the sheep and adult angels with large sweeping wings stand nearby with farseeing eyes grasping a connection that eludes everyone else.
At 25 minutes in performance time, this work is within the ability of most people, and certainly homeschooled students, to enjoy. One could easily break it up into a five listening sessions of about five minutes each for younger children. Below is a beautiful You Tube recording, as well as a link to a PDF copy of the Italian text, with an English translation.
The Daughter and I prefer our CD because the articulation is bit more crisp, but, it is opera after all, and the round, fluid tone is the main thing. Spotify offers a Roger Wagner Chorale recording that is also very good, and sung in English, although because it is an English rendering written to the music, it is not a direct translation of the Italian. If you are like me, and want to have the score in hand to follow along, Amazon has this one. Used book sellers like Abebooks are good options also, just be prepared to find vocalist pencil markings.
No matter which version you choose, it is my fervent hope that you will take some time to sit quietly in this time of hectic holiday happenings, with a cup of cheer, and listen to this lovely work and ponder with awe, the Savior born to all. Buon Natale!