Hall: Chamber Music Hall
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The month of December – and the end of the year in general – is mainly associated with the home, with peace and quiet and customs and rituals, where family traditions pay a pivotal role. We usually celebrate Christmas with a narrow circle of family and friends. But do we remember about Christmas carols? So many of these wonderful songs have been written at different times, each with its own specific local colour, that they are hard to count. However, Christmas music also includes solemn masses (even if not appropriately titled), intricate motets and grand oratorios.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina – one of the greatest European composers of the 16th century – would not have even thought about the performance context for his Christmas motet Hodie Christus natus est. Probably he did not even know whether his work was known in Denmark or not. And yet today Bo Holten and his ensemble Musica Ficta have begun to ask such questions, combining quite successfully the work of the High Renaissance with traditional forms taken from Scandinavia’s distant past.
Camille Saint-Saëns managed to complete his Oratorio de Noël, Op. 12 at the very last moment – ten days before Christmas 1858 – and thus was just able to make it to the performance on Christmas Day, which took place in the gorgeous interiors of La Madeleine Church in Paris. Both the place of worship and its beautiful organ can still be visited and admired. Alas, the interior of Notre-Dame was less fortunate. Admittedly, the fire of April 2019 did not consume the grand organ of the cathedral; nevertheless, it did irrevocable damage to the acoustics. The instrument will simply not sound the same after the restoration. Perhaps the acoustics will be only slightly different, and perhaps this difference will be imperceptible to a less sensitive ear; nevertheless, for the works of Maurice Duruflé or Louis Vierne, which are performed in this place, it is an irretrievable loss. Christmas Anno Domini 2019 at Notre-Dame will not be a merry one.
Christmas – Festive and Homely
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina is one of the greatest and the most important composers in the history of music. His legacy simply cannot be ignored. His name has become synonymous with Renaissance music, especially vocal polyphony, which he wrote as solemn settings for liturgies in the most important churches of Rome. Palestrina, who spent most of his working life in the Eternal City, was a highly prolific composer. Lexicons and encyclopaedias attribute to him over a hundred polyphonic masses, around three hundred and seventy motets, dozens of hymns and magnificats, lamentations and litanies, and around a hundred and fifty madrigals. The fact that Palestrina is sometimes referred to as the “Bach of the Renaissance” testifies to the importance of his oeuvre. The masterful motet for two choirs Hodie Christus natus est, published in Venice in 1575, comes from the third volume of Palestrina’s music. It is based on the text of Magnificat Antiphon from the Christmas Day Vespers. The lavishness of this music was intended to emphasise the significance of one of the most important holy days in the liturgical calendar. The Musica Ficta ensemble, active since 1996, decided to set Palestrina’s masterpiece in the quite unconventional context of Danish Christmas songs.
In the 16th century, the distance between Europe’s north-western frontier and sunny Italy must have seemed considerably greater than today. And yet, Palestrina’s influence spread over the entire continent. The intention of such a juxtaposition is not to find similarities, which probably are not there, but rather to identify some kind of proximity, using this geographical contrast in a creative manner and confronting different traditions through art. Today, everything is mixed up; therefore, why not combine Scandinavian traditional music with the sublimely beautiful music of one of the most important cultural centres of Europe? The effect would be truly compelling.
Collaboration: Danish Cultural Institute
Tickets available from 16 September 2019.