Charles Dickens’ much-loved Christmas story first appeared on this very day, on December 19th of 1843. Written in just six weeks, the novella was published in a run of 6000 copies, and sold out within seven days. Dickens was hoping for a financial windfall, but the initial cost of publication consumed a large portion of his projected profit. Fortunately, it proved to be an evergreen, and through renewed publication, dramatizations and readings, became perhaps his most widely-appreciated work.
The title page reads as follows:
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
A Ghost Story of Christmas
by CHARLES DICKENS
with illustrations by John Leech.
Dickens had first established himself first as a reporter, and then as a successful author, but he knew all too well the plight of the less fortunate. Earlier that year he had read a parliamentary report on child labour, about the dangerous conditions, long hours and low wages that many faced. He had been sent to a workhouse himself at the age of twelve, when his father, a clerk in the navy’s pay office, was relegated to a debtors’ prison. Think of Scrooge’s sarcastic rejoinder to the question of how best to address poverty: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”
He started to prepare a pamphlet titled An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child, but set the idea aside for something that, in his words, would have “twenty-thousand times the force.” While visiting the industrial city of Manchester in October of 1843 Dickens gave a lecture on the importance of providing education to every level of society, both rich and poor. He soon hit upon the central theme of A Christmas Carol, that many of the challenges faced by the poorest members of society could be lessened through the generosity of the most fortunate.
Dickens would go on to adapt his own work, with the first public reading of A Christmas Carol held in 1853 for a charity. But such was his fame that Dickens also gave paid readings; between 1853 and 1870 he offered 127 performances of A Christmas Carol, both at home and abroad, especially in the United States where his appearances were immensely popular.
Do you remember what it was like to have a story read to you? The VSO helps to recreate that feeling with this performance as a gift to our community. Christopher Gaze, Artistic Director of Bard on the Beach, reads from the classic story A Christmas Carol, in front of a fireplace at the Vancouver Club. Interspersed between the passages, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra performs some atmospheric selections that help to bring the story to life.
The VSO's Assistant Conductor Andrew Crust leads the orchestra. Among the works heard are excerpts from Handel's Messiah, the Fantasia on Greensleeves by Ralph Vaughan Williams, musical depictions of a sleighride by Mozart and by Prokofiev, a series of dances drawn from Peter Warlock's Capriol Suite, Variations on The Huron Carol by the Canadian composer Kelly-Marie Murphy, and a harp solo on the carols Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabelle, and Good Christian Men, Rejoice.
(b. October 30, 1894 / London, UK)
(d. December 17, 1930 London, UK)
A sixteenth century treatise on French dance forms was the inspiration for Peter Warlock’s best-known work, the Capriol Suite. Peter Warlock was the pseudonym adopted by Philip Heseltine, a modestly successful composer and music critic. Warlock’s pacifism, interest in the occult and fascination for Elizabethan music made him an odd man out in mainstream musical circles in London in the early 20th century. He was an early exponent of the scholarly study of music from the Renaissance, writing, ”music is neither old nor modern: it is either good or bad music, and the date at which it was written has no significance whatever. Dates and periods are of interest only to the student of musical history. All old music was modern once, and much more of the music of yesterday already sounds more old-fashioned than works which were written three centuries ago. All good music, whatever its date, is ageless - as alive and significant today as it was when it was written.”
In 1925, Warlock contributed the musical transcriptions for a book on French dances from Arbeau's Orchésographie (1588). Warlock also provided the preface on the tunes and dance styles of the period, many of which he went on to adapt for his own work Capriol Suite. The “Capriol” of the title refers to one of the principal characters in Arbeau’s dance treatise. And so we are presented with the gliding steps of the Basse Danse, a stately Pavane, an energetic Tordion, a lively country round dance known as a Bransle, the relaxed Pieds-en l’air and the noisy clash of a sword dance in Mattachins.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
b. Salzburg, Austria / January 27, 1756
d. Vienna, Austria / December 5, 1791
GERMAN DANCE, K. 605 No. 3 “Sleigh-Ride”
Following the death of Gluck, Emperor Joseph II appointed Mozart as Vienna’s Imperial Chamber Composer. One of his primary obligations was to write music for entertaining at the court dances and balls at the Imperial Palace in Vienna. Although some might view this task as unworthy of such a genius as Mozart, the composer was wholly suited to it. He was an avid dancer himself, and the speed and volume with which he could produce works made the appointment a good fit. His set of Three German Dances, K.605, were written in the final year of his life, alongside such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 40 & 41 and the opera Così fan tutte.
The third dance of the set carries the nickname “Schlittenfahrt” – German for Sleigh Ride, clearly signalled by the jingle of sleigh bells in the accompaniment and the hunting sounds of a posthorn.
GEORGE FRIDERIC HANDEL
(b. March 5, 1685 / Halle, Germany)
(d. April 14, 1759, London, UK)
MESSIAH: SINFONIA & PIFA
Messiah is Handel’s English-language oratorio that has come to dominate the Christmas season in much of the choral community. Its popularity knows few bounds and has been the subject of countless re-interpretations and adaptations - rather like Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Composed in 1741, it was first performed in Dublin on 13 April 1742 and received its London premiere nearly a year later. Aside from the glorious recitatives, arias and choral selections that make up a complete performance, two purely instrumental works from the oratorio have become part of the contemporary Christmas soundtrack. The somewhat ominous opening Sinfonia is delivered in the style of a French overture, while the Pifa presents a pastoral interlude at the mid-point of Part I, preceding the Annunciation to the Shepherds.
RALPH VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
(b. October 12, 1872 / Down Ampney, UK)
(d. August 26, 1958 / Hanover Terrace, London, UK)
FANTASIA ON GREENSLEEVES
One of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ great contributions to music was his love of folksongs. Beside his songs, operas, ballets, choral works and nine symphonies, Vaughan Williams was also dedicated to the preservation of English folksongs for the future. He spent a great deal of time in the countryside, listening to performances and transcribing songs that had been passed down through generations, amassing a collection more than 800 folksongs and their variants.
The Fantasia on Greensleeves is based on two such tunes: the familiar “Greensleeves” plus another song from his collection, “Lovely Joan.” The term Fantasia describes a musical form that does not follow any set form or pattern, a bit of a flight of fancy. The tune Greensleeves has long been associated with Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but likely dates to Elizabethan and Shakepearean times. Its association with the Christmas season stems from after the American Civil War, when William Chatterton Dix wrote the words for his Christmas carol, “What Child is This?” to the Greensleeves tune.
(b. September 4, 1964 / Sardegna, Italy)
HURON CAROL INTERLUDE
Kelly-Marie Murphy was born on a NATO base in Sardegna, Italy, and grew up on Canadian Armed Forces bases all across Canada. She began her studies in composition at the University of Calgary with William Jordan and Allan Bell, and later received a Ph.D. in composition from the University of Leeds, England, where she studied with Philip Wilby. After living and working for many years in the Washington D.C. area where she was designated "an alien of extraordinary ability" by the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, she is now based in Ottawa. Her Huron Carol Interlude has been described as an ethereal, icy arrangement of the Canadian Christmas carol. It was originally set in 1998 for string quartet and premiered by the Quatour Arthur Leblanc, and has subsequently been arranged for string orchestra.
(b. April 27, 1891 / Sontsovka, Russia)
(d. March 5, 1953 / Moscow, USSR)
The world of pop music has a long history of lifting inspiration from the classics. Whether it’s a Tchaikovsky redux for Sinatra, Borodin adapted to Broadway by Alfred Drake, or Prokofiev making a cameo appearance in a Christmas hit by Greg Lake (of Emerson Lake and Palmer fame), imitation is the sincerest form of flattery! Prokofiev penned the tune Troika in 1933, as part of the score for the film Lieutenant Kijé. He had been living in Paris for much of the 1920s, but was beginning to reconnect with his Russian roots. The advent of “talkies” and recorded film scores provided a perfect opportunity for the composer to share his music with a broad audience. The satirical plot of the film centres around one Lieutenant Kijé, a person in name only, who appears on the Tsar’s list of officers through the errant stroke of a pen, and whose escapades are alternately celebrated and demoted by the bureaucracy. Following a statement of Kijé’s theme, we are take on a swift ride across a snowy landscape in a Troika, a Russian sleigh that is pulled by three horses.
BRING A TORCH, JEANNETTE, ISABELLA / GOOD CHRISTIAN MEN, REJOICE
Harp soloist Lani Krantz performs regularly with the VSO, Victoria Symphony, Vancouver Film Orchestra and is Principal Harp of the Vancouver Island Symphony. She teaches at the VSO School of Music and with her own studio. She is also active in the seasonal ensemble presentations of Winter Harp. Here she has contributed her own arrangement of two familiar carols. Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle ("Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella") is a Christmas carol from the Provence region of France, dating from the 17th century.
Jeannette and Isabelle are two female farmhands who have found the infamt Jesus and his mother in a stable. Excited by this discovery, they run to a nearby village to tell the inhabitants, who rush to see the new arrivals. Visitors to the stable are urged to keep their voices quiet, so the newborn can enjoy his dreams. To this day, on Christmas Eve in the Provence region, children dressed as shepherds and milkmaids carry torches and candles while singing the carol, on their way to Midnight Mass. In dulci jubilo ("In sweet rejoicing") is also a traditional Christmas carol, but dating further back to the Middle Ages. Its mixture of Medieval German and Latin lyrics are thought to have been written by the German mystic Heinrich Seuse. The common English translation was made by J. M. Neale as "Good Christian Men, Rejoice."
Notes: Matthew Baird