December 20 • Holiday Cheer!
Concert program notes by Leigh Townsend
“Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas”
John Williams b. 1932
John Williams is best known for his action-packed movie soundtracks such as Star Wars and Jurassic Park, but this selection from Home Alone captures the simpler, yet joyful exuberance of a family reunited at the holidays. Although written in 1997, it will remind many listeners of Williams’ more recent work on the Harry Potter films.
Run time: 3 minutes
Festive Sounds of Hanukkah
Arr. by Bill Holcombe (1924–2010)
Bill Holcombe was a piccolo player. How often do you get to read that in program notes? Most composers begin their careers as performing musicians until they can “make it big” as a composer; but Holcombe led a double life in New York City. He composed and arranged by day and performed each night in Broadway musicals, and he even toured with the Tommy Dorsey Band! His Festive Sounds of Hanukah is an animated collection, including snippets from Rock of Ages, Who Can Retell, Hanukah Hanukah, My Dreidel, S’Vivon, and Hanukah oh Hanukah.
Run time: 6 minutes
It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Eddie Pola & George Wyle
This popular Christmas tune was written and recorded in 1963. Andy Williams released it on his album The Andy Williams Christmas Album, but decided against releasing it as a single. The innocence of ‘kids jingle-belling’ and of ‘marshmallows for toasting’ was at odds with the heartbreak and chaos of American politics; it had only been a few weeks since the assassination of JFK and most Americans would probably disagree with the instantly old-fashioned sentimentality. Decades later, the song glorifies a simpler idea, a nostalgic time when friends and loved ones really did make it the hap-happiest time of the year.
Run time: 3:30 minutes
Merry Christmas, Baby
Robert White Johnson & Chris Pelcer
Don’t confuse this piece with the famous Christmas standard. This is an original composition written for American popular singer BJ Thomas, but never released. It will be heard live for the first time tonight.
Run time: 4 minutes
Fill Your Heart with Christmas
Elizabeth Montgomery & Robert White Johnson
A newer Christmas song with gentle lyrics about family and holiday memories. This piece is the title track of Elizabeth’s 2010 Christmas album.
Run time: 4 minutes
“Waltz of the Flowers” from The Nutcracker
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Words like ‘famous’ or ‘legendary’ fall short in description of certain works of art, so far and complete are their reach. Tchaikovsky’s ballet Nutcracker was just such a creation. Like Handel’s Messiah, it has long enjoyed a place of de facto holiday tradition throughout the Western world.
Nutcracker was based on the Alexandre Dumas translation of a Hoffmann tale, in which a little girl comes to the aid of her Christmas gift (a magical nutcracker in the costume of a soldier) in his battle with an army of mice. Her assistance is rewarded when her toy transforms into a prince and takes her into his kingdom of sweets and other colorful delights. The subjects of the kingdom each dance for their guest in a series of amazing set pieces that comprise some of the most gorgeously evocative music Tchaikovsky ever wrote. The “Waltz of the Flowers” occurs late in the second act and serves as the final movement of the suite Tchaikovsky extracted for concert performance in March of 1892. – Notes by Jeff Counts, Utah Symphony
Run time: 7
“Winter” from The Four Seasons
Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)
Antonio Vivaldi was the most influential Italian composer of his time. Under his hand, the mature Baroque concerto came to full fruition. Opus 8 (1745), titled Il cimento dell’armonica e dell’inventione translates as “daring experiments with harmony and invention.” It is a set of twelve concerti, of which the Seasons are represented in the first four. The works are considered early program music, which means they are supposed to evoke a feeling of extra-musical narrative through sound. Vivaldi set each season to a sonnetto dimonstrativo, or illustrative sonnet.
Although there is no definitive proof Vivaldi wrote the sonnets himself, it is widely acknowledged that he did write the poetry and then set the music. Winter clearly conjures up images of a frozen and brittle landscape in the first movement. The second movement is more contemplative, sitting by the fire and listening to the rain outside. The final movement builds in intensity as the subject first walks cautiously on the ice, then runs and slips when the ice cracks underneath. The final line of the poem reinforces the joy of winter, depicted musically in the final effervescent flourishes of the violin.
Run time: 10 minutes
“Hallelujah Chorus” from The Messiah
George Frideric Handel (1686–1759)
George Frideric Handel was one of those lucky composers who was famous in his own lifetime. Although born in Germany and trained in Italy, he is most famously known as an English composer. The Messiah is a sacred oratorio, a kind of religious opera. Unsurprisingly, the text is biblical, a mix of Old and New Testament. The “Hallelujah Chorus” is the final selection from part two of the work. Since you may already be familiar with this, try listening for something new tonight. Listen to how Handel accentuates the word “hallelujah” in three different ways, emphasizing a different syllable at each restatement. A trinity of praise, if you will, from a very clever composer.
Run time: 4 minutes
Leroy Anderson (1908–1975)
Leroy Anderson was an American composer with a sense of humor (have you heard his piece for typewriter?). His upbeat and playful compositions were directly at odds with his very serious career in the U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps and the Pentagon during the late 1940s. Sleigh Ride was completed in 1948 and premiered in 1949 by the Boston Pops, led by Arthur Fiedler. According to the composer’s widow Eleanor Anderson, “Leroy didn’t set out to write a Christmas piece when he wrote ‘Sleigh Ride.’ His intentions were to convey the entire winter season through the imagery of a sleigh ride, much in the way that Mozart did with his piece of the same name.” No matter what his original intentions, Sleigh Ride is the quintessential holiday music, right down to the last whinny.
Run time: 3 minutes
The Christmas Song
Mel Tormé & Robert Wells (Tormé 1925–1999) (Wells 1922–1998)
Commonly subtitled Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, this smooth and silky ballad was written by Mel Tormé in the middle of the incredibly hot summer of 1944. The Nat King Cole Trio first recorded it in 1946, and his 1961 version, recorded with full orchestra, is now generally regarded as the definitive version.
Run time: 4:30 minutes
Oh Holy Night
Composed in 1847, this French sacred carol is also known as “Cantique de Noël.” The original text is a poem by wine merchant Placide Cappeau, although the English text that is heard here tonight is by Unitarian minister John Sullivan Dwight, from 1855. The literal translation of the poem is a bit harsh; the wrath of God and His deliverance are the main message. Dwight’s text is still about redemption and rejoicing, but the language is a softer and more hopeful.
Run time: 5:30 minutes
A Holly Jolly Sing-Along!
Arr. by James Stephenson b. 1969
Have you been holding back? We happily invite you to please sing along with us!
Run time: 11 minutes
Leigh is Library Assistant III at the Lamont School of Music at University of Denver.