Music for A December Day

“Music for a December Day”


“It was supposed to be a six minute Christmas carol overture 
and it grew into a thirteen minute tone poem
that captures, for me, at least, a treasured moment in the lives of my 
sons and somehow says
so much that I would want to say about them and me, about me and Christmas, 
and about public attitudes toward poverty and greed.”

If you’re still reading….

I began composing “Music for a December Day” in August in anticipation of this concert. I had thought of the title some time ago – music that would capture a winter holiday mood, with clear references to Christmas by way of carols, but also a more generalized sense of “winter”as experienced in the northern hemisphere.

The first musical idea that occured to me was the very opening gesture that recurs several times – the whoosh of a rolled cymbal, followed by tinkly bell sounds: a wind and ice crystals.

I knew that I wanted to treat some traditional carols in a kind of overture – brisk, festive, though not without its more reflective moments. I like “Good Christian Men Rejoice” (aka “In Dulci Jubilo” ) for its antique simplicity and vigor, and for a few minutes I thought that the whole piece might be a set of variations on that one melody. “Nah…” thought I.

Then another image came to mind, a particularly cherished one that I immediately wanted to evoke somehow in musical terms: the sound made by my sons’ feet as they raced down the stairs on a Christmas morning about ten years ago. This image finds its way into the music in a rapid roll through several tomtoms at the conclusion of the piece, but also in the headlong race of notes in the strings after the slow soft introduction. This idea led to some fast paced “running” music that breaks into “love and joy come to you” – “The Wassail Song”.

A longer, original melody arches up and this tune, for some reason, I also associate with my two sons (to whom, with their mother, Marjorie, the piece is dedicated). The tune serves as a contrast to the racing music, and keeps the piece from being a medley of carols, as it lends some perspective on the traditional melodies.

Early in the process, it occurred to me to place instruments offstage at the beginning of the piece. The final version has several members of the brass section playing from backstage at the outset. They become a bit like carollers without, calling in reminders of “In dulci jubilo”. At another point, they emerge in the hall to play antiphonally with the orchestra and, for the grand finale, they converge on stage. I like to think that there will be a certain electricity in that moment from the mere fact that everyone is all together, finally. I considered subtitling the piece: “some assembly required” – words that cause existential despair in parents around the world on Christmas Eve.

The middle section is a grim rendering of “God rest ye merry, gentlemen”. This carol is fascinating for its ambiguity. The text is a holiday salutation (it’s “rest ye merry, gentlemen” not “rest ye, merry gentlemen”) containing in its many verses a thorough outline of Christian incarnational and soteriological doctrine but the tune is in a somber minor key, turning to the major in the penultimate phrase, and then, usually, returning to the minor on, of all texts: “tidings of comfort and joy”. This juxtaposition invites many thoughts, which occurred and recurred to me in all the hours I spent composing:

- the tune dates from Dicken’s London. In all of his novels Dickens was sharply critical of British society that made poverty a crime and justified greed by clothing it in the regalia of commerce, class, empire and the church. The same attitudes are still all too present in our own society. So I used the modal ambiguity of “God rest ye merry” to make a social protest.
- in the dark streets of London, someone sang a poignant song about being merry and it caught on. The song is very English – a veiled appeal for charity made in a kind of a smiling-through-tears, stiff-upper-lip manner, and all while wishing well the passing “gentlemen”, a term then used to refer only to men of the moneyed class who owned property.
- “God rest ye merry” is very like that English round we learned in grade school:

Heigh! Ho! Nobody home!
Meat nor drink nor money have I none.
Yet I will be merry! Heigh! Ho! Nobody home.” 

- This singer is an impoverished beggar and somehow he exhorts himself to be merry. Again the song is in a minor key, probably dating from the same place and period as “God rest ye…”. The offstage brass play “Heigh! Ho!” as the orchestra is in full cry in “God rest ye…”.
- It’s a grim business, being joyful in deprived circumstances.
- Both songs are a subtle plea for charity and the plea is made, mostly, by the notes themselves, not the words.

- The Bible has more to say about greed than it does about, oh, say…homosexuality… and all of it unambiguously negative. So why don’t the crazed zealots carry “God hates greed” signs?

As the sad song ends, we recall again the running children, and jubilant strains. “In dulci jubilo” is played twice in its entirety – once in a full orchestral tutti with flying counterpoint in the strings and woodwinds and again in a litling, 5/8 rendition with solo oboe. The “CB/JB” theme (my sons’ initials) stretches out once again, with the entire orchestra on stage and a few codas bring the piece to an ebullient finish. Realizing a deep darkness in the world, we can turn and be warmed and forgiven by the smile of a child, in the light of which, the importance of riches or the lack of them fades to insignificance. Even Scrooge came to think so, and was motivated to make changes.

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