Soon it will be Christmas. What should you listen to? This is not a simple question.
Historically, Christmas has been an immensely prolific time for composers, especially (and obviously) for those writing for the Christian church. But this trove of musical riches is astonishingly easy to lose sight of, even in so artistically sophisticated a place as Boston. It can seem as though holiday offerings are confined to endless renditions of the “Hallelujah” chorus and an all-too-small group of holiday favorites.
How to break out of this rut? One strategy is to explore a Christmas distant in time and space from our own, and this is an experience that early music ensembles are especially skilled at providing. Two such groups are Boston Camerata, an ensemble of instrumentalists and singers, and the vocal group Blue Heron. This year, the former is presenting “The Brotherhood of the Star: A Hispanic Christmas,” while the latter is offering a sampling of music for Advent, Christmas, and New Year’s from 15th-century France and Burgundy.
“There’s a reason we hear ‘Messiah’ and ‘Nutcracker’ every year — because they’re so great,” said Scott Metcalfe, Blue Heron’s music director. “But doing these sort of alternative, 15th-century Christmases, there’s no sense that they have a holiday anything like ours.”
This is Blue Heron’s sixth season of holiday concerts — Metcalfe said that in the group’s early years they skipped it because, ironically, many of the singers could make more money doing “Messiah” performances. Boston Camerata, by contrast, began doing Christmas concerts in the early 1970s under Joel Cohen, now music director emeritus. (He is also directing “Brotherhood.”) Many have proven to be among the group’s most enduring programs.
Anne Azéma, the Camerata’s artistic director, said of the impulse behind them: “It came out of a desire to remove oneself from the Christmas routine.” By “routine,” she meant “a canon that was developed in the late 19th century in America — a mixture of German-Scandinavian-English music which created this sort of postcard idea of all things that we think now as Christmas.” That includes the caroling tradition that’s especially strong in Boston, popular songs about chestnuts and angels, “Messiah,” and other time-honored entries. “It’s wonderful material, some of it at least, but it’s become so overfamiliar that its impact is often lost.”
“In a way, caught among all these things, you tend to forget that Christmas has been happening for quite a while,” she continued. “For us, there is a desire to pull the curtain open and say, wait a minute, there may be other things out there. Let’s look at them, let’s enjoy them.”
These are, nevertheless, holiday concerts, which means that an audience, no matter how adventurous, is going to want something that resonates with their own experience, even if the music is unfamiliar. How to construct an emotionally satisfying concert from obscure material?
One important point, said Metcalfe, is to not lose sight of the fact that Christmas isn’t all about comfort and joy. It comes around the darkest time of the year, and in places like New England — and the Northern European climes his program explores — the world is cold and unforgiving. “I remember, as a kid, going to school in the dark, and you’d come home late and it would be getting dark,” said Metcalfe, who grew up in Burlington, Vt. “There’s this feeling that the world has changed a lot and it’s less generous than it is in the summer. You get a sense that the winter is threatening to human life — it’s dark and it’s scary.”
That’s one reason the Blue Heron program begins with Advent, “the season where people are repenting and getting ready for something, but asking for help. We start in a kind of darkness.
“Then we move into asking for a savior, and then this wonderful event happens, and you can be celebratory,” he went on. “But it’s not a simple, here’s this wonderful baby, ring the bells, drummer boy kind of thing. Rather, there’s this unfathomable mystery about it, and a lot of what’s expressed about it is just — wonder.”
That intertwining of joy and mystery permeates the Blue Heron concert — nowhere more so than in “Factor orbis,” a complex Advent motet by Jacob Obrecht that’s been a mainstay of the program over the last few years. The concert also includes a set of songs for New Year’s that were given as gifts at the courts. For a New Year’s celebration, Metcalfe said, “it’s amazing how many of these are really melancholy songs. They aren’t party songs at all. Again, it just allows you to have very different emotions at a joyous holiday.”
Azéma also mentioned the fact that the festive holiday happens at such an inhospitable time. “It’s cold, and nature is not necessarily speaking in a very kind way,” she said. “You start thinking about the place of man on earth and your place in your own life. And there’s this terribly moving and disturbing story of a little creature being born, and what do you make out of that?”
“The Brotherhood of the Star” — which unites high art music of Spain, Mexico, and Peru with folk songs of Catalonia and Andalusia — includes traces of that seasonal darkness. One entry is a Gregorian chant whose text reads: “Orient, splendor of eternal light, Sun of justice: come and bring light to those who dwell in twilight and in the shadow of death.”
Azéma said that listeners will almost certainly recognize a couple of the carols in the program, even if in new guises. “That’s one way to include people.” But also, she said, the program can touch listeners by showcasing music’s power to unveil the full force of a narrative whose power cannot be dimmed, even by excessive familiarity.
“There is the pleasure of being able to respond to such a powerful story and point to what the music does in that period,” she said. “We have a gamut of emotions and strengths, from the anxiety of being caught in the questioning that automatically comes from that story, to the comfort of realizing that there is something greater than the human soul. Somehow this myth, this powerful story, responds to something very deep inside us.”