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Soli Deo Gloria Let Heaven and Nature Sing
Grace Lutheran Church
Palo, Alto, CA
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Soli Deo Gloria Let Heaven and Nature Sing
Flowers and plants are frequently-used metaphors for Christmas in medieval carols, as well as in Medieval religious iconography. Apple, cherry, and oak (and even olive) trees have all been common symbols, both in carols such as "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree" and "Christ Came to Bethlehem" (aka "Winds Through the Olive Trees") and in references to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil referenced in such oft-set text as "Adam Lay Ybounden." In "The Cherry Tree Carol," a tree bows down in front of the pregnant Mary to deliver fruit to her directly, symbolizing the acknowledgment by Creation itself of the Incarnation; in some versions of the carol, it's Mary's own holiness which motivates the tree, but in other versions Jesus commands it from inside the womb.

But flowers are the most often referenced. Mary is commonly described metaphorically as a rose, but just as often it's Jesus who is compared to one flower or another, or described as a gardener ("King Jesus hath a garden"). In the Medieval poem "Of a Rose," set both in my own composition and as part of Rutter's Magnificat, the rose bush contains five "branches," which extend to various parts of the Christmas story. In "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" (probably the best-known of these carols), the rose is equated with the "shoot from the stump of Jesse," even though there's no reason to think Isaiah meant a rose, or any flower. "A Spotless Rose," known best in the Herbert Howells setting and also included today in a new setting by Bob Chilcott, is a variant translation of the same original poem, "Es ist ein Ros entsprungen," by Catherine Winkworth.

Roses are a particularly rich theme in these carols because they have both blooms and thorns, offering a wealth of symbolism. In "The Crown of Roses," Jesus is depicted as raising rose bushes specifically to get thorns to make a crown from. And since roses smell nice, I couldn't resist including "Whence is this goodly fragrance," which compares the fragrance of Jesus' birth favorably with that of spring flowers.

Many carols use flowers' colors symbolically: white for purity, red for blood or guilt, green for growth, and so on; for example, in "The Crown of Roses," the drops of blood caused by Jesus' crown of thorns are compared to "roses red." In other carols, the flowers and their assorted colors just provide convenient rhymes, no more meaningful than "one, two, buckle my shoe". "The Holly and the Ivy" is one such: each verse highlights a new color for some part of the holly bush (somehow the ivy always gets forgotten) and then rhymes it with some platitude about Jesus. "Sans Day Carol," a very similar text (possibly a variant) does the same.

The large works on today's program include two of my own arrangements by me: one a set of variations of the familiar "Holly and Ivy" tune, and the other a medley of various flower-related carols, held together by a new setting of selected verses of "Of a Rose" and an orchestral background of "Lo, How a Rose." I've also programmed a recently-written (2011) collection by Bob Chilcott, which includes mostly new settings of traditional texts, in a few cases as "partner songs" to the familiar versions. The Magnificat of Mary is an often-set text, but John Rutter has interpolated a few extra texts, including a mass fragment "Sanctus" (based on the Gregorian chant Missa cum jubilo) and "Of a Rose."

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Grace Lutheran Church (View)
3149 Waverly St
Palo, Alto, CA 94301
United States

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