Although city centers and shopping malls have been ringing for musical Christmas fun for weeks, this blog presents the flip side of the coin with a small selection of works reflecting the less traditional side of December.
I will start with what is undoubtedly one of the strongest and most demonstrative songs by American composer Charles Ives. Written in 1913, December – a set of words by the Italian poet of the XIV century Folgor da San Gimignano translated by Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1828–1882), English poet, illustrator, painter and translator. The song is designed to be sung “roughly and half-heartedly”, thus giving this story of “seasonal malice” a corresponding cruelty and tartness that never wavers. Here are the words:
The last, in December, houses on the plain,
Ground floors for living, logs piled in the mountains,
And the carpets are stretched, and the latest games to try,
And torches were lit, and gifts from man to man
(Your master, drunkard and Catalan);
And whole dead pigs, and cunning cooks ply
Every throat with tits to meet;
And the wine butts of the brave span of St. Galgan.
And keep your coats well lined and tightly knit,
And wrap yourself in a cloak of strength and weight,
With gallant hoods to prolong your faces.
And make your game a humble tramp
Abandoned unfortunate robber
Stingy; don’t let them have a chance with you.
Fernando Lopez-Grass (1906–1994) was one of the most prolific Portuguese composers of the twentieth century, and his works cover a wide range of genres. The most important aspect of his musical style is the use of Portuguese folk music as a means to develop his personal style, very similar to how Bela Bartak did with Hungarian folk melodies. In his orchestral work December poemhowever, there are no traces of this usual distinguishing feature. The 10-minute work, written in 1961, is grim, making it arguably Lopez-Grassi’s most expressive and emotional work. Here is the first half of the work.
December poem (8.572892)
Now two contrasting piano pieces, Tchaikovsky’s first carefree miniature of his Seasons, one of twelve works commissioned by Nicholas Bernard, editor of the periodical author of the news. Each monthly issue was to contain a corresponding article by Tchaikovsky, who ordered his servant to remind him when each part was to be paid, indicating a certain reluctance on his part to commission. Whatever Tchaikovsky’s attitude to bread and butter, the work has a lot of charm, as you can hear in the final part, December: Christmas.
December: Christmas (8,570787)
The context of the next work was quite different. I mean the piano suite Sun and clouds Finnish composer Selim Palmgren (1878–1951). Palmgren’s success in Europe reached its peak just before the First World War with several performances of his piano concertos in European capitals. This success, interrupted by the war, led to an invitation to move to the United States in 1921. After returning to Finland in 1927, Palmgren’s life became more modest, isolated and financially unstable.
Written in 1942 Sun and clouds was Palmgren’s last large-scale piece for piano; each descriptive movement is dedicated to the month of the year. He always wrote such music with relative ease, but after 1928 he published only five piano works. One of the most significant reasons for this creative break was the sudden and devastating death of his wife during a pre-concert rehearsal of a cantata he had written himself. Palmgren confessed this period in his memoirs in 1948 as follows: “I could not concentrate my imagination or strength on any large-scale work. I felt, frankly, like a lemon squeezed to the last drop … ”
General mood c Sun and clouds filled with optimism, even though it was written in the most dramatic times of World War II. Undoubtedly, Palmgren meant Tchaikovsky’s popular piano suite Seasons and created an adaptation based on his own style and personality. But make no mistake about the vague melancholy that underlies the last brief movement Peace on earth, December.
Peace on earth, December (GP869)
We end in a brighter mood with a song by John Joubert (1927–2019), a British composer born in South Africa. It has a name December night and is part of Joubert’s song cycle Instant moment written in 1987. I will allow the composer to present the work:
“Five poems that make up the text of this cycle are taken from the collection Look! We passed!, published by D. H. Lawrence in 1917. They are mainly concerned with the development of deepening Lawrence’s relationship with Frieda, the wife of Professor Ernest Wickley of the University of Nottingham. Lawrence and Frieda fled in 1912 and for some time had to live a nomadic life together, mostly on the continent, before marrying in 1914. Look! We passed! was written during this period. I chose the poems to express musically five very contrasting reactions to the experience of love.
December night is an invitation to love, with more than a fleeting bow Tristan and Isolde in ascending chromatic phrases of revelation. The mood becomes more fiery to complete the song in delight. However, the strings are muted to ensure the warmth of the fire-lit room in winter.
Here are the words:
Take off your cloak and hat
And your shoes, and pull up by my hearth
Where a woman has never sat.
I lit a fire;
Leave the rest in the dark
And sit by the fire. The wine is warm in the fire;
Flickers come and go.
I will warm your limbs with kisses
Until they glow.
December night (8,571368)