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Modal Harmony in the Music of Palestrina”

Renowned Dutch composer and organist Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621) was the last of the great Franco-Flemish composers, the undisputed masters of the early Renaissance. Sweelinck’s setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” reflects a shift in the Continent’s musical epicenter from the Netherlands to Italy. Although he did not himself travel to southern Europe, Sweelinck kept himself abreast of the innovations of composers including Andrea Gabrieli of Venice, and translated volumes by the famed Italian theorist Gioseffo Zarlino. He published this setting of “Hodie Christus” in his Cantiones sacrae, a 1619 collection of Catholic liturgical music—unusual in Calvinist Amsterdam.

Sweelinck’s setting begins with a clarion call in the tenor voices, which recurs as a unifying motive throughout the piece. The full chorus responds to the tenors in antiphonal, or call-and-response, style, setting off volleys of imitation among the voices that suggest the hubbub among a crowd of the faithful. As the motet progresses, Sweelinck uses the madrigalian technique of text painting, in which the music almost pictorially represents the words: for example, he writes low notes for the text “on Earth,” and florid vocal lines as the angels sing out. The piece builds to a joyous interweaving of cries of “Alleluia” and “Noe,” or Noël.

A member of the twentieth-century Parisian avant-garde circle Les Six, Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) sought to create novel sounds without an overly complex harmonic language, or, as he put it, “new music which doesn’t mind using other people’s chords.” Poulenc’s 1952 setting of “Hodie Christus natus est” is the fourth of his Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël, Christmas pieces that reflect his deep Catholic heritage. Poulenc opens his “Hodie” with a bold, chant-like incipit, then bringing in the ensemble for an ebullient jubilee characterized by playful yet worshipful contrast: sound and silence, angles and smoothness, consonance and dissonance, chords and counterpoint.

Like many works by Franz Schubert, Franz Xaver Gruber’s “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht” [“Silent Night, Holy Night”] so successfully incorporates the folksong traits of his native Austria that it was assumed to be a folksong within twenty years of its composition. Gruber (1787-1863), a composer and organist, wrote the piece at the behest of an assistant priest at St. Nikolaus’s Church in Oberndorf for Christmas Eve, 1818; the priest, Josef Mohr, himself penned the poetic text in 1816. Originally performed with guitar accompaniment, Gruber’s simple Christmas song features a lilting meter and pastoral harmonies based on thirds, both contributors to its widespread appeal. One side effect of its popularity is that the “Stille Nacht” tune was almost immediately altered from Gruber’s original; here, it is presented in its prime form.

Composer, conductor, and Phoenix Chorale singer Kira Zeeman Rugen faced the challenge of arranging Franz Gruber’s “Stille Nacht” anew by looking to its lesser-known, original form. Of her setting, “Silent Night, Stille Nacht,” the composer writes: “The heart of the composition honors the original melody and harmony, and incorporates the accompanimental guitar as singers mimic the plucking with their voices. The song encircles each verse with a tonal conversation of plaintive chords, which are then answered by a haunting soprano melody. Each verse juxtaposes German and English text, and original musical elements against the newly composed chords and ethereal soprano melodies. The arrangement conveys a sense of longing and nostalgia, closing with the simplicity of ‘Silent Night’ in an angelic soprano duet.”