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The Craft of Modal Counterpoint

Wagner’s “Welcome Yule!” appears on the Phoenix Chorale’s 2011 release, Of a Rose: A Chorale Christmas.

The French text “Les Anges dans nos campagnes”—or “Angels We Have Heard on High,” in James Chadwick’s 1862 translation—comments on the angels’ annunciation of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven.’” The anonymously written carol tune features a florid “Gloria” refrain, or burden, after each verse.

The First Noel” is a Cornish carol dating from the seventeenth century. British antiquarian William Sandys first published the tune and lyrics together in 1833. The carol is in bar form, a common musical structure in English and German folk music, which features a repeated melody followed by a refrain. In this case, the refrain is an effusive and moving proclamation of Jesus’ birth.

The melody of “Joy to the World,” a hymn tune known as Antioch, is of disputed authorship. American hymn composer Lowell Mason (1792-1872) claimed to have arranged the hymn in 1836 from fragments of G. F. Handel’s Messiah—specifically, motives found in “Lift Up Your Heads, O Ye Gates” and “Comfort Ye”—thus inspiring the popular notion that Handel originated the tune. However, scholars have identified similar melodies in English collections dating from 1833. The jubilant text is by Isaac Watts, a hymn writer active in the early eighteenth century.

The 1943 top-ten hit “I’ll be Home for Christmas” was made famous by Bing Crosby, who earned a gold record with his recording of the wartime ballad. Penned by songwriter/lyricist duo Walter Kent and James “Kim” Gannon, the song has since been recorded by acts as diverse as Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Kelly Clarkson, and Pentatonix. Arranger Jane Fjeldsted, a University of Utah-educated composer and the conductor of the Salt Lake Singers, honors the innocence of the original with a straightforward presentation tinged by wistful jazz harmonies.

Songwriting team Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane wrote “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” for MGM’s 1944 Judy Garland feature, Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland herself pressed Martin to alter the original lyrics to be more hopeful, and the resulting version appears in the film and subsequent recordings. Ryan James Brandau, a New York-based conductor, composer, and singer, bathes the song in jazz-inflected dissonances that make each consonance the sweeter. Also a Cambridge-trained musicologist, Brandau nods to the Christmas carol tradition by incorporating melodic flourishes evocative of tunes like “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Ding Dong! Merrily on High.”

The popular carol “Deck the Halls” was originally a Welsh air celebrating the New Year, with text by the bard Talhaiarn. Englishman Thomas Oliphant translated the text and published the song, harmonized, in the second volume of his 1862 Welsh Melodies: With Welsh and English Poetry. Variants on the text more specific to Christmas appeared in American editions as early as 1877. James McKelvy’s lively arrangement, “Deck the Halls (In 7/8),” maintains the carol’s signature tune and madrigalian fa-la refrain. In a departure, however, McKelvy sets the carol in 7/8 meter, meaning that the pulses in a measure may be grouped either 3+4 or 4+3. The resulting asymmetrical romp is a standard of American holiday choral music.