A Marian Christmas with St. Martin’s Chamber Choir
Preview article by Betsy Schwarm
When it comes to Christmas choral music, one can count on references to the Christ Child, the manger, the shepherds, the star, and likely the Three Kings. There’s also Mary, and she’s the inspiration for this year’s Christmas programs by the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir. A smaller ensemble focusing on a cappella works, St. Martin’s programs offer not grand splendor, but crystalline clarity, while also emphasizing what the music has to say. In a Christmas program, the message behind the music takes on particular importance.
Commemorating the 20th anniversary of the ensemble’s top selling recording, this year’s program, A Marian Christmas: Maiden and Mother, honors Mary’s place in the Christmas story. The 1998 CD did this with works about Mary, but 2018 brings a new approach. Mary is still there, sometimes specifically, at others in spirit. However, the music on the CD was all by male composers, from Praetorius to the 20th century. This time, St. Martin’s Artistic Director Timothy Krueger decided that a female protagonist deserved female composers. Other than a single selection borrowed from the CD, the 2018 program is entirely women’s work; even the sing-along carols are arranged by women. Krueger maintains that he does not intend it as “a programming stunt.” Rather, he notes “focusing on the female perspective of the event – a uniquely feminine insight into the Nativity – is possibly a couple thousand years overdue.”
In the St. Martin’s program, those feminine insights will come from various generations. The earliest is the “Sibyl of the Rhine,” Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179), active five centuries before Raphaella Aleotti (c. 1570 – c. 1646). Both women were nuns first and composers second, though Raphaella at least benefitted from a time and nationality (Italian, as opposed to Hildegard’s German roots) in which society was at last becoming open to the notion of a woman as a creative artist. Though neither was able to devote 100% of her time to music, both Hildegard and Raphaella show an intrinsic awareness of how voices can be used to shade the nuances of meaning in the words being sung.
Nearly all the rest of the composers on the program are women of 20th century birth. Admittedly, Blythe Owen (1898 – 2000) slightly anticipates that mark, but as all her creative efforts occurred well after the turn of the century, one can certainly consider her a 20th century talent. About half the composers St. Martin’s will perform are still actively involved in their careers and three – Marilyn Susan Brown, Donna Wickham, and Micaëla Larsen Brown – are based here in the Denver area. It will be fascinating to compare their works to those of composers more distant in time and/or place. The artistry required to bring vocal expression to the highest level of craftsmanship is not limited by generation or geography – or, for that matter, by gender.
Artistic Director Timothy Krueger finds two works on the program to be particularly striking, in terms of how the fact of the composer being female directly influences the expressive character of the music. One of these is Mary Slept by Margaret Rizza (b. 1929). Often haunting, sometimes rapturous, Rizza’s piece sets a text by Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) that the composer herself calls “a new understanding of God breaking through into our time and space.” Of Rizza’s work, Krueger observes, “there is such a tenderness – sometimes mysterious, sometimes gentle – to lines having to do with the child growing inside her [Mary] that I feel give a personal perspective on this that is essentially impossible for a male.” Admittedly, Merton was male, but it is Margaret Rizza who gives his words richly expressive musical colors.
Krueger also singles out for special notice Annunciation by Cecilia MacDowall (b. 1951). Here, the text, being one of the Holy Sonnets by John Donne (1572 – 1631), is also of masculine origin. The verses imagine Mary: “Thou hast light in dark… Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.” Here, Krueger attests, “I feel that the participation of Mary, as a female and as a mother, in the drama that took place between angel and maiden is fleshed out (both literally and figuratively) in the music, in a way that opens one’s eyes to the vulnerability, the fear, but also the hope and even the nascent pride at taking part in something important, that are an essentially feminine part of the story.”
St. Martin’s program A Marian Christmas: Maiden and Mother will have four performances. These will be:
- Friday, December 14, at 730pm at St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral at 14th and Clarkson on Capitol Hill in Denver
- Sunday, December 16, at 3pm at First Plymouth Congregational Church on Hampden at Colorado Blvd
- Friday, December 21 at 730pm at St. Paul Community of Faith at 16th and Grant in downtown Denver
- Saturday, December 22 at 730pm at Holy Cross Lutheran Church at 45th and Wadsworth in Wheat Ridge
Tickets might be available at the door, though Kruger cautions that St. Martin’s Christmas programs “always sell quite well, so it might not be safe to rely on this.” Those with the forethought to plan ahead can order tickets through the ensemble’s website:
In the weeks ahead, there will be countless Christmas choral programs in Denver, with much lovely music available to audiences. However, in their unique focus, as well as breadth of programming, the St. Martin’s Chamber Choir offerings stand out as particularly worthy of the investment of time – even at this oh-so-busy time of year.