Dies Natalis

Percy Grainger_Silver Gelatin Print 1933

Expect the unexpected with Mahlerman’s selection of festive music…

Drifting very slightly off-message this Christmas, the ‘day of birth’ refers not just to the child, but to the fresh, seraphic world-view of all children at the moment of birth. The English composer Gerald Finzi‘s taste was always meditative rather than dramatic, and in perhaps his greatest work Dies Natalis, he turned for inspiration to the 17th Century mystic poet Thomas Traherne, a ‘shoemaker’s son of Hereford’ of whom very little is known. The four sections that follow the opening Intrada for string orchestra, are for ‘high voice’ and, these days, are usually sung by a tenor. From this touching and admirably written cantata, here is the fifth section The Salutation, set in the form of a Bach chorale prelude but very definitely out of the modal school of Ralph Vaughan Williams.


‘A day without Bach is a barren day’ (Van Dyke Parks), and Christmas without the great Lutheran master is, for me, unthinkable. Today, as an early Christmas present to myself, a piece that sounds Christmassy, but isn’t, combining as it does, high art with low vulgarity. In 1713 JS Bach produced what has become one of his best loved secular works, the Hunt Cantata BWV 208, containing one of the most beautiful of all Bach’s arias Schafe konnen sicher weiden, as we know it Sheep may safely graze. The idea that anybody would seek to ‘rearrange’ this melody of surpassing beauty is unimaginable – particularly if that body were….whisper it….Australian. But Percy Grainger was not any old Aussie, and though blessed with a humorous and eccentric nature, these traits did nothing to conceal his essential seriousness as a musician, first as a world-class concert pianist and later an original composer and musical thinker – and for evidence of this, look no further than the very first of my Lazy Sundays back in September 2010. Under the title Exquisite Miniatures you can still find Grainger’s wonderful arrangement of Birthday Boy Benjamin Britten’s ‘Shallow Brown’.  Today, his marvellous ‘ramble’ (for that is what he called his arrangements) through BWV 208 becomes Blithe Bells, with the innocence of Bach’s tune ‘augmented’ by ‘tuneful percussion’ and concert-harp effects. I find it at least as moving as the original – how say you, Dabblers?


One for the little bitty baby
Born, born, born in Bethlehem

Like ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ and ‘Ten Green Bottles’, Cumulative or Counting Songs are popular with children because verses build upon previous verses and are therefore easy to learn and remember. They are also a staple of the gospel tradition in the southern states of America and here is one of the best, Children, Go Where I Send Thee, discovered in a black school in Kentucky by the “Mother of Folk’ Jean Ritchie, 91 and still going strong as a singer, songwriter. It is played here by the wonderful gospel trio The Sojourners, with the no-small contribution of master-guitarist Steve Dawson.

Very few musicians emerged from the ‘flower-power’ era of the 60’s and 70’s with much credit, but in pieces like Song for Athene and The Lamb, written in the 80’s and 90’s, the late John Tavener (he died on November 12th) found his own distinctive voice and with it, a world wide audience of millions. Set to a poem by William Blake in the collection of Songs of Innocence and Experience (another, The Tyger, we looked at a couple of months ago in Mystics and Dreamers) this brief, mesmerizing work is nominally an anthem but in fact it sounds more like a carol. Scored for 4-part unaccompanied choir, the upper part can be sung by boy trebles or, as here, sopranos. It came to the composer Mozart-like and fully formed, during an afternoon car journey in 1982; he just had to write it down, or so he said. A complex character, mixing vanity (Jesus hair, hard drinking, zealous driving in fine automobiles) with humility, he believed his ‘gift’ was in fact a fully finished entity delivered from God and composed before the beginning of time. The music was already there, waiting for him to unwrap it. It certainly fits that rather florid description.

A composer of the second rank, usually damned by faint praise (‘…his music is distinguished by good workmanship’.), John Ireland produced some touching compositions, mostly in smaller forms, and influenced by the harmonic mannerisms of Debussy and Ravel. To lower the curtain on the Dabbler Musical Christmas (and the Dabbler Musical Year), a short orchestral ‘carol’ The Holy Boy, revealing a complete lack of musical ambition and, to these ears, the better for it.

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About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

4 thoughts on “Dies Natalis

  1. zmkc@ymail.com'
    December 23, 2013 at 00:36

    I love that Finzi. I went to the Percy Grainger Museum in Melbourne a month or two ago and plan to do a post on it – I’ve been trying to persuade my husband to adopt Grainger’s suggestion of towelling suits. He seems unconvinced, even though I have photographs showing how very natty they are.

  2. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    December 23, 2013 at 08:44

    Yes Z, natty they are. I was half-way to expanding on Grainger’s ‘colourful’ private and sexual life (of which the towel clothes are part, surely?) when I remembered that this was a Christmas post, not a visit to the dark side of the Moon or the third ring of Saturn. Your husband’s response to the suggestion that he should take up the (towelling) cloth, and disport himself looking like a deckchair shows, to me at any rate, that he is made of the right stuff. Can barely wait for your post on the Museum visit.

  3. john.hh43@googlemail.com'
    John Halliwell
    December 24, 2013 at 20:59

    I awoke on Sunday morning to discover Graeme Swann had jacked it in. That’s a bit of a bugger, I thought. Ashes gone; Swanny gone. Who will fill the void? Monty? He of the bucket hands who probably drops each Christmas present as it’s handed to him. As I read through and listened to Lazy Sunday I realised how much worse it would have been if the BBC announcer had reported that Mahlerman had called it a day; declared his innings closed. Gone? Irreplaceable!

    Another great year MM. Thank you for all those wonderful posts, including this one. Is Finzi the most underrated 20th Century English composer? He must be close to it.

  4. finalcurtain@gmail.com'
    December 25, 2013 at 21:28

    Well thank you (again) JH. The subject is, of course, bottomless, and this probably means that I will be around to knock-out a few more over the year ahead. Finzi is underrated, probably because this is an age that demands drama at the expense of meditation – and he simply does not provide that. Also, his output was modest and the scale was usually small.
    Holst, on the other hand, would take my palm in the underrated stakes – apart from that wonderful Suite, I have rarely heard anything else from his amazing output in the concert hall in all my years of listening – tho’ I have done my bit in this post to try and redress the balance, it feels rather like shouting in the dark.

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