At this time of year, I am reminded of the importance of traditions. Likely every family has some kind of holiday traditions, no matter what the occasion, whether Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa. In our home, we celebrate Christmas. We have some ornaments that we have had for years – lovely crocheted snowflakes that a former student gave to me; small musical instruments of glass and metal; wooden ornaments that came from a trip to Bethlehem; miniature nutcrackers. These are carefully packed away each January and lovingly unwrapped each November when we put up the tree. We traditionally enjoy certain foods from recipes handed down through the generations -- gingerbread, buns, cranberry relishes, and certain kinds of cookies. Like my father, I always take a long time to decorate the tree, stepping back to look again and again to get the ornaments placed “just so.” This year, my grandchildren, ages three and five, decided to rearrange some of my handiwork, and I resisted the temptation to move the ornaments back to where I had originally put them. Their great-grandfather would have liked the children’s handiwork just fine.
What would the holidays be like without musical traditions? Handel’s Messiah; Bach’s Christmas Oratorio; Rutter’s Gloria; Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata; familiar carols played and sung; popular songs enthusiastically shouted by preschoolers at holiday programs are a few of those. There is something comforting about traditions; with their repetition and familiarity, they provide something we can count on in a world that is often full of surprises.
Composers develop their own traditions in the sense of their signature styles. When we hear music by Baroque composers such as Handel, Bach and Vivaldi, we recognize the exuberant rhythmic patterns and the imitative effects that characterize their style. Music from the Romantic period traditionally has rich harmonies, thick textures, expansive lines and memorable melodies. Contemporary composers develop their own traditional approaches. Eric Whitacre uses sustained tone clusters, for example. With Ruth Watson Henderson’s music, the listener can expect sensitive text settings, picturesque references to the meaning of the words, some colourful harmonies, and challenging piano accompaniments. Yet despite a composer’s distinctive traditional approach to their craft, each explores novelty as well, in order to keep the music fresh and not redundant. After all, if they did things exactly the same each time, the music would become boring and we remember Ruth’s adamant statement about that: “I didn’t want it to be boring!”
Each new text that a composer sets to music offers possibilities for creative exploration, so that despite using familiar writing techniques in the music, the composer looks for unique ways to enhance the words. This is why multiple settings of the same text will never sound exactly the same. Norwegian-American composer Ola Gjeilo has three settings of the text “Ubi caritas,” and while each has similarities in harmony and shape, none is exactly the same as another and can all be included in the same program. Several years ago, Exultate Chamber Singers in Toronto sang them in a concert, interspersed with music by other composers and using different texts. This helped us build a program that avoided too much sameness or familiarity since the three pieces had the same words.
Traditions play an important part in our lives. At this festive season, I hope each of you has time to enjoy some of your favourite traditions, musical and otherwise.