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Sunday Music Musings January 2, 2021

January 2, 2021

I have always loved the carol “Twas in the moon of wintertime” – but tunes and texts can have really complicated histories, and in new light of 2021, we may need to examine context with our eyes open to cultural appropriation. Perhaps we can learn and grow from studying these histories and hold on to what we love about a piece of music without sticking our head in the sand about its problematic roots.

I am working the blog backwards through the service, since the source tune to Sunday’s carol, Noel: Une jeune Pucelle set by Nicolas Antoine Le Bègue (1631-1702) is the postlude.

Le Bègue (1631-1702) was a French Baroque composer, organist and harpsichordist. He was active in Paris from the 1650s, although he often travelled to consult on organ building and maintenance. Lebègue’s reputation today rests on his keyboard music. His important body of works includes some of the earliest known Noëls, all of which are from his Troisième Livre d ’orgue (1685).  According to Wikipedia, “Une jeune Pucelle is a French folk song from 1557, which has a melody that is based loosely on an older French song entitled Une jeune Fillette.” It became a well-known Christmas tune, or Noël, and was set not only by Le Bègue, but others, most famously Marc-Antoine Charpentier in his Messe de Minuit (1694). It is important to note, Une jeune Fillette was first an Italian dance tune, then a French secular song, and then turned into a Marian carol — so even by 1557 it was already a transmutation.

The hymn setting, Twas in the Moon of Wintertime, also known as the Huron Carol uses this French carol with words (“Jesous Ahatonhia”), written probably in 1642 by Father Jean de Brébeuf (1593 – 1649). Here’s where it gets complicated.

Brébeuf  was a Jesuit missionary  who arrived in Québec in June 1625 to work among the Huron people. (Huron is a European word, these people call themselves Wendat First Nation.) For about five months Brébeuf lived with a tribe who spoke an Algonquian language. He was later assigned in 1626 to the Huron who spoke an Iroquoian language. He was a teacher and linguist, made friends with the Huron people and gained good knowledge of their culture, language and spirituality. He tried to keep a complete ethnographic record of the Huron/Wendat. Brébeuf tried to find parallels between the Huron religion and Christianity, so as to facilitate conversion. This is evident in the carol, the words of which he wrote in the native tongue. Brébeuf worked to teach languages to other missionaries and fur traders. He was often in danger, and not very successful as a missionary in terms of conversions.

Throughout this period, the Europeans, both French and English, brought disease to the First People they encountered and by 1640, nearly half the Huron/Wendat had died of smallpox, causing great societal disruption. Ironically, this ultimately gave the Jesuits the image of great power, since they were not as susceptible to dying from the European-brought diseases.

Brébeuf was killed in 1649 after being taken captive with Father Gabriel Lalemant when the Iroquois destroyed the Huron mission village at Saint-Louis. The missionaries and native converts were subjected to ritual torture before they died. Because of his bravery, stoicism and concern for the converts and fellow Jesuits, as well as later miracles involving his relics, Brébeuf was later canonized by the Catholic Church.

Back to the carol: While he was the Montreal Herald’s correspondent in Quebec, a journalist from Ontario, Jesse Edgar Middleton (1872–1960) came across the first publishing of Noëls anciens de la Nouvelle-France (1899- Ernest Myrand), containing a French version of the carol which Father Brébeuf, had written for the Huron, whose descendants had handed it on by oral tradition. So you see that the carol went from Brébeuf’s original (Wendat? Algonquin? —still unclear) back to French, and then into English by Middleton.

The charming imagery of placing the Nativity Story into the Canadian winter has always appealed to me—after all, most cultures put their own stamp on this. But it is the European view of the culture, not theirs. The United Church of Canada recently posted some clarifying remarks by Dana Lynn Seaborn, of, who writes:

“As a Métis woman who has lived in territory named for the Wendat, and studied traditional Wendat culture and history, I find those lyrics, written almost a hundred years ago, to be typical of their time in their contempt for, and appropriation of, Indigenous culture. These English lyrics were written during a time when Indigenous people were viewed with what today would be called condescending, paternalistic racism.”

Rather than throwing out the baby with the bathwater, Seaborn has written a new translation which celebrates our common spirituality. As she says “Rather than a pseudo ‘Indian’ or colonist approach, I’ve tried to write lyrics that reflect the stories that the Wendat themselves would traditionally have been sharing during midwinter.  These are followed by two verses acknowledging the influence of Jesuit, Jean de Brébeuf. I believe that this is a song that Euro-Canadians, as well as Indigenous Canadians, will enjoy singing.  They can learn about, and celebrate, Wendat culture.  They can research other Indigenous Canadian traditions to discover the ways in which their stories are similar, or different, from those of the Wendat.  If they are Christian, they can look for similarities between the Christian and Wendat stories. Learning about, and respecting, each other’s culture is the first step to reconciliation.” (Bold is mine).

I highly recommend her full poem found here.

Here are the last two verses:

The Black Robes came from lands afar, and told us of a day

Judea had been colonized, and Rome must be obeyed.

A mother bore a child of light;

rejoicing filled the starlit night:

This is our sacred home, ‘neath heaven’s dome,

shining stars proclaim the dawn.


Rejoice! Have courage one and all! The stars shine overhead,

the same stars that shone down upon a baby’s humble bed.

The infant grew to be a man;

his words, like stars, light many lands.

This is our sacred home, ‘neath heaven’s dome,

shining stars proclaim the dawn.

I love the spirit of this re-write for it allows us to make connections between ages and cultures, just as the many compositional settings of a single tune can.

With that, I will mention our prelude, a setting by Denis Bédard (b. 1950) a Canadian organ composer. Bédard served as organ professor at Conservatoire de musique de Québec (1981-1989) and at the University of Bristish Columbia in Vancouver (2001-2004). He was organist at the Church of Saint-Coeur-de-Marie in Quebec City for 19 years. He served other churches and concertized, and in 2001 became organist at Holy Rosary Cathedral in Vancouver. He has written chamber, orchestral, and vocal works as well as organ.

His setting, Noël Huron, is from Deux Noëls (1997) – the other is a Toccata on Il est né, le divin Enfant. The tune is set in three ways-first as a trumpet solo over a drone-like accompaniment; next as “recit de cornet” over moving 16th notes in the crumhorn; and finally, a slow and slightly jazz-infused verse for string stops.

So that is a new look at the roots of “Canada’s first Christmas Carol.” I hope I have been respectful in trying show the complex relationships between missionaries and indigenous peoples. I am deeply thankful that I was able to find this discussion already being addressed by the United Church of Canada. There are also many online places to lean more.

One other piece: today’s offertory solo is the best-known work by Carl August Peter Cornelius (1824 – 1874), German composer, writer about music, poet and translator. He lived with his painter uncle Peter von Cornelius in Berlin from 1844 to 1852, and during this time he met such prominent figures as the Brothers Grimm, Friedrich Rückert and Felix Mendelssohn. His first mature opera, (Der Barbier von Bagdad) was composed during his brief stay in Weimar (1852–1858). After that he lived in Vienna for five years, and began a friendship with Richard Wagner, who encouraged him to move to Munich where he settled and raised a family.

The Three Kings is well-known in English-speaking countries because of Ivor Atkins’ arrangement included in the first volume of the David Willcocks/Reginald Jacques Carols for Choirs (the ‘Green Book’).  Solo mezzo or baritone sings the lied while in the accompaniment underneath is heard Philipp Nicolai’s chorale tune, Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (“How brightly shines the morning star”). We will hear (and discuss) more of this chorale tune in upcoming Sundays in Epiphany.

The song is #3 of a collection of 6 Weihnachtslieder Op. 8 (‘Christmas Songs’) (1856). These are all wonderful, and I have recently been working on #6, “Christkind” (The Christ-child) sung here wonderfully by Angelika Kirchschlager. Cornelius composed the Weihnachtslieder on the recommendation of Franz Liszt who also gave him the idea of quoting the melodies of older Christmas carols in the accompaniment. Cornelius wrote the poems himself.

Last night I did the exercise of writing down things about my 2020, good on one side and bad on the other. Now, the bad ones were REALLY bad, like NO CHOIR (as we knew it) and the deaths of several dear, dear friends. But the good list was sooo much longer. Sit down and think about the good things and you might be surprised. I was. Still, Open you the West Door, and turn the Old Year go!

(And I went looking to see if the Grace Church School Choirs has ever recorded this and found this!)

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