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A Christmas Feeling CD by Stephen Robinson
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A Christmas Feeling CD by Stephen Robinson

Catalog: CFFR
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A Christmas Feeling CD by Stephen Robinson

Notes by Richard M. Long

The French noël, the English carol, the Spanish villancico, the German Weihnachtlied, the American pop holiday song—all of these partake of one of the most venerable musical traditions in the western world. In its earliest forms, Christmas music probably emanated from pre-Christian music to celebrate the winter solstice; subsequent generations contributed more varied influences: Byzantine Liturgy, Medieval plainchant, Renaissance polyphony, rustic dances, and Protestant hymns. For this collection, Stephen Robinson has unearthed a few rarely heard gems from the guitar repertoire, and he has also asked some of his friends, including several of the most eminent guitarists and composers of our times, to contribute new music to this ancient tradition. He has also contributed an original piece of his own, revealing an uncommon talent for melody which is here in good company.

The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) wrote his Méditation sur le 1er Prélude de S. Bach relatively early in his career, in 1852, several years before his first critical triumph with the opera Faust. This lovely obbligato to Johann Sebastian Bach's Prelude [No. 1 in C, BWV 846, from the first volume of the Well-Tempered Klavier] soon became a favorite setting for the Latin hymn "Ave Maria," perhaps the only setting seriously to rival that of Schubert in popularity. It was a logical choice for the great Spanish guitarist Francisco Tárrega (1852-1909) to arrange because it presented the sort of technical challenge that he seems to have relished, sustaining a cantabile melody over a continually modulating accompaniment … and also because both he and Gounod's celebrated memory were born in the same year!

Agustín Barrios Mangoré (1885-1944) would probably be astonished to see the status he has achieved as a composer in the half century since his death. He learned guitar fundamentals from a local teacher in his native Paraguay, but his phenomenal technique was apparently self-taught; surviving recordings reveal him to have been a remarkable virtuoso. His career as a performer took him throughout Latin America and on one tour of Europe, but he was never able to achieve the wealth or the fame of contemporaries such as Andrés Segovia in spite of his pioneering recordings, his tireless concertizing, his tours in the garb of a Guaraní Indian, and even plastic surgery designed to Europeanize his features. Nevertheless, his many compositions, most of them brilliant miniatures, have become staples of the guitar repertoire, acclaimed for their melodic invention and originality. Barrios' Villancico de Navidad was written in 1943, in the last year of his life, during a period when the composer was living in El Salvador.

Floridian Rex Willis (b. 1956) is arguably one of the most creative and unpredictable composers currently writing for guitar. His works, scored for a variety of instruments, range from a moving evocation of the destruction of the rain forests, written entirely for percussion instruments, to several hilarious scherzi for guitar orchestra. Cradlesong is an original and unabashedly sentimental lullaby.

Dating at least to the 16th century, the venerable English folksong Greensleeves was at first a reproachful love song, but was reborn repeatedly in the form of political broadsides, as a bawdy tune in John Gay's Beggars' Opera, and as a ground bass over which countless instrumental variations have been composed . As early as 1642 the melody was used as a setting for a holiday song: "The Old Year now away is fled, / The New Year, it is enterèd." With the lyrics "What Child Is This?", attributed to W. Chatterton Dix in about 1861, Greensleeves became permanently associated with the Christmas season. This arrangement, by Eduardo Sainz de la Maza (1903-1982), is colored with the haunting Impressionist chords beloved of the Spanish guitarists of his generation. Born in Burgos, Eduardo was a younger brother of the equally famous guitarist composer Regino Sainz de la Maza (1896-1981). Both brothers studied guitar with Daniel Fortea in Madrid and later with Miguel Llobet in Barcelona—two of Francisco Tárrega's most celebrated pupils. For a time Eduardo studied the cello and played the instrument professionally; he also studied composition with Enric Morera, a pupil of Pedrell and Albéniz. In about 1940, Eduardo returned to the guitar and dedicated the remainder of his life to teaching the instrument and composing for it, creating a small but distinguished body of music which mingles his Spanish heritage with the sophisticated harmonies of the early twentieth century.

Benjamin Verdery (b. 1955) is well-known as a solo guitarist and also for his duo performances with his wife, the flutist Rie Schmidt, and his collaborations with artists such as John Williams and Paco Peña. He is also a composer and teaches guitar on the faculty of Yale University. Of the present arrangement, Verdery has written, "It was love at first listen when I heard John Lennon's song Happy Xmas (War Is Over) on the radio in 1971. I quickly ran out and bought the ‘45' and have continued to love the song ever since. My favorite line in the song is the phrase : ‘War is over if you want it.' This phrase was placed on billboards throughout New York by John and Yoko upon the song's release. The melody of that phrase is repeated relentlessly at the end of this arrangement. I am grateful to Stephen for asking me to contribute a piece to this recording and of course to John Lennon for having written such a moving song."

David Myers Gall (b. 1953), a native of West Virginia, studied guitar and composition at Jacksonville University, where he has served on the faculty, and also studied early music and the lute in California with Donna Curry. His Noël: Settings and Fugue on a Thirteenth Century Noël "Lullaby for the Christ Child," was originally commissioned for a holiday service at Saint-Paul's-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, but the original version has been expanded somewhat into the version performed here. Based on the medieval song "Here betwixt ass and oxen mild," Gall's Noël draws on his knowledge of early polyphony but then ends in a romantic and guitarristic tremolo.

Oscar Ahnfelt (1813-1882) was a Swedish preacher and revivalist who composed his own hymns and revival songs and accompanied them on his ten-stringed guitar. He wrote Blott en Dag [ett ögonblick i sänder…] ("Merely a day …") in 1872 to lyrics by Lina Sandell-Berg (1865). The beautiful tune was set for guitar by the Swedish guitarist Jan-Olof Eriksson in 1994 . Eriksson, who is Professor of Guitar at the Luleå University School of Music in Piteå, has arranged dozens of pieces for guitar, both solo and with other instruments, as well as fifteen volumes of music for guitar orchestra.

The Havana-born composer and conductor Leo Brouwer (b. 1939) studied at the Juilliard School and Hartt College of Music before the Cuban Revolution. After 1961, he emerged as his country's leading young composer, holding a series of prestigious positions; his early nationalism was replaced, in turn, by experimention with various international avant-garde styles and, in recent years, a lush neo-romanticism. A virtuoso guitarist, Brouwer is also one of that instrument's most important and innovatiove composers in the second half of the twentieth century. His charming and haunting Un día de noviembre (1968) bears little resemblance to the guitar music he was composing in the late 60s; it is, in fact, a movie theme from one of the several dozen films that he has scored.

The great Mexican composer, critic, and teacher Manuel Ponce (1882-1948) wrote prolifically for many instruments, but it has been his guitar music, more than his output for piano and orchestra, that has received the appreciation it deserves in recent decades. Andrés Segovia encouraged Ponce to write for the guitar when the latter was a student in Paris in the 1920s, then championed his music and helped him find European publishers. In turn, Ponce provided Segovia with a splendid repertory, including a number of pieces in the Baroque style which for years were presented to the public as authentic works of Weiss and Scarlatti. The delicate and transparent Canción popular gallega is not a Galician folk song at all but rather the Catalan carol "El Noy de la Mar," well known to guitarists in an arrangement by Miguel Llobet. Ponce biographer Corazon Otero has dated Ponce's arrangement to 1927.

In 1922, in a letter to Regino Sainz de la Maza, the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca wrote, " Ángel Barrios sends his regards. [Manuel de] Falla is here and … we three are planning a trip to the Alpujarra." Lamentably, many contemporary guitarists have forgotten the seminal Spanish guitarist Ángel Barrios Fernández (1882-1964), while others sometimes confuse him with the Paraguayan Agustín Barrios. Born in Granada, Ángel Barrios was the son of a flamenco guitarist, "El Polinario," who owned a popular tavern near the Alhambra. The tavern became an artists' hangout, frequented by Falla and García Lorca and visited by the likes of Ravel, Richard Strauss, and the painter Sargent. Barrios learned guitar from his father, but his formal musical education was extensive; trained in Madrid and at the Paris Conservatory, he became a professional violinist and was a competent performer and composer on the piano. While still in his teens he was a founder of the Trio Iberia, a folkloric ensemble of bandurría, Spanish lute, and guitar, with which he toured Europe. He also composed symphonic music and opera with much critical success; his native Granada was the inspiration for many of his works, such as his zarzuela Granada mía and his symphonic poem Zambra en el Albaicín (the Albaicín is the gypsy quarter of the city, at the foot of the Alhambra.) Although his guitar playing profoundly influenced the likes of Falla and García Lorca, it is a curious fact that all of Barrios' published guitar music was apparently composed in the 1950s, after he had moved to Madrid and lost his sight. A villancico is a traditional Spanish Christmas song, so the Villancico granadino is an evocation of a Christmas in Granada, and the gentle flamenco solo Navidad en la Alpujarra is a wistful recuerdo of his youth in Andalucía—the Alpujarra is the rugged and picturesque terrain on the south slopes of the Sierra Nevada—perhaps recalling his trip there in 1922 with Falla and Lorca.

Andrew York (b. 1958) is a California guitarist and composer, and a member of the celebrated Los Angeles Guitar Quartet. It was probably John Williams' recording of his Sunburst which first brought York's music to the attention of the musical world; since then, he has become one of the guitar's most prolific, eclectic, and reliable composers, without any apparent neglect of his performing career. Of his Canticle, he has written that it "has a sacred feel, like something [one] might hear on an organ in church. …it is meditative, peaceful and spiritual." York thought of J.S. Bach writing for organ, adding, "Even though Canticle is for guitar, I tried to imagine an organistic quality to the piece, in sensibility and counterpoint."

As a guitarist, Michael Chapdelaine (b. 1956) has been awarded first prizes as prestigious and diverse as the National Fingerpicking Championship and the [Classical] Guitar Foundation of America competition. Chapdelaine is Professor of Guitar at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque, and many of his compositions draw their inspiration from the minimalist beauty of the West, from Native American culture, and from popular music as well as classical traditions. On Christmas Eve, originally entitled Beau Fleuve, was the first piece he ever composed; it was completed in a single day in 1992 while staying in a bed-and-breakfast in Buffalo called the "Beau Fleuve." Later, as he played the piece, Chapdelaine heard the words "on Christmas Eve," at the end of the main theme. They fit so well that he wrote a full set of lyrics which reflect his version of an ideal Christmas.

The French composer Roland Dyens (b. 1955) began his guitar studies at the age of nine with Robert Maison, and continued his studies with Alberto Ponce at the École normale de musique in Paris, where he received a diploma in concert performance. Born in Tunisia, Dyens' early travels took him to Brazil, where he was a prize winner in the guitar competition at Porto Alegre, and where his natural affinity for the music of South America blossomed. A prolific and creative composer and arranger, Dyens is also an expressive performer who is accomplished in virtually any genre of music, from classical to popular to jazz. After Christmas Feeling, Dyens has written, "evokes a sensation of the day after, a little nostalgic, with the gaiety of the day before evaporated like smoke, like the sad smile of a blue clown …" The interesting harmonies are facilitated by the retuning of the sixth string to D and the fifth to B flat.

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