The British composer Gerald Finzi (1901-1956, pictured above) did write a “ceremonial ode” For St. Cecilia in 1946-47, setting a text by Edmund Blunden (1896-1974). But, with your indulgence, this month’s Cecilian Ode post veers in a different direction! According to his publisher, Finzi’s “Christmas scene” In terra pax, composed in 1954-56:
conflates Robert Bridges’s poem Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913 and Luke 2: 8–14. Finzi suggested that the Nativity ‘becomes a vision seen by a wanderer on a dark and frosty Christmas Eve, in our own familiar landscape’. In terra pax is a masterpiece in miniature, Finzi’s pacifism at its heart, and his belief that men and women of goodwill should live harmoniously. Weaving through the music are three ideas: the pealing of the bells with their joyous message, a phrase from the carol The First Nowell, and the alleluia refrain from the hymn ‘Lasst uns erfreuen’.
Why not spend 16 minutes with this ravishingly beautiful evocation of the first Christmas in the here and now? The complete text of In terra pax follows the work:
A frosty Christmas Eve when the stars were shining
Fared I forth alone where westward falls the hill,
And from many a village in the water’d valley
Distant music reach’d me peals of bells aringing:
The constellated sounds ran sprinkling on earth’s floor
As the dark vault above with stars was spangled o’er.
Then sped my thoughts to keep that first Christmas of all
When the shepherds watching by their folds ere the dawn
Heard music in the fields and marveling could not tell
Whether it were angels or the bright stars singing.
And there were shepherds, abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
But to me heard afar it was starry music
Angels’ song, comforting as the comfort of Christ
When he spake tenderly to his sorrowful flock:
The old words came to me by the riches of time
Mellow’d and transfigured as I stood on the hill
Heark’ning in the aspect of th’ eternal silence.
(This is an appendix to a series exploring the Cecilian Ode, a uniquely English poetic and musical genre that spans the centuries from the late 1600s to the present. Check out previous Odes here and here; look for a new ode on or about the 22nd of each month!)
— Rick Krueger