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Brightening The Mid-Winter With Song And Verse

Duncan McFadyen

It’s easy to feel a little blue this time of year. The holidays are over, the weather is cold, the days are short, and spring feels far away. Well, a group of musicians plans to try to brighten up this January with an evening of songs and poetry that span 400 years.

The Carolina Catholic Chorale performed the program Friday night at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Charlotte.

One of the songs on the program suggests daydreaming about beautiful nymphs "to shorten winter's sadness"--not exactly a religious theme. It's what’s called a madrigal.  They’re lively songs from the Renaissance that have nothing to do with religion. And they have a lot of “fa-la-la-la-la-ing”. There’s actually a technical name for that: solfege. All music may not be religious, but the space clearly is.  The sanctuary is airy, but comfortable with sculptures that include the Virgin Mary and various saints.  The concert is part of a series St. Ann’s started 5 years ago to invite people, including those who aren’t Catholic or even religious, into the church to hear some good music. The concerts cover a range of styles.  In April, there will be African drumming. This program is called Winter Songs and Spring Trifles.

Credit Duncan McFadyen
This harpsichord is one of the period instruments used to accompany the Renaissance music.

The idea of bringing some good cheer into the mid-winter dates back to the Middle Ages, when the tradition of wassailing became popular. Groups of carolers would go from house to house, singing in exchange for a cup of wassail, a warm, spicy alcoholic punch.  The church continued that tradition of caroling and drinking of wassail—minus the alcohol—after the show.   

But not all the songs in the program are this upbeat. One of the slower pieces is the lullaby Wither’s Rocking Hymn. It was written in the 20th Century by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Tom Savoy who’s conducting tonight’s show. He found this piece in a folder of music he was about to throw

“It’s just exquisite. And so I wanted to capture an after Christmas song that wasn’t really aggressive, that evoked a memory of Christmas. That was just the perfect piece to do it,” he says.

Other selections are downright zany. There’s a song from the 1600s that includes animal sounds—meows, cuckoos, and “ruffs”.

Credit Duncan McFadyen
Charlotte poet Maureen Ryan Griffin provides narration for the "Winter Songs" program.

Stringing the program together will be narration from Charlotte poet Maureen Ryan Griffin. She’s selected poems from as broad a time period as the music. One of her selections is this 19th Century haiku:

New year’s day.

Everything is in blossom.

I feel…about average.

She laughs after she reads it because she says, “I read this and I thought, this makes me feel so good about having broken a couple of New Year’s resolutions already.”

The program, Winter Songs and Spring Trifles, is part of the Gaudium Musicae (latin for “the joy of music”) series at St. Ann’s Catholic Church on Park Road.