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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

26. Chopin's Cantate de Noël




The Cantate de Noël, Chopin's only choral work, was written in December 1841 as a Christmas present for Maurice and Solange, the children of George Sand. The libretto is by George herself, and follows the Christmas story from the Nativity to the Flight into Egypt. Chopin's inexperience in composing for chorus is betrayed by the somewhat inept choral writing which is sketchy in some places - he doesn't always manage to align notes and text convincingly - and overdemanding in others - the long florid arabesques, including several high B-flats, for the sopranos in the Nocturne would tax a coloratura soprano in a Bellini opera. Nor, indeed, will the basses relish the widely spread arpeggios that they are expected to execute in the Barcarolle.

Reference to Nocturne and Barcarolle highlights an unusual feature of the work. All sections are given titles, as though the composer had envisaged the work as a suite of character pieces. Some of these are pertinent to the action - the Berceuse which Mary she sings to the infant Jesus and the Nocturne for the Shepherds watching their flocks by night - but one is hard put to explain the Mazurka which the Wise Men dance round the crib. The work opens with a brief Prelude, in which Chopin ingeniously interweaves themes from four of his Opus 28 Préludes, and concludes with a rousing finale in the form of a Grande Polonaise Brillante.

The orchestral writing is somewhat skimpy, dominated as it is by the solo piano, which plays an almost concerto-like rôle throughout. It must be admitted, however, that one of the most memorable parts of the cantata is the Scherzo interlude, 'The Flight into Egypt', for piano alone.

This may not be one of Chopin's most representative works, but those choral societies who have been courageous enough to tackle it have found the challenge extremely worthwhile.


Copyright © 9 November 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK



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