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Une Cantate de Noël
1952/3; composed for the Basle Chamber Choir and its founder/conductor Paul Sacher, who gave the first performance in Basle on 18 December 1953
author of text
various traditional German texts
author of text
Psalm 130: 1; Luke 2: 10-12; Psalm 117
author of text
Silent night

'Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël, Cello Concerto & other orchestral works' (CDA67688)
Honegger: Une Cantate de Noël, Cello Concerto & other orchestral works
Part 1: Première partie  De profundis clamavi
Part 2: Deuxième partie  Joie et Paix sur Toi Israël!

Une Cantate de Noël
Honegger’s last composition, and one of his best-loved works, was his Christmas cantata, Une Cantate de Noël, which he composed in 1952–3 for the Basle Chamber Choir and its founder and conductor Paul Sacher, that great benefactor of twentieth-century music, from whom Honegger had received many commissions over the years. It was completed in January 1953, and though Honegger was to live for another two years and ten months further creative work was beyond him. The premiere was given in Basle, conducted by Sacher, on 18 December 1953.

In writing the cantata Honegger in fact based it on music which he had sketched in early 1941. This had been intended for performance in a Passion Play that was to be staged at the Swiss village of Selzach, but the project had been abandoned. (Another spin-off from it was a group of three Psalm-settings for voice and piano, published in 1943.) The text of the cantata is derived from liturgical and popular texts—including Psalms and part of the Latin Gloria. A notable feature is the intertwining of traditional carols in French and German: appropriate for multilingual Switzerland and also perhaps symbolizing peace among nations seven years after the conclusion of World War II. Honegger scored the cantata for solo baritone, mixed chorus, children’s choir and an orchestra including organ.

It is the organ which dominates the slow introduction with which the work begins. The first choral entries are wordless, in the manner of a lament, growing into a passage based on the words of Psalm 130, the ‘De profundis’. The music grows into a baleful march that reaches a dissonant climax. This provokes a choral cry of ‘O come’ which soon expands into a setting of the hymn ‘O come, O come Emmanuel!’ (Honegger does not use the familiar plainchant melody, however). The children’s choir gives reassurance, and then the baritone, with organ and trumpets, announces the birth of Christ in the words of the angel’s Biblical proclamation. The response is a regular quodlibet of German and French carol tunes, in which the Latin Gloria is also heard.

The tempo slows to Adagio, and as the baritone sings the Gloria, a solo treble takes up the words of Psalm 117, the ‘Laudate Dominum’, using its traditional melody. The whole Psalm is then sung by the mixed chorus in triple time, while the children’s voices and trumpets add the plainchant as a descant. In the slow coda we hear a further medley of carols, which are eventually reduced to scattered phrases fading into the serenity of the Christmas night.

from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2008

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Details for CDA67688 track 18
Deuxième partie
Recording date
23 February 2008
Recording venue
St David's Hall, Cardiff, Wales
Recording producer
Tim Thorne
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch
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