by Ace Gangoso
Here we are at the end of 2020. Good riddance, as many say, alongside high hopes for the year ahead. Today’s musical offering is perhaps not the first Christmas tune that comes to mind. You probably won’t hear it playing over the loudspeakers inside department stores. There are no bells, no fa la las, Glorias or Hallelujahs, nor are there any descants and melismatic vocal fireworks—appropriately so, given the year we have had, full of the unusual and unexpected, to put it mildly. And if “In the Bleak Midwinter” does happen to be one of your go-to carols, I would be willing to bet that you are most familiar with the choral setting by Gustav Holst.
Our setting of choice is by another English composer, Harold Darke. There are striking similarities between the two settings, both rhythmically and melodically, particularly in the opening phrases. Both are simple, strophic, and beautifully capture the somber and pensive mood of the poem by Christina Rossetti. Using words like bleak, cold, and hard to describe the nativity scene, she highlights the ironic nature of the savior of the world being born into such humble conditions.
This is not “Joy to the World,” but to be clear, this is not a sad song, either. For me, the key word is “enough.” If I have learned anything this year, it is that I can afford to restructure my own concept of “enough” and how it relates to basic necessities, finances, health, relationships, and more. I love songs that challenge, and the challenge presented here is for us to redirect our foci: away from that which we currently lack to that which we have and take for granted, away from where we aren’t in order to be fully present where we are—and in spite of hardship, to find ways to give and show love.
So please accept this gift from Sarah, Bridget, Dave, and me in the form of a brand new virtual performance from the comfort and safety of our own homes. Thank you for your continued support and loyalty to us, and for helping us to get through this year. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year to you and yours!
By Ace Gangoso
The holiday season is most commonly associated with joy, family, abundance, festivities, and nostalgia. Each year as it approaches, I try to stay mindful that, for many, this time of year also comes with struggle. Many go without basic comforts, and there is likely someone you know who will have to bear the sight of an empty chair at the dinner table. This year, the weight of this reality is even more pronounced, and so it is crucial that we allow ourselves and others the space to express sorrow, to grieve, and to mourn. We have all experienced some form of loss over the past several months, ranging from the death of a loved one to job loss and the ability to do a multitude of things that were previously considered to be normal.
I offer the words of James Joyce set to music by Miriam Gideon to allow us a pathway into this realm—not to wallow, but to help us welcome the full spectrum of experiences that make us human, and appreciate the beauty that can emerge from pain.
“She Weeps Over Rahoon” is sung from the perspective of one standing at the grave of a lover, mourning and contemplating her own mortality. It begins without introduction, calling to mind the suddenness with which grief can strike. There is a feeling of unease and imbalance brought on by the contrasts between the vocal and piano lines. The melody moans and weeps, moving with straight eighth notes, sometimes quite dramatically up and down throughout the range. The accompaniment is more transparent, featuring triplet arpeggios that resemble a gentle but constant trickle of rain—subtle, almost indistinguishable from the falling of tears.
Through these moments of intense grief, we feel nature’s embrace: the pale moon watches over, the nettles reflect its light, and the rain mutters in sympathy. There is great power and profundity in the quiet presence of nature, which is constantly moving and changing in spite of us and our worries and our dreams. It carries on. As long as we are here on this earth, so must we.
Hello, and welcome to the blog! We are Fourth Coast Ensemble, Chicago's classical vocal quartet. Join a different member of our ensemble each week for insights into our favorite art songs, links to archival and new recordings, and reflections on why we value and continue to come back to this musical medium. We proudly present, your weekly #artsongfix!