24th December 2000
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Lyrical words of that Birth

By Alfreda de Silva
"I sing the birth was born tonight
The author both of life and light,
The angels so did sound it.
And like the ravished shepherds said
Who saw the light and were afraid
Yet searched, and true they found it.........."

From A Hymn of the Nativity -

Ben Jonson

A wealth of poetry has been written and preserved on the festival of Christmas. Among the most colourful of these are carols, which are after all poems set to music or lines on the festival inspired by an outpouring of music.

Early carols, like ballads, give an insight into the traditions, customs and legends connected with Christmas and tell the Bethlehem story, with special strands from different Christian countries woven into them.

However, a good deal of the celebratory poetry of the first Christmas dwells on its sanctity, mystery and humility. The romantic vision and reverence with which this theme is presented by poets of long ago are contrasted with the more modern portrayal of the season by contemporary writers.

Mary, the Mother of Christ, has fired the imagination of poets of all time. Alice Meynell focuses on the permanence and divinity of the gift bestowed on mankind at Christmas, in Unto us a Son is Given. "Given, not lent,

But not withdrawn, once sent.
This Infant of mankind, this One,
Is still the little welcome Son.
New every year, 
New-born and newly dear,
He comes with tidings and a song,
The ages long, the ages long............
........ Sudden as sweet
Come the expected feet,
All joy is young, and new all art,
And He too, whom we have by heart.

The little town of Bethlehem in Judaea was crowded. Caeser Augustus, the Roman Emperor whose armies occupied the Holy Land had given an order that all the Jewish people were to go to the towns in which they had been born, to pay their taxes.

No matter how far away they might have moved from their old homes, they must travel to their native towns to pay their dues to their Roman conquerors.

Some of the towns were fuller than others and this was especially true of Bethlehem. It was so crowded that there was no room for a carpenter named Joseph and Mary, to whom he was espoused, and who was great with child, in accordance with God's word proclaimed by the Angel Gabriel.

"Still seeking a place to lay them down
They came at length to Bethlehem town
To a cattle shed with a sagging door 
Thankful for only the stable floor
And the cattle low at the stifled wail
Of a woman's voice in sore travail
It is midnight and Mary's hour........."

From Bethlehem By Bliss Carmen

Not many of the people who were in Bethlehem paid much attention at first to the Baby who was born that Christmas. Perhaps there were kindly women who helped the young mother to wrap the little one in swaddling clothes, and pile hay into the manger to make a bed for the Baby.

"When from His throne the Godhead bowed 
To human form below
The heavens dropped down and every cloud
Hung both to let Him go
Oh bright the light, and white the night
When, full of favour stored
God's Maid lay down in Bethlehem town
To wait the coming Lord.........."

From A Christmas Song By Lawrence Housman

The first news of this great event - the birth of the Saviour, was given to poor shepherds watching over their sheep that night. A glorious light shone through the darkness and an angel's voice asked them not to be afraid. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord." Then a host of angels joined him glorifying God:

Oh the shepherds in Judaea
Do you think the shepherds know
How the whole round earth is brightened 
In the golden Christmas glow?
How the sighs are lost in laughter
And the laughter brings the tears
As the thoughts of men go seeking
Back across the darkling years............"

From The Shepherds in Judaea by Katherine Tynan

Those cattle in the stable, the sheep in the fields have been celebrated in verse, legend and song. Thomas Hardy's poem The Oxen draws attention to the legendary aspect of the Christmas story:

"Christmas Eve and twelve of the clock, 
"Now they are all on their knees",
An elder said, as we sat in a flock,
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek, mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then,
So fair a fancy few would wear
In these years! Yet I feel
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come see the oxen kneel
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know
I should go with him in the gloom
Hoping it might be so.

The accent here is on faith, the child-like faith of believers in the new-born Child.

The Christmas story is never complete without the kings, the Magi who saw the miraculous star and followed it:

"The kings to the stable
They brought sweet spice...........
But the dove by the manger
She would not cease mourning so softly
"Bring Him Peace, bring Him Peace." 

From Katherine Tynan

In The Magi W.B. Yeats has a poetically picturesque vision of these sages.

"Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky,
With all their ancient faces like rainbeaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes, still fixed, hoping to find once more 

Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,

The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor."

T.S. Eliot's spectacular Journey of the Magi takes us in the 'very dead of winter' through exotic memories that turn sour in a quest which seems never-ending, until they reach the Child.

"All this was a long time ago, I remember
And I would do it again, but set down
This, set down
This: Were we led all the way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen
Birth and Death..........."

In a 1995 collection of American poems edited by Richard Howard and David Lehman is Unearthly Voices (Hofmannsthal at the Monastery of St. Luke) we have a cameo by the poet, Edward Hirsch, of a lone traveller in search of the sanctity and reality of Christ's birth, which hover round him and a monastery setting

"Now and then a light ascends, as if from water
The shepherds keeping warm under a lonely crescent
He peers into the darkness as into a cistern
and feels the centuries welling up beneath him.
An Unnameable is present, the Unreachable exists
In shuddering sheep bells and loud cicadas, ................. in stars blazing like torches one by one,
On the earthly horizon. He lies down
On a cot - he will not sleep - and hears
churchbells flecking the snow-capped mountains,
far from home, somewhere near Delphi and then angels waking in the tree-tops and owls calling 
to wolves howling far away. Candles waver, bodies flicker through windy corridors 
and soon they are praying and singing, kneeling 
in adoration before an absolute presence, God, 
the unfathomable One.................:"

Doing their bit for Bach

Memorial Concert to mark the 250th Anniversary of the death of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) presented by the Kandy Music Society on Friday December 8 at Trinity College Chapel, Kandy.
By Carl Muller 
"My wife, the Ninja," said David, and there was deep love and, did I see a bit of reverence too, in his voice. Ninja? Yes, for David Hopkinson's wife, so vital and with a laugh that reminds one of sunlit water, was in black slacks and black over-hang tunic - a Ninja if ever there was one! 

So were all the rest - the Peradeniya Singers. Director Bridget Halpe was also in black but she wore a sari with a silver fall intricately worked in black. Sombre, one would think, but there were the yellow eyes of the ceiling lamps, the columns of shell-grey, the lecterns and pulpits and the quiet wrap-around trees, standing in hushed expectation. That Ninja black was beautiful and so very grand. The right sort of grandeur for the evening of Friday, December 8 when, as Bridget said afterwards, she and the Peradeniya Singers " did their bit for Bach." 

It was the Kandy Music Society's Memorial Concert to mark the 250th Anniversary of the death of Johannes Sebastian Bach - a card of eight items to dream on and sadly, the sixth - a recitative and aria had to be skipped. You see, Niranjali Amerasinghe could play, but a cold in the head defeated any attempt to sing. 

Sadly, I say, because the programme was excellently presented, more excellently directed and with a careful choice of music that made the Trinity Chapel itself a true worshipper of the choral, vocal and instrumental versatility of Bach. 

As the Kandy Music Society noted, "Bach was the most illustrious though, for long, relatively unknown member of a notable family of musicians." It was the time of Isaac Newton and Hooke, those far-off times when the young Johann Sebastian Bach was still experimenting with new keyboards in Thuringia; a time when even scientists began to realise that if pitch was the manifestation of the length of sound waves, then these same wave curves, complex as they are, could also account for timbre and quality. 

This is what makes the music of Bach so special. There is a deliberate confluence of pitches, volumes and timbres that overlap in every imaginable way. Bach was true master of the vagaries of the musical wave curve. Let the Kandy Music Society say it better: "The poise with which Bach balances a forceful intellectual originality with structural consonance was rarely matched in composers of his time and, indeed, is rarely surpassed even today." 

All of which made this Memorial Concert very special. Bach got rid of the "wolves" - the ill- fitting notes that were so common in early clavichords and pianos. He gave us his famous "Equable Keyboard" - that famous work of 1722 which included pieces in all twelve major and twelve minor keys with the advantage of unhindered transpositions. He was in the little town of Arnstadt in central Germany when he first adopted the practical scale of "equal temperament" - a scale that has been dreamed about and suggested many times in history. 

When the Peradeniya Singers ascended, left their contemplative pews to stand before us (Ninjas all) their voices soared to "Jesu, Joy of man's Desiring." It was a kind of step-by-step combination of exhaling rhythms, now on tip-toe, now with measured tread, full of the richness of spiritual feeling. The next, "Flocks in pastures Green Abiding" (With Romesh Withanage at the keyboard) was nimbler in accompaniment, yet with the sort of voicing of gentle sheep to their gentler shepherd; and yes, those tones of fealty and honour due with religious overtones. Actually, a secular cantata in praise and homage to the Saxon Royal Family. 

It was a pity indeed that a bunch of small Trinitians had decided to also voice their joy that holidays were here again. They shrieked to each other outside the chapel, piercing Bach to the quick as Niranjali Amerasinghe gave us the Prelude and Fugue in D Major No. 5 on the organ. Couldn't see her perform since she was tucked away from general view, but one could relish the high toccata style and the splendid mastery she displayed over what is quite a daunting musical challenge to any performer. It was at the end, the broad declamatory end, that I noted the tiniest glitch - a feather-touched wrong note, quickly passed over, timing maintained perfectly. Yet, I'm sure, Niranjali must have sworn, ever so prettily, that the organ had responded so brassily whereas a piano would have not registered this tiny finger brush. 

Highlight of the evening was a "family concerto" - mother Bridget at piano, daughters Hasini (first violin) and Aparna (second violin). A double concerto with a unique richness and harmony. 

When Ruvini Kalupahana came to the piano to give us the prelude and Fugue in D Minor No. 6, it was as if she had taken up where the violins left off - a middle-of-keyboard rendition that tended to make the pianist a sort of graven image. No, I'm not faulting her performance. The second movement was so light, so airy, that the notes seemed to be plucked in mid-air, like rainbowed bubbles. Yet, I humbly feel Ruvini needs to improve her own keyboard stance. After all, even the back of a pianist needs to convey personality 

(Not that I don't admire backs... oh well, I'll leave the rest unsaid!) 

The Peradeniya Ninjas, sorry, Singers, rounded off the evening with two stirring and passionate items: "Et Incarnatus Est" and "Wachet Auf!" - the first a true psalm of glory, voices raised to the throne, the feet of the Almighty, while the finale told, ringingly, of the triumph of the earth, resounding, jubilant, the triplicity of God celebrated in the strong harmonious together - voice of the Peradeniya Singers. 

Nothing else seemed to matter after this. We came, we saw, we listened, we knew that in Trinity's Chapel on Friday, December 6 had flowed rhythms and cadences that had tied philosophic knots around us - reverence and mystic abstraction. 

Perhaps the prophet Job would have sensed it best when God asked him out of the whirlwind: "Hast thou walked in the search of the depth?" I had to un-befuddle myself. 

Homewards, I thought wryly enough, that at least I had not been Baching up the wrong tree! 

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