Second Cantata -- Christmas Day
The Second Cantata (“Christmas”) was completed in 1978 and premiered ten years later by Kathleen Shimeta at New York’s Merkin Hall. It is dedicated to Krzysztof Penderecki. Unlike the first, third, and fourth cantatas (“Good Friday,” “Advent One”, and “Easter”) it is not a liturgical piece but is instead intended for a recital performance. Although the texts are by the English metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan (1622-1695), the cantata is in many ways a meditation on the second question of the 1563 Heidelberg Catechism. Generally, the first movement focuses upon the Catechism’s first answers and the second movement upon its last:
Question 2. How many things are necessary for thee to know, that thou, enjoying this comfort, mayest live and die happily? Answer: Three; (a) the first, how great my sins and miseries are; (b) the second, how I may be delivered from all my sins and miseries; (c) the third, how I shall express my gratitude to God for such deliverance.
The first movement opens with a quotation, played on LP, from the fourth movement of Bach’s Cantata No. 80, “Komm in mein Herzenshaus, Herr Jesu” (Come in my heart’s house, Lord Jesus). The quote returns in the body of the movement, performed by the trumpet, where it introduces the movement’s cadenza. It returns at the movement’s close. Throughout the movement, sections of Bach’s Cantata 140 (“Wachet Auf”), as well as Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier, appear as part of the musical texture.
Whereas the first movement can be seen as centering on the Bach quotations, the second movement centers on a lullaby (“One born in a manager. . .”). On either end, the lullaby is buttressed by a set of musical “wheels” that circle each other like the orbits of the heavens Vaughan references in his text. As the movement progresses the pitches in these wheels are gradually eliminated until at the end only a pair trichords remain.