Incarnation: Music for Christmas, Thomas Hewitt Jones, (Regent, 2013). The Chamber Orchestra of London, Sloane Square Chamber Choir and Vivum Singers, conducted by Oliver Lallemant. Lyrics by Paul Williamson and Thomas Hewitt Jones.
‘Types and shadows have their ending, | For the newer rite is here’, run two pivotal lines in Edward Caswall’s well-loved translation of the medieval hymn Tantum Ergo Sacramentum. The ‘newer rite’ is a paean to the world transformed by Christ’s death and resurrection; the ‘types and shadows’ represent the confusion that precede it: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’. Caswall’s poetic rendition refers to the ancient exegetical method of ‘typology’, that is, the tradition of reading the New Testament scriptures as fulfilments of the Old. St. Paul appears to have inspired this hermeneutic, explaining to his congregations that the first man (Adam) was ‘the figure (Greek tupos) of him that was to come’ (Christ), meaning that just ‘as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly’ (Romans 5.14; 1 Corinthians 15.45). In this way Paul wished to graft Christianity to its Jewish stem, teaching the followers of a new-fangled faith to view themselves as the most recent flourishing of an historically complex religion. Ephrem the Syrian, a fourth-century theologian, became an expert exponent of typology, illustrating this method in his Hymns Against Heresies as a road stretching all the way from creation to salvation:
Smooth to the simple is the way –
Which is the faith –
Which extends lodgings and milestones
From paradise to paradise,
[From] which the exit [was] through Adam,
[To] which the return [was] the robber,
And investigations, like winding roads,
Have thrown those who have searched
From a smooth to a hard place
(trans. Adam C. McCollum).
Thomas Hewitt Jones’s Incarnation: Music for Christmas takes its name from its centrepiece ‘suite of songs’, the latter a deliberate homage to Ephrem’s typological method, creating a stirring soundtrack to ‘the newer rite’ of our own day. The seven-part suite is written for mixed choir, soloists, chamber orchestra, organ and piano, beautifully executed by the Chamber Orchestra of London and Sloane Square Chamber Choir, under the expert direction of Oliver Lallemant. The recording comes out of the ongoing collaboration between young composer Hewitt Jones and writer Paul Williamson, who, with Incarnation, have created a sequence of lyrical pieces that play with the familiar themes of the Nativity in a manner which would have done Ephrem the Syrian proud.
In ‘Advent’, the opening song of the suite, we are thrown back from the present-day anticipation of Christ’s entrance into the world (adventus means ‘arrival’ in Latin) to the arrival of humanity at its creation. Our attention is arrested by a rumbling carpet of bass notes, offset by a discordant snaking of diminished fifths in the piano part. This is chaos, the deep tehom across which the spirit of God hovered before separating light from darkness. Quickly we pass from this glimpse of the pre-cosmic into a lush tonal score, and hear Hewitt’s signature neo-romantic symphonic style in the first rumours of the melodic motif that will be developed at various points throughout the suite. Like a chorus in Classical drama, the choir launches into the first stanza, calling all of humanity to their festivities: ‘Come Adam, come Eve, | Come woman, come man … Come stricken and well, | Come, come everyone’. Interspersed among these joyous rallying cries we hear three different responses – three types – to the call of the Divine. Adam ‘heard a voice and was afraid’, Abraham stands ‘prepared with fire and wood’, while Mary proclaims, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’. The chorus then repeats the first stanza, and ‘Advent’ concludes on a magnificent fanfare that ebbs out into three pensively chiming octaves, a final echo of the three types at its centre. The scene is set for the unfolding of the next six songs, which together suggest a grand typology between the season of Christmas and the week of creation in Genesis.
After the opening flourish and anticipation of ‘Advent’, the suite settles into a decidedly darker mood, with ‘Falling’ and ‘Wandering’ developing musical motifs from ‘Advent’ into an unsettled lyricism. ‘Falling’ alludes to the Biblical Fall and its concomitant Flood, yet here the choir reports The Fall in the thought-provoking type of Lucifer (literally ‘the bringer of light’), ‘morning’s child, | Eyes gleaming in the dawn’, who invites Christ to ‘freely fall | And choose your mortal shape’. Kenosis, the ‘emptying out’ of Christ’s divinity mentioned in Philippians 2, which takes place in order for God to descend into a human form, is here the type which positively corrects Lucifer’s own ‘antitypical’ fall from heaven. In effect, Lucifer is tempting Christ with necessity, as he knows that this particular fall from heaven will lead to a conclusion in the crucifixion: ‘Take my hand’, he entreats, ‘I’ll light the way, | We’ll dance the dance of death.’
From this incarnational death dance, reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s use of the Medieval image in his film The Seventh Seal (1957), we pass into ‘Wandering’. The journey along ‘the road to Bethlehem’ travelled each year at the return of the liturgical season of Christmas is typologically linked to the exiled Cain, a ‘vagabond’ who ‘hastens eastwards’, and calls to mind other archetypal wilderness wanderings: the Hebrews’ forty-year Exodus from Egypt and Christ’s forty-day temptation. The choir, unaccompanied in a quasi-antiphonal call-and-response, describes Cain’s harrowing solitude in the eerily beautiful lines: ‘signposts are shifting in the wasteland | trembling on the lifeless ground| Falling like echoes …’ As we are led through this landscape of uncertain semiotics, a lone baritone (Samuel Evans), narrating the story of Cain accursed for his wanting sacrifice of first-fruits, is eventually superseded by the re-entrance of the death dance, here in the figure of the shepherds of Abel’s assembly, ‘with pipes and strings.’
‘Nativity’, the suite’s apex and longest song, is a lullaby with a nod to Elgar and the English Romantic tradition, delivered by the choir to the newborn infant. Its gentle lines are broken up by more sobering interludes that develop the main motif of ‘Advent’. In the third and fourth stanzas, after we have been told of the star’s ‘vigil’ over the manger, the choir reflects on those Old Testament types which herald Christ as the wonder of creation. He is both Aaron’s rod of the book of Numbers, which blossoms miraculously with almonds, ‘a dry stem yielding milky fruit’, and the burning bush of Exodus, ‘the living flame that’s never spent’. Williamson’s infant of ‘glory infinite’ is his mother’s joy but also her burden, the conflicted ‘youthful conqueror of time’, whose victory is simply to have been born. The piece ends on a ‘wistful, but overall positive’ dotted-quaver variation on the theme of ‘Advent’, which flows seamlessly into the next movement, ‘Planting’. Here choir and orchestra are silenced as a clarinet (Harriet Hougham Slade) and soprano voice (Mary Bevan) intertwine in a mellifluous duet of cadenza-like figurations. The intimate timbre of the two lines, at times blending together almost seamlessly, enhance the typology of this brief interlude, where Christ is ‘the seed baptised in rain’, the dying and rising god of fertility and recurring bounty. Incarnation means not only the creation of a finite thing, but its establishment in the world as a motif that will itself recur, throughout time. The female voice, the type, perhaps, of a Demeter, a Mary, or a present-day liturgical celebrant, sings this ‘lovely tribute to eternity’, in which ‘time changes’ because it returns with ‘the rhythm of the year’, infinite and open-ended as the dying note on which the song ends.
‘Revelling’ is a boisterous awakening occasioned by the re-entry of the death-dancers on Twelfth Night, in which the choir ventriloquises the sentiments of secular merry-making in best Dickensian fashion: ‘Bring beasts to the slaughter, | Roast turkey and beef, | Baked pastries, steamed puddings … ’ Against a rhythmic, fast-paced score, the revellers offer up their goods to their festival’s typology: ‘The Lord of Misrule’. This is ‘Old Noah’, who has ‘been drinking’ and acting the Biblical Silenus, the dichotomy of the plaintive female sower we heard in ‘Planting’. Slaughter, harvest and fermentation are the sacrifices which come together in this night of waiting for the events related in ‘Epiphany’, the final song of the suite. Here we are brought out of the Victorian bacchanalia to the present day, in which the melodic qualities of the ‘Nativity’ are divested of their ambivalent undertones, unfurling into a score of cinematic tone-painting. As the Magi arrive to attend the manger of the newborn king, the creation-narrative which has been building up over the course of the suite slows to a halt: ‘the past year’s tale is done and told, | With joy and pain, with rueful smiles and tears’. It is not, however, a restful closure, but an interrogative marker, as the choir asks, ‘What story does the future hold | Of ever-changing fortunes, hopes and fears?’ And in reply, the final bars of ‘Epiphany’ are a faintly discordant echo of the initial theme of ‘Nativity’ played ‘as the beginning, reminiscent.’
Incarnation takes us from ‘paradise to paradise’ in its seven-part Christmas story, sketching out an over-arching typology of creation where the primordial labour of God is typologically mirrored in the labour of Christ to ‘fall’ into the world and be ‘made flesh’, thus engaging our own individual struggle with the ‘broken wheel’ of human finitude and temporality (as we hear in ‘Falling’). Ephrem’s Hymns against Heresies were written in the form of an acrostic alphabet poem, on the theological understanding that anything ordered (as language is) can be a type of the Divine order. Ephrem’s alphabet becomes Hewitt Jones’s musical idiom, which manipulates themes to allow them to recur cyclically, counterpointing the more narrative typology of Williamson’s lyrics.
Williamson’s ethos is the ‘simple wisdom’ to ‘Wholeheartedly embrace the day | That chronicles this short-lived time on earth’. Perhaps it is only fitting, then, that the suite is followed by a set of more light-hearted interpretations of traditional Christmas music, balancing the grand themes and more experimental idiom of the preceding songs. In A Traditional Christmas Hewitt Jones gives us an orchestral suite consisting of three short medleys of Yuletide favourites in a shimmering score which some may recognise from the Classic FM Christmas playlist. These are followed by Two Seasonal Carols performed by Vivum Singers: ‘Baby in an Ox’s Stall’, with Hewitt Jones’s own lyrics, and ‘Hear the Angels Sing’, where Williamson returns as librettist. The tone of the carols, unashamedly crowd-pleasing and ‘optimistic’ (according to the programme notes), still manages to finish on a note of subtle disquiet. Obscured by the cheerful carolling in ‘Hear the Angels Sing’ are the lines telling of the manger, where ‘watchful lies the Lord of All’, returning us, with a jolt, to the double-edged ‘infant glory infinite’ of ‘Nativity.’
The aesthetic of the recorded pieces of Incarnation: Music for Christmas as a whole is thus one of a reflective ‘modernism’, if we may ascribe this term loosely to Hewitt Jones’s and Williamson’s engagement with, rather than rejection of, tradition. This modernism might also be the only way to come to grips with the necessary ‘contraction’ of history into its contemporary expression, as the contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben suggests (The Time that Remains). In our own age of twice-removed modernity (are we now post-postmodern?), Incarnation is a welcome reminder that the unlooked-for which characterises artistic novelty arises not ex nihilo, ‘out of nothing’, but comes to us by way of variation – a non-identical, typological recapitulation of a theme which will always be new.