‘Heaven and Earth in Little Space: Christmas Music for Clavichord

 

Clavichord Recital at St Mary’s Church, Studham, Bedfordshire, Saturday 15 December 2018

 

Programme Note by Adrian Lenthall

 

This recital programme began as a means of escape from the well-worn sounds and moods of Christmas, which include some of the (over-) familiar ways of doing Christmas musically; but as the outlines of the available repertoire started to become clear, it also became apparent that Christmas and the clavichord share something distinctive within the particular magic of each, something that deserved to be shared more widely.

Christmas is a moment when the great things are revealed within a tiny thing – the ‘little town’, for instance, wherein are met ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ – and within the town the stable, and within the stable the manger – and within the manger the baby, in whom eternity is concentrated and around whom time takes time out in the midnight. In several of the pieces heard here this afternoon, the clavichord borrows melodies that are more usually sung – or were once – and in so doing, it also borrows their words.  One set of these words expresses the essence of the season thus (and lends us our title):

There is no rose of such virtue, / As is the Rose that bare Jesu:  Alleluia. / For in this rose containèd was / Heaven and Earth in little space:  res miranda.”

The clavichord – of all the keyboard instruments, the one contained in the littlest space – and perhaps the softest and most intimate of any instrument, while in its range and subtlety capable of doing justice to some of the profoundest musical thought – is on home ground here. Material and yet ethereal, it parallels the paradoxes of the Incarnation:  or presents itself as a musical manger containing whispered news of things glimpsed in darkness, heard far away or high above.

Another thread running through almost all of these pieces, despite their very diverse origins in time and geography, is their simple charm and childlike innocence. Pastorales originally played by real-life shepherds, coming down from the hillsides at Christmas, and simple hymns and carols as sung by ordinary people, are here transferred to the keyboard in music which is consistently of striking sweetness.  The tiny need not betray its own nature just because it is a microcosm containing all things.