The Music of Christmas at the National Shrine

As Christmas approaches, Dr. Peter Latona, Director of Music for the Basilica, reflects on the music of Christmas and the significance of the Christmas Mass.

Peter Latona Director of Music
Dr. Peter Latona, Director of Music

One of the unexpected joys I have experienced throughout my 20+ years at the Basilica is guiding first-time visitors to the Great Upper Church. The grandeur, majesty, and immensity of that sacred space always catches people off guard. It results in a sympathetic experience for me as if I were seeing it for the first time. That sense of beauty, solemnity and spirituality is only heightened during the Christmas season, when the entire sanctuary, along with each of the 81 chapels and oratories, is adorned with evergreen garlands and poinsettias.

The Significance of Christmas

The solemnity of the Lord’s birth celebrates the mystery of the incarnation: the Word of God humbled himself to share in our humanity, in order that he might enable us to become sharers in his divinity. Next to the celebration of Easter, the Church holds this memorial of Christ’s birth and early manifestations of his life on earth as most sacred. The importance of this liturgical season is marked not only in the visible augmentations of the interior spaces of prayer and worship, but in the audible adornments in the sacred music performed and sung.

Solemn Mass on Christmas Eve

Because of the complex nature of Christmas, music selected for the Christmas season captures a multitude of sentiments: mirth and mystery, solemnity and silence, wonderment and awe.

Proclamation

(43:27-45:55)

For me, it seems as if the entire season is crystallized in one particular moment at the beginning of the Solemn Mass on Christmas Eve when the Christmas Proclamation of the Birth of Christ is announced by the cantor. Mass begins in complete darkness save for warm glow created by the lit candles held in the hands of the thousands gathered. The cantor ascending to the ambo, declaims in a solemn tone the announcement of Christ’s birth as found in the Roman Martyrology dating back to the sixteenth century. It places the birth of Christ in the context of salvation history by delineating significant historical events and personages, both sacred and secular, beginning with the creation, through the Flood, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, King David, the foundation of Rome and finally, Octavian Augustus, at which point the highest note is used for the final phrase: “Jesus Christ… was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary according to the flesh.” (Proclamation of Christmas – Roman Martyrology)

Puer natus in Bethlehem

(48:50-51:14)

Following that solemn and dramatic proclamation, and still in the glow of candlelight, the procession makes its way to the crѐche, while the gathered sing “Silent Night.”

The mystery of Christmas is captured when the procession reaches the crѐche and at which point, per our tradition, the choir sings a Carol at the Crѐche. (Puer natus est – plainchant, arr. Peter Latona)

See Amid the Winter Snow – arr. Willcocks

(2:07:54-2:13:55)

The long and rich history of singing Christmas carols dates back nearly 1500 years. Though many of the more familiar carols are from the 19th century, carols are chosen from the various traditions and periods in history. Singing “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” with its refrain imbued with praise “Sing through all Jerusalem, Christ is born in Bethlehem” provides an incredible moment of unity during the Communion procession.

The Shepherd’s Carol

(28:40 – 31:44)

Newly composed carols such as “The Shepherd’s Carol” by Bob Chilcott are also introduced. Sung here during the thirty-minute choral prelude before the Solemn Mass on Christmas Eve, the poetic and heartwarming text is in the voice of the shepherds who, having learned of the birth of Jesus by the sign of the star, pledge their lives to him.

Angels We Have Heard on High

(53:43 – 58:50)

Often, familiar carols are given a new voice through skillful orchestration and arrangement. A favorite of ours at the Shrine is this arrangement for brass, organ, choir and assembly of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by our own Associate Director of Music, Benjamin LaPrairie.

Last year, I composed a setting of the “Wexford Carol” for strings, oboes, choir and soloist. The soloist for this performance is Amanda Palmeiro, mezzo-soprano, for whom this carol is a favorite.

Solemn Mass on Christmas Day

Given the theological import of the Solemnity of Christmas, the unique personal religious experiences each of us brings to Christmas, and the colossal body of sacred music composed for the Christmas season, selecting just the right music is no easy task. Finding the most fitting music for Christmas Eve in relation to Christmas Day, for example, is also an important consideration.

I already described the opening procession for the Solemn Mass on Christmas Eve, celebrated here at 10:30 p.m. on December 24. Solemn Mass at Noon on December 25 begins quite differently.

Fanfare and Introit for Christmas Day

(5:13-17:39)

For this, I composed “Fanfare and Introit for Christmas Day.” The piece begins with a solemn fanfare for brass, to provide a “musical Christmas Proclamation” and tapers off to a quiet ending while the crѐche is blessed. This is followed by a choral introit which then precedes a new fanfare inviting all to join in “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”Solemn Mass on Christmas Eve and the Great Vigil of Easter are the two days of the liturgical year in which chamber orchestra joins the other musicians, allowing even more varied musical expression.

For Unto Us a Child Is Born from Handel’s Messiah

(1:44:22-1:48:20)

Whether it be the exuberant and joy filled “For Unto Us a Child Is Born” from the Messiah, or the moving and profound Cantique de Noel (“O Holy Night”) offered here with tenor Kyle Tomlin as soloist, Christmas music at the Basilica strives to bring glory to God as we celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.

O Holy Night

(2:08:30-2:14:45)

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