The Star of Bethlehem


Phoenix Choir were joined by soloists Briony Davidson (Soprano) and Henrik Eneberg (Baritone) together with Michael Scott (flute), Jane Stacy (oboe and cor anglais), James Renwick (clarinet) and Janette Norcott (piano) to premiere a new arrangement of Rheinberger’s The Star of Bethlehem by musical director Rowen Fox.

Rowen’s programme note below describes his arrangement of the work: Program

Screen Shot 2017-08-27 at 1.37.39 pmAlthough less well known today, Joseph Rheinberger (1839–1901) was a highly respected and prolific composer of the late 19th century in Germany. His output (numbering close to 200 works) includes 12 masses, symphonies, operas and choral works, as well as a notable set of organ sonatas. He was a professor of piano and composition at the Munich Conservatorium, and his students included Richard Strauss, Engelbert Humperdinck and the conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler.

In 1867, Rheinberger married a former piano pupil, the aristocratic poet and socialite Franziska “Fanny” von Hoffnaass, who was seven years his senior. The two shared a love for Romantic poetry and literature, particularly English and German. Fanny spoke several languages, painted and drew, and was an accomplished pianist and an early travel writer. Her poems provided the texts for much of her husband’s choral works.

Fanny von Hoffnaass created The Star of Bethlehem first as an independent poetry-cycle in 1889. The poems are a series of vignettes, each one a different picture from the Nativity, book-ended by a vision of the world lying in peaceful wait before and after the coming of Christ (Anticipation/Fulfilment). The theme of waiting/watchfulness – perhaps also as a metaphor for the Second Coming – recurs like a leitmotiv throughout the nine poems.

The Star_021217_0036Rheinberger began a musical setting of the work almost immediately, completing it in 1891 while Fanny was suffering increasing ill-health due to dropsy of the heart. As she lay dying on Christmas Eve 1892, her sisters presented her with the first published edition of the piano vocal score while her husband played Mary – her favourite movement – on the piano in a neighbouring room. She died a week later. Grief-stricken, Rheinberger was never able to attend a performance of the work, and he later said, “The real nerve of this music is the longing for a happiness that always recedes before us”.

For the last century, The Star of Bethlehem has been performed in English-speaking countries with a Victorian-era translation which dates to shortly after the work’s composition. It has grown archaic without retaining, to my ears, any of the poetic power of the original German. I set out to create a contemporary translation which remains closely literal to the original, but which, in the hierarchy of needs, places more emphasis on a word scansion that follows the musical syntax, and on singable phrases that include pleasant-sounding vowels! Even the original contains a creative tension between Von Hofnaass’s poetic structures, and Rheinberger’s musical adaptations. In such cases I have reinforced the musical intention over the literary, in particular when choosing to retain or abandon rhyme patterns, as this element seems to have been of only minor importance to Rheinberger in the music’s overall structural conception.

The Star_021217_0059The new arrangement for winds and piano was inspired by Rheinberger’s distinctive and masterful writing for woodwinds in the orchestral original. The specific instrumentation was suggested to me in part by the wonderful interplay of Flute, Cor Anglais and Clarinet in the work’s second movement, The Shepherds, and this has inspired a similar soloistic treatment for the individual instruments in each movement. The result has been to create a unique chamber feel, and an intimacy for this monumental work which is something wholly new, but certainly in keeping with Rheinberger’s vision.

The project was larger than I originally anticipated, but it has been a labour of love for me to be able to offer the choir something grand and glorious to sink their teeth into this Christmas season, and also to make more widely known this rarely performed and underappreciated work.

Rowen Fox

Saturday 2 December 2017 at 4 pm
St Hilda’s Anglican Church, Katoomba

Sunday 3 December 2017 at 3 pm
Uniting Church, Blackheath

Briony Davidson singing an except from The Star of Bethlehem in rehearsal

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We rehearse on Tuesday evenings during the NSW school term from 7pm to 9:30pm at the Phillips Hall, Gardiner Crescent in Blackheath.

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