Barber – Die Natalie: Chorale Preludes for Christmas, Op. 37

by Max Derrickson

Samuel Barber     (Born in West Chester, PA, 1910; died in New York, 1981)

Die Natalie: Chorale Preludes for Christmas, Op. 37

As was the case with most of Barber’s compositions, Die Natalie was a commissioned piece, and in this case, by the Koussevitsky Foundation (the same group that commissioned Copland’s Appalacian Spring, and many other great American works) for the 75th Anniversary of the Boston Symphony.

Die Natalie (Latin as “Christmastide”) is a set of variations on well known Christmas carols.  These types of seasonal medleys are often good for the spirit, but lightweight in their compositional acumen.  Barber, the accomplished composer that he was, however, sought to satisfy both the spirit and the mind.  Indeed, right from the start we hear a richly textured triple canon built around the carol “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”; it is first recognizably heard in the trumpet, followed by a variation of the tune a fifth below in the trombone, and both accompanied by a stuttering version of the tune in pizzicato (plucked) strings.  It’s a marvelous and richly appropriate opening to a carol whose message is so often forgotten in its familiarity, but speaks so aptly of almost painful longing and hope for spiritual fulfillment.

Of the many lovely treatments in this musical feast, two particularly memorable moments arise.  One, again in “Emmanuel,” Barber comically
[. . .]
– beautifully peaceful and cinematically evocative.

Die Natalie was premiered, appropriately, three days before Christmas by the Boston Symphony in 1960 and was well received.  Barber, however, had his doubts about the work,
[. . .]
which has become the more popular derivative of this wonderful work.

For those who want to follow along, the tunes Barber uses, generally in this order, are: “O Come Emanuel”; “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming”; “We Three Kings of Orient Are”; “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”; “Good King Wenceslas”; “Silent Night”; “Joy to the World”.