A new advent

Lieselot De Wilde, soprano

Sofie Vanden Eynde, lute & theorbo

Christmas and Advent exercise a strong emotional pull on us in contemporary Europe, whether we, or our societies, are Christian or not. The festival is deeply rooted in our societal ideals, to which we cannot help but respond. It is no coincidence that domestic violence rates spike at Christmas, or that shelters and women’s refuges are at their fullest. The pressure for everything to be OK, the weight of expectation, is too much for many. Add to that the seasonal increase in both free time and drinking, and it is no wonder that (inter)personal crises can quickly escalate. Such domestic tensions are also mirrored on a larger, societal scale. After all, the basic message of the Christmas story — the poor family for whom no room could be found, the pregnant outsider forced to give birth in a cattle shed, the proclamation of “peace upon earth” to those heaven considers strong, and society weak — is, on each point, diametrically opposed to how we, as European nations, behave. Strangers are deported, not welcomed. Our desire is to hoard, not share. Instead of fostering peace, we promote war. These ambivalences are not new, however. Ever since Christmas was invented to plaster over pagan solstice cults, it has been a state of constant tension between promises, expectations, and reality.

Music has always fought for a way to express these tensions. Again and again, it takes the side of the disadvantaged, offering peace and consolation. At the same time, pieces such as Praetorius’ In dulci iubilo, in which the congregation, desperate to escape the misery of the Thirty Years’ War, virtually screams “eia, wärn wir da” —its wish to be somewhere, anywhere else  — show the other side of the coin. Pain and suffering surfaces again and again in the Advent and Christmas repertoire, where joy is grounded in deep pain and sadness. That is already contradictory enough, but contemporary Christmases add something truly new to the mix: the all-pervading consumerism that has smothered beneath it many of the feast’s more morally uncomfortable messages. Christmas is, after all, a cornerstone of our economy. And perhaps, when compared against the mountainous baggage of guilt, hope, and expectation of salvation that the celebration would otherwise have to bear, the exchange of material gifts is nowhere near as silly as it might first seem.

Sofie Vanden Eynde brings together various strands of Christmas music past. She does not stop there, however, asking questions about the content and meaning of Christmas today, and commissioning new pieces to reflect them. These perhaps testify just as much to people’s changed experiences of Christmas as to all too human patterns of behaviour, which seem unchangeable, and which make the Christmas story what it is – an unresolved challenge to the way we are.

older music: H. Purcell, T. Merula, L. Senfl, M. Praetorius,…

new music: T. Smetryns , Samir Bendimered