At some point in the coming days, buffeted by the frenzy and bombast of a 21st-century Christmas, you may have the urge (and perhaps just a sliver of time) to re-enter the meaning and spirit of the season through a different, purer door.
But how to achieve this? Well, think of setting 10 or so minutes aside for Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963). In his sleeve notes for a superb 2008 recording by the Choir of Westminster Abbey, Robert Quinney describes the motets as “exquisite miniatures” in which the French composer, alighting on four scenes from the Nativity story, “took time-honoured liturgical texts from the Catholic tradition and dressed them in bold new clothes”.
O Magnum Mysterium, which opens the sequence, is a setting of the text of the fifth response for matins on Christmas Day. The Latin reminds us “how great a mystery and how wonderful the sacrament, that the animals should behold the Lord newly born and lying in a stable”. Quinney thinks it the most profound of the four motets, slow and (by Poulenc’s standards) harmonically austere.
In Quem vidistis, the shepherds are asked who they have seen. To my ears, the music evokes quite brilliantly a feeling of creeping awe – tantalising, disturbing, inspiring – as others try to understand and assimilate what has taken place.
Videntes stellam, perhaps my favourite of the four, is rustic winter starlight given musical form. The motets conclude with Hodie Christus natus est, in which Quinney fancies he hears the sound of popping champagne corks.
Yet the Christmas motets, though popular with choirs and much recorded (especially O Magnum Mysterium), seem to play little part in Poulenc’s reputation. In books on the composer on the shelves of the estimable Westminster Music Library, references to them are few and far between. Perhaps their brevity tells against them.
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