A Brief History of Music and the Winter Solstice

solsticeTo kick off our new blog, and in honor of the festival’s December event calendar, I thought it would be interesting to write a bit about the history of music during Winter festivals.

Many people know that the selection of late December as a date of celebration of Jesus’ birth was originally done to coincide with existing pagan winter celebrations.

Many pagan traditions common to Western Europe and the Middle East already had existing festivals that stretched throughout the end of December and into the New Year, though of course their calendar was based on the Winter solstice, not on the Gregorian calendar we use today.

Music and dancing were an integral part to every single one of these festivals, and early Christian musical traditions soon grew out of the same festivals.

This expanded slowly and gradually, until the innovation of religious chanting transformed into more complex sacred music in the late Renaissance and early baroque eras. Chants gave way to madrigals, which in turn gave way to oratorios and longer, more complex mass settings.

Our festivals celebrate much of this tradition with the incorporation of prominent December musical settings, from the Bach Christmas Oratorio to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis.

Either way, it is clear that the music of the winter period had a clear impact on the festival, and we’re proud to incorporate that heritage into our own modern festivals, albeit in a greatly transformed and modern application.

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