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The Association of "Pastoral" Music with Christmas

The pastoral tradition in music has had a long and distinguished history dating back to ancient times. The transfer of music styles associated with pastoral themes to settings of Christmas texts was quite natural. Not only the bucolic setting of the Angel’s announcement of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, but more generally the image of Christ as the good shepherd.

Composers of the 17th century developed a vocabulary of instrumental motifs associated with music depicted the Christmas story, with reference from Castaldo as early as 1616. Similar pastoral topoi in settings of Christmas texts can be seen around the same time or earlier in German sacred songs and the Spannish villancico. Castaldo was one of several writers who claimed that the custom a associating pastoral literary traditions with Christmas originated with St. Cajetan of Thiene after a vision he had on Christmas Eve in 1517. The earliest surviving collection of Christmas pastorals in Italy was written by Francesco Fiamengo for the Christmas Eve celebrations at Messina and published in 1637.

Already in the Fiamengo collection many of the basic stylistic elements that are found in the pastorale compositions of Scarlatti and Corelli were already present. Typically in a slow and lilting 6/8 or 12/8 “siciliana” meter, pastorale compositions frequently utilized drones and parallel intervals in imitation of rustic instruments like bagpipes and the hurdy-gurdy. Such features are prominent in the music of shepherds who have played shawns and bagpipes in Italian towns as part of Christmas festivities since the 19th century at least, but it is unclear whether this was in imitation of the conventions of art music or the other way around.

The popularity of Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto” led to innumerable imitations and echoes of this work can be heard in the “Pifa” from Handel’s Messiah, in the second part of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and into the 19th and 20th centuries.

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