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Snowflakes and Troubled Hearts: A New Holiday Song By Nico Muhly

Nico Muhly's new holiday song is based on Longfellow's poem Snow-flakes. (Courtesy of the artist)closemore
Nico Muhly's new holiday song is based on Longfellow's poem Snow-flakes. (Courtesy of the artist)

Amid the ubiquitous din of annual chestnuts like "Jingle Bells" and "Let it Snow," you may be surprised to learn that people are actually writing new holiday songs. And as it turns out, some of them are pretty great.

Whether young, prolific composer Nico Muhly's new song "Whispered and Revealed" will enter the holiday canon is yet to be seen. There's no doubt, however, as to its shimmering, wintery expression, especially in this vivid performance by Essential Voices USA, a New York-based choral outfit led by Judith Clurman. Clurman commissioned the piece for her album Holiday Harmonies, asking Muhly to write something easy enough for high school and community choruses to sing.

Throughout his various choral works and operas, Muhly displays a keen ear for the human voice. He takes great care in setting the text, a poem published in 1863 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called Snow-flakes. Using a single harp to provide a churning pulse and the illusion of falling snow, the piece begins with an introduction — a repetition on the word "out" with voices floating gently downward from above. Suddenly, in one breathtaking moment, as the full chorus enters on the line "Out of the bosom of the Air / Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken," the song takes flight.

Longfellow's snowflakes might be pretty, wrapped in tidy rhyme schemes, but they also reveal the winter blues. Three stanzas are dressed in spacious, open vowels and troubled landscapes. Muhly responds by contrasting high and low registers, and by letting the blend of his voices bloom.

Still, for all its images of snow-draped fields and troubled hearts, "Whispered and Revealed" radiates a homey, fireside warmth. And isn't that what we want in a good holiday song — something evocative, comforting and little wistful, all in in the space of three minutes?

Holiday Harmonies is out now on Sono Luminus

Copyright NPR 2016.

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