Walter Bitner

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The Feast of Stephen

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gkwfeastofstephenPart of a series of articles on
Preparing a School Winter Solstice Performance

On December 8, 2006 – ten years ago today – my students at Linden Corner School in Nashville presented a winter solstice celebration for the school community called The Feast of Stephen.

The Feast of Stephen incorporated copious music as well as dance and theatrical elements, and every student from grades 3-8 was a performer. Students participated as singers, instrumentalists, actors, dancers, created props and costumes – preparing for this event consumed most of my time in October and November of 2006, and as the night of the show came near the anticipation and excitement among the children, parents, and myself was palpable.

Here is a description of The Feast of Stephen: an example of a winter solstice performance with elementary and middle school students that incorporates many of the elements described in this series of articles. Included are the original scripts of both The Feast of Stephen and the Linden Corner School Mummer’s Play, a copy of the original program, and a video of the performance.

*       *       *

By the fall of 2006 I was in my third year as music director at Linden Corner, and had by then built a robust music program that included general music classes for all grades K – 8 and weekly chorus, recorder, and traditional dance classes for all students in grades 3 – 8. Every student in grades 3 and 4 studied a string instrument, and beginning in grade 5 either continued study on their string instrument or was given the option of changing to a wind. Students at this school also sang daily with their classroom teachers, so it was generally a given that every child was making music in some way, every day. By the time students reached 5th or 6th grade there was a lot of very satisfying music-making happening, and when I began to make plans for a winter solstice performance I wanted to craft a program that would feature as many aspects of the program as possible.

John Langstaff (1920 – 2005) had just died the previous December, and I had been thinking a lot about my experiences directing student winter solstice performances at Blue Rock School and attending Revels productions in New York in the early 1990s. Looking back it seems obvious that I would choose to try to present a children’s performance in the style of Revels.

 

conducting The Boar's head Carol at The Feast of Stephen, December 8, 2006

conducting The Boar’s head Carol at The Feast of Stephen, December 8, 2006

 

The story of The Feast of Stephen was drawn from two sources really: one was the idea of pulling some of the characters out of the traditional mummer’s play and incorporating them in a larger play framework so that we could present the “play within a play” scenario á la Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The other idea was to build it around the popular Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas, a little three character drama that tells a silly story attributing a scant miracle to the King when He and His page brave a winter storm to bring alms to a pauper. All this is sung to a delightful melody originally from Piæ Cantiones (1582).

Saint George, the Dragon, and the Music Master

Saint George, the Dragon, and the Music Master

I never met a child who didn’t love to sing Good King Wenceslas, and I love it myself, so it was not long before I had hatched the plot to make GKW the main character of our winter solstice production, to set it at his court, and for it to take place around a banquet inspired by the madrigal dinners I had participated in in college: the Feast of Stephen as named in the carol. (The Feast of Stephen is a religious holiday held on December 26 that commemorates the first martyr of the Christian church, on which a number of ancient customs or rituals associated with the winter solstice are still celebrated in European countries.)

From these seeds the script grew quickly and I remember sitting in our living room at home over a weekend in October and cranking it out. All students at Linden Corner who would participate in the show were either in the Treble Chorus (grades 3 – 5) or the Concert Chorus (grades 6 – 8). The Concert Chorus became the lords and ladies of the court, and the Treble Chorus were “the wassailers” and the King’s subjects: townspeople, street urchins, ragamuffins. Our main characters – who would provide the meager story and a few jokes – were drawn from the carol (the King and His page) and the mummer’s play (the Fool and the Dragon). I myself played the part of the Music Master.

 

Concert Chorus performs Ose Shalom at The Feast of Stephen ~ December 8, 2006

Concert Chorus performs Ose Shalom at The Feast of Stephen ~ December 8, 2006

 

The Story

Good King Wenceslas, his court, and his subjects have gathered to celebrate the Feast of Stephen, despite the depredations of a marauding dragon in the neighborhood. (Both choirs process into the King’s Court singing Personent Hodie.) The King’s subjects sing some songs for the King to provide entertainment before dinner. After the boar’s head is presented (an elaborate processional featuring The Boar’s Head Carol, naturally) the lords and ladies sing for the king during his dinner.

A troupe of mummers have been engaged to perform after dinner. The mummers have not yet arrived, and during breaks between performances reports are brought by the King’s knights that the dragon is moving closer. At the last minute the mummers arrive and put on their play – which is soon interrupted by the arrival of the dragon as well! Is the dragon the same monster we have been hearing about all through the evening, come to wreak havoc on GKW and his court? Or is the dragon simply a mummer and part of the play? This question is ultimately neither asked nor answered.

The entire script for The Feast of Stephen may be read here, and the script for the Linden Corner School Mummer’s Play here.

Click here to download the original program as a PDF:
The Feast of Stephen: Original Program

 

The Feast of Stephen ~ December 8, 2006, Linden Corner School, Nashville

I wrote arrangements for much of the music, which older students played on a variety of instruments – mostly recorders and strings. All of the students – children as young as third graders – memorized all four verses of Personent Hodie in Latin for the processional.

Seventh and Eighth graders auditioned for roles in the mummer’s play and a group of eighth grade girls who did not wish to be mummers but were interested in dancing formed an all-girls Morris Dance team and learned a traditional Cotswold dance to perform after the mummer’s play.

Parents and teachers helped in a wide variety of ways, from gathering props and sewing costumes to providing make-up the night of the show. The small group of students who had chosen to study wind instruments (rather than strings) learned some Christmas carols which they played before the show began, as parents were finding their seats.

theshortestday

reciting Susan Cooper’s The Shortest Day at the end of the night

I chose a variety of music for The Feast of Stephen: traditional carols like Personent Hodie, Gloucestershire Wassail and Good King Wenceslas – of course – which GKW and the page acted out and the audience was encouraged to join us in singing (I had the text printed in the program). Some less usual carols – although still traditional – were also included, such as Hush, My Babe from Kentucky or the 16th century Spanish carol Ríu, Ríu, Chíu, as well as Benjamin Britten’s A New Year Carol.

The script provides dialogue to stitch the entire conceit together – mostly a lot of bad jokes and puns which I either found on the internet or made up myself.

My hope in providing all of this is not only to take a walk down memory lane in celebration of the ten year anniversary of The Feast of Stephen, but that music teachers who are interested in producing a winter’s solstice performance with their own students may find inspiration and ideas here. It would be easy enough to use the script as a template, replace songs with repertoire of your own choosing, and craft a performance that best reflects your own program.

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It’s been ten years since The Feast of Stephen. Most of the students who performed that night as children are now in college or have graduated: they’re adults now. Yet I feel sure that every one of those students remembers that night when for an hour, we created the court of Good King Wenceslas, made music together, made people laugh together.

It’s the special privilege of a performing arts teacher to have the honor and opportunity to midwife these collective events – community experiences that become landmarks of our shared past, lodged deep in the memory – experiences our students, and ourselves, will never forget.

 

mummersbow

The mummers take a bow at the end of their play ~ The Feast of Stephen, December 8, 2006

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Preparing a School Winter Solstice Performance:

Christmas in July <– START HERE

Personent Hodie

The Boar’s Head Carol

In Dulci Jubilo

The Hallelujah Chorus

In Comes I: The Student Mummer’s Play

We Come To Show Activity: Producing a Student Mummer’s Play

Fieldston Outdoors Mummer’s Play

Nashville School of the Arts Mummer’s Play

The Feast of Stephen

The Feast of Stephen: The Script

 


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