Somehow, they just seemed older than their youthful appearance. The four gray suits, white shirts and ties that matched the garnet red gown of the woman may have contributed to that. This was Calmus, who’d come here once before, in 2012. Unforgettable then, the collective ambition was to bring them back to present a TCA concert at Christmas. Five years later, they returned as part of their 2017 Christmas tour. Their Lincoln Center concert would happen five days later.
The day was Tuesday, December 12th, the evening beginning, this year, the Feast of Lights, which the New Testament records Jesus attended. It celebrates the reconsecration of the Temple after it was profaned by Antiochas Epiphanes, and Jewish deliverance during the Seleucid Empire. We know it as Hanukkah.
The introduction was made, and then we began to clap. The five from Leipzig would certainly enter the stage to face the trays of bound music turned horizontal on the stands lined in front of us. But then, everything went dark. And if we expected to see shadows, at least, nothing was happening.
Then, of a sudden, a clear sound emerged from the main entrance behind us. As in remembering the salvation of a people, they processed slowly, stopping occasionally, with only their lamps of oil. They sang the Latin original of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” It was our Christmas gift, in our own Jerusalem.
Grand it was! There was alacrity, a quickness, a buoyancy in everything they did. If Bach was a brook, these were an ocean of colors, a skiff bounding with the winds, the waves, impossibly staying together. Bach was found later by Mendelsohn, but here Bach had found the future.
Who were these people? This was the mystery I determined to solve. By chance, I ran into Sebastian, Tobias, and Manuel, that’s the counter-tenor, tenor and bass, walking down New Market Street from, apparently, the Pine Crest Inn. It was a beautiful Wednesday in Tryon and I stopped my old Saab to ask them through the lowered window where they got the name. Happy to address that question, Sebastian said he was the “S” in Calmus, and the baritone, Ludwig, was the “L”. Others had been the “A”, the “M” and the “U”, being original members as well, but now gone.
I realized quickly that there was no accounting for the “C”, which perplexed me temporarily until I realized there were only five and the “C” made six. How do you explain the name’s conception when that simple fact is ignored? So, I followed with a subsequent interrogatory. Here I believe I encountered some resistance: did you know your concert began on the 25th day of Kislev? Well, of course they did, but they didn’t admit it.
Knowing this, I was hot on the trail. If they couldn’t tell me where the name came from (and you won’t find any German name beginning with a “C”, maybe Kalmus, the music publisher, but that’s a different story) don’t expect me to believe you’ll tell us when you got it. Because it wasn’t 1999, was it! No, you’re all from the same place in Germany, the same chapel, even. That’s why you call the program “Christmas A Cappella.” I know we Americans might seem a little off to you these days — that’s why you thought we’d enjoy that crazy version of “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, which I have to admit, we did. No, actually, I’ll admit they were really, really good.
Anyway, speaking about being “off”, I think you’re off, off about 300 years. I think you were all there with Bach at Leipzig in 1723, and I intend to prove it!
And so I went for the evidence. Scouring the libraries of Polk County and beyond, actually I think it was Rutherford’s, I found this ditty buried in the stacks. It was attributed to, well, that was hard to read, too, everything being written in old German, I believe. I did have a semester of that; it got old quickly. The cantus firmus to which it was to be sung was, I’m convinced, “Veni, Veni Emmanuel”, though it might have been “Death in Venice”, which I ruled out because that isn’t a song. I close with my meager effort at translation:
We for us to Calmus
went, and they for us
to us were sent—to calm us
was their sacred intent
until at last our energy was spent.
Rejoice, rejoice! O’ Calmus is swell;
shall Calmus come to calm us well.
Happy Hanukkah and Merry Christmas