William Mayer, contemporary classical composer


Notes for One Christmas Long Ago

(one-act opera based on “Why the Chimes Rang”)

“There seems little reason why ‘One Christmas Long Ago,’ might not become a welcome variant to Gian-Carlo Menotti’s ‘Amahl’,” wrote The Philadelphia Bulletin in reviewing a concert performance of Mayer’s opera by the Philadelphia Orchestra. William Smith, its conductor, remarked that the composer “carried a narrative line in music with superb conviction. The vocal writing was more than felicitous, it was exciting.”

One Christmas Long Again was first produced in 1962 by Ball State Teachers College in Muncie, Indiana (widely known as “Middletown.”) Colleges throughout the country mounted new productions as did the Manhattan School of Music, which later performed Mayer’s full length A Death in the Family.

In 1985 the Christmas opera received a glowing endorsement from the National Music Theater Network. Its evaluation read: “exceptional merit; superior music; tunefully appealing, uplifting, emotional; potentially very popular.”

And in 1989 the Network itself produced One Christmas Long Ago in renowned St. Paul the Apostle Church at Lincoln Center. The church proved to be a near perfect venue, for the opera’s climax occurs when mysterious cathedral bells ring out on their own, breaking a silence of one hundred years.

“I think you have written a sweet opera. Moreover, it is a canny one, particularly in its plot structure ... a real theatrical stroke.”
   — Composer Marc Blitzstein [“The Cradle will Rock”] in a letter to Mayer

“... stirred its youthful audience into storms of applause.”
   The Philadelphia Inquirer, reporting on a concert performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra


William Mayer writes, “One Christmas Long Ago is based on the sweetest Christmas story I know, Raymond MacDonald Alden’s ‘Why the Chimes Rang.’ I fell in love with it in grade school after having seen it staged in the school auditorium. Its sweetness never left me.

“Years later (twenty-five) I realized that it had one element after another that was both dramatically and musically right for opera: pomp and pageantry vs intimacy; conflict; distinct characters; suspense and a timeless parable.”

Long ago, in a far away country, there stood a gigantic cathedral with a bell tower so high that it was veiled in mist. Through the years a Christmas legend and ceremony had grown concerning its mysterious bells. Only when a very special gift was given did the bells ring and then of their own accord. At the time of our story, they had not been heard within human memory.

Scene one opens with two young brothers knocking on the cottage door of a very old man. The boys have run away from home to attend the spectacular Christmas Festival held in the Great Cathedral. The Old Man, an authority on the mysterious bells, shares an exciting premonition: “Tonight there is something wonderful and strange in the air; if our bells ever ring again, tonight they’ll ring!”

Scene two gives us vignettes of three worldly subjects, each anticipating that his offering will cause the cathedral bells to ring 1) a Countess who dithers about what precious jewel to give—and then decides to give them all; 2) a narcissistic Sculptor who plans to offer what is surely the ultimate gift: a bust of his own perfect features; 3) a Rich Merchant, reveling as he weighs the amount of gold he’ll be bringing. “Zounds,” he exclaims, “three hundred and twenty-nine pounds!”

Scene three catches up with the two brothers, scurrying down road a snowy road with the Great Cathedral in the distance. They suddenly come upon a frightening spectre. It is a Beggar-Woman nearly frozen in a deep drift. They realize that she is in desperate need of help. A carriage is heard to stop and a Page of the Rich Merchant approaches them.

“Can you help us find her a warm place?” the Older Brother asks.

“Anytime but Christmas Eve,” the Page callously replies, and (perhaps out of guilt) tries to persuade the boys to forget about the Beggar-Woman. “Beggars are used to being outside on cold nights; and if you stay here you’ll miss the Festival.” Then, as a final lure: “The King himself will be there!” The boys are torn, but decide to stay.

The older boy realizes that they both don’t have to stay with the Beggar-Woman. He sends his brother off to the cathedral, handing him a small coin to place on the altar “when no one is looking.”

The Older Brother then sings a carol to the old woman to keep her from falling into a deadly sleep in the snow. He succeeds but she doesn’t seem to care whether she lives or dies. He decides to teach her the carol [the “Holly and the Ivy”] and in so doing, raises her spirits. They end up singing it together. “Thank you, son,” she says, “I’m beginning to remember how lovely Christmas is.”

Scene four suddenly displays the interior of the Great Cathedral, ablaze with light and color. [The full depth of the stage is utilized for the first time.] The Countess, Sculptor and Rich Merchant, one by one, carry their gifts up the altar. Each waits expectantly; each is crestfallen. Only the howling of wind in the bell tower is heard.

There is now a stirring in the crowd. The King and his retinue are marching up the aisle, a Page carrying a magnificent box. He proffers it to the King so that he may open it and present his gift. But the King refuses to accept it. The townspeople are stunned. The King then kneels and removes his crown. Someone shouts, “His crown! He’s giving his crown!”

And again there is no sound, nothing but the howling wind. The King is furious. “I never believed in the story of the bells. I don’t even think there are bells up there!” he shouts, shaking his fist at the tower. The congregation starts to file out, singing (without conviction) “We will come back; We believe.”

No one is aware of the Younger Brother, who has just entered the church. As he tries to make his way to the altar two attendants spy him and try to hold him back. A small scuffle ensues. In the midst of all this the bells peal out. The people are exalted—but mystified.

Scene five finds the Beggar-Woman and the Older Brother, sitting by the snowy roadside. They, too, hear the lovely chimes, but faintly in the distance. He wonders aloud who gave the gift that made them ring again. The old woman answers. “Why, it might even have been you.”

Composer’s note: Shortly after completing One Christmas Long Ago, I received a letter from composer Marc Blitzstein, who had recently played through the score. “Bringing the Older Brother and Beggar-Woman in at the end is a real theatrical stroke,” Blitzstein wrote.

But Blitzstein had reservations about the very last line. “I’m not sure that it wouldn’t have been better not to ‘spell it out’ at the end,” he wrote. “Couldn’t the Beggar-Woman, instead of saying, ‘It might even have been you.’ say, possibly, ‘Yes, I wonder too, I wonder who?’”

Years passed before I realized that Blitzstein was right. My ending might have been magical, but his was more so. So from here on in, One Christmas Long Ago will have a Blitzstein ending!


Older Brother: Boy Soprano (ossia: female soprano)
Younger Brother: Boy Soprano (ossia: female soprano)
Countess: Soprano
Beggar-Woman: Mezzo-soprano
Minister: Tenor
Sculptor: Tenor
Parsely the Page: High Baritone
Old Man: Bass Baritone*
Rich Merchant: Bass Baritone*
King: Non-singing role
Carolers, Choir, etc.: Chorus

*Interchangable roles

Production note: To make a quick transition from early intimate scenes to the cathedral scene, it is suggested that only the latter occupy the full depth of the stage, which could be pre-set.

1, 1, 2, 1; 2, 2, 1; percussion; piano (celeste); harp; strings; live or taped handbells; optional organ or harmonium

Score and demonstration tape available from WillMayer Music.
Contact Music [at] WilliamMayer-Composer [dot] com for more information.

William Mayer

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audio Listen to excerpt:
(from the “Voices from Lost Realms” CD)

~ Festive Alleluia from “One Christmas Long Ago” (Florilegium) (3:55)

Score and demonstration tape available from WillMayer Music. Contact Music [at] WilliamMayer-Composer [dot] com for more information.

“Mr. Mayer has chosen one of the most moving of the old stories related to the Christmas spirit ... he has written music that is sensitive, lyrical, and in every way appropriate to the drama.”
   — Composer Robert Ward
        [“The Crucible”]

“... rhythmically buoyant and swiftpaced; characterization is distinctly drawn.”
   Musical America

“Mr. Mayer has written a lovely score, refined and sensitive.”
   The Philadelphia Bulletin in reviewing a semi-staged production by the Philadelphia Orchestra

“The professional stage premiere of ‘One Christmas Long Ago’ was an artistic triumph ... We feel strongly that the work could be performed in a variety of situations—churches, regional theatres and opera companies, as well as in concert with orchestras and choirs.”
   — National Music Theater Network

© 2009 William Mayer