In these times of “politically correct” religious and moral bewilderment, in which Christmas carols are purged of Christian references, when they are not replaced with other songs, times in which Nativity scenes are rejected in the name of a misunderstood religious neutrality and a misrepresented secularity, the call, found in the pope’s recent apostolic letter Admirabile Signum, “to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares” (n. 1) can only warm the heart.
The Lauda per la Natività del Signore by Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936), a small-scale Christmas cantata completed in 1930 for three soloists, chorus, and instrumental ensemble, is particularly suited to contemplating the manger. This work, divided into four sections and a coda (a concluding section) without separate movements, is composed for a soprano (the angel), a mezzo-soprano (Mary), a tenor (a Shepherd), a mixed chorus (of angels and shepherds), and a small instrumental ensemble (two flutes, an oboe, an English horn, two bassoons, a triangle, and a piano four hands). The text, a mixture of Italian, partly also with dialectal influences, and Latin, is a smaller portion of the 47 stanzas of the Lauda pro nativitate Domini, ascribed to the Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230–1306).
The oboe, followed first by the English horn and then by the other woodwinds, begins a soft dirge, leitmotiv of the cantata, which already ushers us into the great Mystery of the Incarnation. The angel, then, announces with great joy to the shepherds, who watch their flocks as they graze in that region, that little Jesus has been born the Son of God, the Savior.