In what is becoming a holiday tradition, I repost and add to my diary of Christmas music.
Of all the holidays celebrated in the world, no other is more associated with music than Christmas. Oh sure, you get your patriotic schlock on the Fourth of July, but that's also year-round music.
No, it's only Christmas that has music especially written for it, and played only on it.
And luckily the music I'm speaking of is NOT, I repeat NOT, the canned treacle you hear over the department store speakers. You know the kind--Christina Aguilera singing "The Christmas Song", Justin Bieber singing "O Holy Night", and other auto-tuner enhanced pop tarts butchering "traditional" Christmas carols.
No, I'm talking about the good stuff. The kind of music where it washes over you and sends chills down your spine.
I have posted a version of this diary for the past two years. This diary is going to be less about analysis and history and more about just the music. But if you're expecting The Nutcracker, you're in for a surprise and (hopefully) a treat. So lower the lights, sit by the fire, grab a Christmas-y beverage (recipe is included), and feel the stillness this music brings to the troubled world.
We will begin with one of the most famous pieces for Christmas written. Only it wasn't meant to be for Christmas. Messiah is a unique oratorio in that the libretto consists solely of scripture. The work is in three parts. Only the first is about Christmas. Here is one of the choruses of the first part:
And here is Linus' famous speech from the Gospel of Luke as done by Handel:
But there is no lack of more "traditional" Christmas music that doesn't grate on the ears. The most common form of Christmas music is the carol. The word carol is derived from the Old French word carole, a circle dance accompanied by singers (in turn derived from the Latin choraula). Carols were very popular as dance songs from the 1150s to the 1350s, after which their use expanded as processional songs sung during festivals, while others were written to accompany religious mystery plays (such as the Coventry Carol, written in 1591).
Some of the greatest composers have taken their hand to Christmas music, and the old carols. We'll begin with Benjamin Britten and his breathtaking Ceremony of Carols. Written for three part treble chorus with harp, it is in eleven movements, with text from The English Galaxy of Shorter Poems by Gerald Bullett. The poems are in Middle English.
At this point, I'll pay homage to Ralph Vaughan-Williams. He wrote several great pieces for Christmas using old melodies and carols. The first we will hear is his Fantasia On Christmas Carols. Written in 1912 for baritone solo, chorus and orchestra, the work is a single movement of roughly twelve minutes which consists of the English folk carols "The truth sent from above", "Come all you worthy gentlemen" and "On Christmas night all Christians sing", all folk songs collected in southern England by Vaughan Williams and his friend Cecil Sharp a few years earlier. These are interposed with brief orchestral quotations from other carols, such as The First Nowell (English spelling).
Another major work about Christmas is his cantata Hodie. This was the last choral piece he wrote. Please read this excellent diary discussing this masterwork. Here is the opening of this massive and glorious piece of music:
Of course, when one thinks of Vaughan-Williams and Christmas, one thinks of his setting of Greensleves. Allegedly written by Henry VIII, this tune has become the carol "What Child Is This?"
In "Olden Days", people used to celebrate the season, by going door to door, singing, and wishing each other "waes hael". They would be rewarded with a mulled cider based beverage. This tradition, and the drink, became known as "wassailing". Naturally here follows a recipe for Wassail.
So: Take your largest crock pot. Add one gallon of pure apple cider (the good stuff). Chop up 2 or three apples (Fuji is preferable) and set in the cider. Stud two oranges with cloves and add into the pot. Add 1/4 cup honey if desired. Add two whole nutmegs, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1/4 cup candied ginger and heat. Just before serving, add up to 750 ml of brandy. Drink. Sing. Fall asleep.
Moving on, next we have one of Gustav Holst's many Christmas pieces. This is Christmas Day which features carols everyone knows.
Of course, there's a lot more than just medleys. The carols themselves can be quite lovely. If they're done right. Here are a few carols that are arranged exquisitely.
First there is probably the oldest carol still traditionally sung. This is technically an advent hymn. It's origins lie in the Eighth Century. This is the kind of tune that transports me back in time. I feel the cold of the air, the dim light from candles, and the unyielding cathedral stone.
Next is a French carol from the 14th Century. It's one of my personal favorites.
From also around that time, we have a contribution from the great Renaissance composer Michael Praetorius:
As Vaughan-Williams has done, many other composers have taken traditional folk melodies heard at Christmas and adapted them with original music. This is Alfred Reed's monumental band work Russian Christmas Music
There has also been plenty of original music written for Christmas that hasn't had much airplay. Much like Vaughan-Williams' Hodie some of these are Cantatas or Oratorios. Here is music from the Christmas Oratorio of J.S. Bach
And here is music from the Christmas Oratorio of Camille Saint-Saens:
Orrorino Respighi took ancient Italian texts about Christmas and set them to music. Even though he was a Twentieth Century composer, he was enamored of the ancient styles and often imitated them in his music. Here is his seldom heard work "Laud to the Nativity":
There has also been music written for other things that has been "co-opted" into the Christmas tradition. A perfect example is the "Troika" movement from Sergei Prokofiev's suite from the film Lt. Kije. You'll recognize it when you hear it
This next piece isn't exactly in the same style as the others, but the message is one none of us should ever lose sight of.
I said at the beginning that the first part of Messiah was the Scriptures heralding the birth of Jesus. The second part deals with scriptures dealing with the suffering of Jesus. But it ends with the Resurrection of the dead and Hallelujah. So it's fitting we end with that most famous chorus.
First, the comedy bits. There are several variations of this particular version. I like this one:
And we close with the real thing.
I hope you have enjoyed this music of the season and you have a glorious holiday.
I bid you Peace.