This year, I broke my decades-long tradition of running as far as I can from the stores and malls on Black Friday. While visiting family, I braved the crowds and went looking to see how much money I could spend. There was no particular agenda; ideas came and went as the afternoon progressed. In the midst of all this, I ended up looking for Christmas music. Everybody needs Christmas music, and I haven’t bought anything new in recent years. Alas, the stores only seemed to have Christmas music which is rendered (or, more accurately, rent) by pop music artists. I remember seeing something by Johnny Cash, who has an interesting voice but does better with subject matter such as rings of fire rather than peace on earth and all that nice Christmassy stuff.
All the same, I already have rather an assortment of holiday music, and tonight I sat down to make a Christmas play list on my iPod. Now, before I go any further, readers must understand that I am a complete dork, and so most of what I’m about to discuss is pretty esoteric by most standards. This is not an apology; it is a mere warning. The advantage of being a weirdo, however, is that I have a lot of things to share that others have never heard of before which ultimately, I trust, prove to be interesting and edifying. So, here’s a sampling of some of the music which made the cut into my Christmas play list.
First, a concession to the grumps and purists who will complain that this is only November, that Thanksgiving is barely over, that Advent is just starting, and that Christmas is four weeks off: This list is headed up by several compositions proper to Advent. Gabriel Jackson’s Creator of the Stars of Night, a dreamy rendition of a famous ancient text, is first in the queue. Jackson is a modern, living, breathing composer, from, if I am not mistaken, England—God’s favorite place on Earth, no matter what Dallas Cowboy fans might say. This recording was made by The Crossing, a choir in Philadelphia which specializes in modern repertoire, under the direction of Donald Nally.
The other Advent item is one of my most treasured records: An Advent Procession with Carols, performed by the Choir of King’s College in Cambridge, England. I once saw a t-shirt which was entitled “The Religions of the World,” and under that were diverse descriptions of various creeds, all of which began, “When sh*t happens….” In the middle of the list, there was “Episcopalian: When sh*t happens, form a procession.” Indeed, the Anglicans know how to produce good ceremony, something certain other liturgical wings of Christianity could take a lesson from, and this recording demonstrates the sonic aspect of these pageants. Perhaps my favorite selections on this CD are the last two: the famous hymn, Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending, along with one of J.S. Bach’s settings of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (“Savior of the Nations, Come”).
But enough of the weeping and wailing of Advent.
On a visit to Leipzig, W.A. Mozart visited the famous Thomaskirche, where J.S. Bach had been Kappelmeister for so many years. The musicians there performed for him some of Bach’s Cantatas, and the story goes that Mozart jumped up from his chair, the music spilling from his lap, exclaiming, “What is this??? What is this???” I had a similar moment some years ago while listening to taxpayer-funded radio, when they played Chanticleer’s recording of Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria. Though it contains all the sweetness of 16th century counterpoint, this composition was nonetheless penned in 1964, Biebl having been commissioned to write it for a local chorus of firemen. (Yes, that’s correct: There was a time when the impulse toward music-making was ubiquitous and organized in the most surprising of organizations.) The tenderness of this work is broadened and deepened by the all-male texture. This is a piece for all time—as long as its overwhelming popularity, which has resulted in such dreck as an arrangement for handbell choir, does not consign it to the bin of the trite and over-performed—and is available on Chanticleer’s recording, “Our Heart’s Joy.”
Those who are familiar with the study of history will know that inevitably much of it ends up being guess work. Some of this guess work is more worthwhile than other efforts. One project deserving of commendation is Paul McCreesh’s recording with the Gabrieli Consort and Players which attempts to reconstruct how the Third Mass of Christmas might have been celebrated in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore around the year 1620. One of the more appealing aspects of this recording is that the historical efforts are undertaken humbly and submitted as a tentative thesis, which is a relief from more dogmatic exertions with which the musical world is often accosted. McCreesh begins with Preter rerum seriem (“Outside the natural order of things”), composed by the 15th-16th century figure Josquin. This may well be the most interesting piece on the record, but there are no weak links in this lineup, which does a remarkable job of replicating a real liturgical situation.
As a counterpart to historical reconstructions, I would like to offer a very recent undertaking for your consideration, Kile Smith’s composition of an Epiphany Vespers, which was commissioned by the early music ensemble Piffaro and conducted by Donald Nally, whose aforementioned group The Crossing (“the best chorus in Philadelphia,” according to one critic) joined in the music making. (Full disclosure: I know a number of the people involved in this recording very well, and consider many of them to be friends. Nevertheless, take my word for it; this is great stuff.) Smith, a practicing Lutheran, develops a work that uses the outline, style, and language of a Renaissance German Vespers service, complete with period instruments—but with a decidedly modern sensibility. It is an organic work which adds fabric to the seamless garment of Western culture that stretches from antiquity to today. The second movement, Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgenstern, is a very popular melody and is perhaps my favorite, but other high points are in ample supply. The third movement features tenor Steven Bradshaw singing a virtuosic flourish with a heavenly clarity, and in recent playbacks, I have become smitten with the Magnificat, which, for the most part, makes use of only the women of the choir. This is a stunning work from start to finish, and melodious proof that the art of music is alive and well in the 20th century.
Some other notable selections:
Peter Richard Conte plays the second movement (“Nativity”) of Marcel Dupre’s Symphonie-Passion on the famous Wanamaker organ, the largest functioning pipe organ in the world. Dupre composed this piece for this very instrument, and Conte brings it back to life in this recording (from “The Wanamaker Legacy”) which was made live at the 2002 AGO national convention, where it received a well-deserved raucous ovation.
Olivier Messaien plays his very own Dieu Parmi Nous (God Among Us), the last section of his Nativity Suite. To be truthful, I rather prefer the interpretations offered by other organists, but there is obvious reason to acquaint oneself with the composer’s interpretation of his own piece. As always, this work shows off Messiaen’s distinctive harmonic language in a kaleidoscopic frenzy that depicts angels rejoicing, among other gleeful things fitting for the time of year.
Finally, a John Rutter piece. I dislike much of Rutter’s work and find a great deal of it to be without enduring value, but his setting of What Sweeter Music, a poem by Robert Herrick, never fails to get to me. Set in the warm glow of the key of G-flat major, this piece proves that sometimes there is truth to the sentiment that simple is beautiful.
There is more, of course, on my Christmas play list. iTunes tells me that there are 129 songs totaling 8.4 hours of playing time, and I haven’t even finished importing them all yet. I would, for instance, like to figure out just where the Favorite Carols from Kings College CD has gotten to. I have the box, but not the all-important contents. Similarly, I have not seen my recording of Christmas Matins from the Solesmes Abbey in a few years.
Black Friday shopping trips aside, I can’t get much into the gift-giving aspect of Christmas. My relatives will tell you that I often struggle to come up with a wish list worthy of the term. For me, Christmas is about the music and the lights. November has been dark and dreary, but now I get to listen to music about peace on earth, about a festival “that turns December into May,” about bright stars and wise men; music old and new that has been sung by so many diverse people who all had something to say but for whom mere words did not suffice. May you, too, have many songs to sing this Christmas.