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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    

Arthur Butterworth writes

Music at Christmas

As soon as the October half-term is over children, especially in Junior schools, begin to look forward to Christmas festivities. This to a large extent concerns music: nativity plays and the tradition of carols. The sound of familiar carol tunes, even more than their words, is one that haunts even the most sophisticated of us down the years. Some tunes have a universal currency, others are purely local. Most of then are fairly old, or at least they give that impression, although they might only have originated towards the latter part of the nineteenth century. Some are of later date, but in general modern carols do not seen to catch on to the public imagination in the same way; it is as though it requires the patina of time, and the nostalgia it brings in its wake, for a carol to become a venerable and established essential of Christmas music-making. Many people who do not otherwise claim to be either religious or musical, find the sound of Christmas carols to be powerfully evocative, and take part in, or merely attend as sympathetic listeners to carol services with an enthusiasm they do not display at other seasons of the year.

Although nowadays carol-singing groups are rarely heard in towns, or even quiet villages (modern traffic and social habits make it seem a bit anachronistic) there was a time when a child could lie snuggling in bed in the depths of a snowy Christmas Eve, with that nerve-tingling expectancy of Christmas morning and hear, perhaps faintly in the distance, the sound of the village choir or band playing "Christians Awake!" or "Hark!, the Herald Angels sing".

Even professional orchestras, whose patrons are for the most part immune to the simplicities of such seasonal music making, find a ready, if casual audience for an annual carol concert.

In Britain there has been, for the past two-hundred-and-fifty years or so, an even more firmly-established tradition: one that has been almost at the very heart of the country's musical life and custom, although strictly speaking, perhaps, it belongs more to Easter than to Christmas. Writers, commentators, musicologists, sociologists, religious zealots and all manner of people, continue to ponder the significance of Handel's "Messiah". Further comment would now seem to be unnecessary. However, it has to be admitted that some of this writer's earliest musical awareness concerned this imperishable work. My mother used to sing - she had an excellent contralto voice - excerpts from it as she did the multifarious household tasks, so that some of these themes became ingrained in my mind from earliest childhood, But it was not until I became a trumpeter that the work made a very particular kind of impression, as indeed it does on all trumpeters. Although it is not really technically difficult to play Handel's famous obbligato -'The trumpet shall sound", it has come to be regarded with some awe by trumpeters. It seems to be a combination of things: the long wait during the earlier parts of the oratorio, where the trumpeter is required to sit idly by, contributing virtually nothing, while the rest of the performers, soloists, choir and orchestra lustily sing or play continuously. Then, because of Handel's whim, the trumpet is given a physically taxing part to play in the Hallelujah" chorus, then just a few more nail-biting minutes of silence while the soprano sings 'I know that my Redeemer liveth', and those absolutely awe-inspiring short choruses, "Since by man came death" and "By man came also the resurrection". The stunning bass aria that follows requires the solo trumpeter to take on one of the more physically-taxing, and more often than not, nerve-wracking and extended passages in the whole of the trumpet repertory. Bach's first trumpet parts are really infinitely more demanding, but they keep the player more occupied, with less time to dwell on a big obbligato to come, so that the player keeps his lip - and his nerve - in trim throughout the whole work. Many generations of trumpet players have come to grief in attempting Handel's notorious obbligato, largely it must be said, not because it is fundamentally difficult in the technical sense, but solely on account of its almost unyielding length. Yet, were we to perform this as Handel originally intended, it ought to be played through not once through, but twice! - since it is a 'da capo' aria: a musical form that, like a minuet & trio, has a corresponding quieter refrain (the 'trio' in effect) and then the main aria (the 'minuet') is repeated. But this is never done nowadays. If it were it would indeed be a trial of strength not only for the trumpeter but for the bass singers too. Only once in my life have I been called upon to do it this way, and that was in Germany; but, as luck would have it, the bass soloist wanted the whole aria and its obbligato, to be performed a whole tone lower, in C-major instead of the original D-major; so this made it vastly easier and no real demand on one's physical stamina.

Carols are of course, universal throughout Europe and many other parts of the Christian world, not least in Germany where some of the most distinguished tunes originated. What was at one time a little surprising was to realise that Handel's "Messiah" was not particularly or all that well-known in Germany, where Christmas music meant above all Bach, Heinrich Schutz, and other essentially German composers of age-old tradition. In place of "Messiah" it is still primarily Bach's "Christmas Oratorio" (Das Weihnachts Oratorium), or that by Schutz which is universally performed at Christmas-tide. It may be that, although Handel is of course recognised as primarily a German composer, he might still not have been entirely forgiven for deserting Hanover and coming to England. This, it seems, was only recently demonstrated (1998) when a perforce in Hamburg of "Messiah" actually credited Mozart as the composer! Now, while it is true that Mozart did write the so-called "additional accompaniments" to Handel's masterpiece, the original music forever belongs to Handel (and indeed, it is not now the done thing to resort to Mozart's "improvements", but to play Handel's quite adequate and stylistically proper original). But the Hamburg performance placed their own revered and favoured Mozart as being the composer and Handel merely the originator of an idea for Mozart's "Messiah". This is an example of the most absurd kind of teutonic xenophobia.

For my own part I tend to avoid all kinds of Christmas music these days; it has become just too much of a tradition that has lost significance, so much of it done just because it is the time of year, but perhaps most of all the commercial aspect of it all: those irritating carol-jingles in shopping malls, television advertising, public-address systems, rugby-club or local village institute Christmas parties; even carol services in churches seem so often to be the result of a tradition that has to be followed, often seemingly unthinkingly, and without a renewed imagination year, after year.

But one tune never palls for me: the fresh and lively ninteenth century glee by Spofforth - "Hail! smiling morn" - traditionally heard in the North of England on New Year's morning.

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