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Christmas Music Beyond The Carols

Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my most vivid memories of Christmas music were a couple of my parents' LPs, featuring such notables as Bing Crosby (White Christmas of course), Robert Goulet, Doris Day, Nat King Cole and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir - an ageing memory has deleted the others. In other words, what is now classed as the Nostalgia genre.

Through my teenage years into my forties, Christmas music and those LPs disappeared from my musical consciousness, replaced first by the two Bruces of my rock music era, Springsteen and Cockburn, and then by Bach, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams and the vast universe that is classical music. Last year, when I began subscribing to Naxos Music Library, something prompted me to type "Christmas" into the search engine. The result: more than 300 hits to CDs mentioning the word, and on exploring, I found that the majority were not bland, saccharine compilations of the standard carols, but serious works by serious composers across the centuries, and some magnificent performances of the standards.

Of course, before this, I knew about, and owned recordings of such works as Handel's Messiah, Bach's Christmas Oratorio, Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Corelli's Christmas Concerto among others, but had not really given it much more thought. When I found that Hark the herald angels sing was actually music by Mendelssohn, my interest was piqued even more.

So I requested a favour of my Recorded Music Society organiser that I be allowed the last session for the year to present a special Christmas program, and it is the research behind its preparation which I would like to share with you, and to recommend my "12 CDs of Christmas" to you.

Initially, I was expecting to have among my selections, those works mentioned above. As it turned out, none of them made the final list. As I began to search, I found that I was seeing many unfamiliar works from the 20th century, and because I am partial to a sub-theme within the overall theme for my Music Society talks, I ended up by concentrating on works from last century - with one exception.

I also learned that there is a true carol which derives from the Middle Ages, and that the word may have a connection to the Latin carule, meaning a type of dance. The majority of the popular standards were songs or hymns for general consumption written by nineteenth and twentieth century composers. These included the aforementioned Hark, the herald angels, O come all ye faithful, Away in a manger and Silent night - Stille Nacht in the original German.

My selection of music for my programme spread itself across a range of origins and reasons: a few “traditional” carol,  rearranged or recomposed by modern composers, the “modern” (19th century) Christmas song, and mostly original works written relating to Christmas or the winter season.

One of my great musical passions is Vaughan Williams and that is where I chose to begin.
Ralph Vaughan WilliamsOn Christmas Night (1926): 1. Prelude 2. Marley's Ghost
Vaughan Williams loved Christmas and had a lifelong passion for carols.  His earliest memories of Christmas at Leith Hill in Surrey were of the extended family reading Dickens and singing carols.  His involvement with the English Hymnal is well known – less so is that he was co-editor of the Oxford Book of Carols in the 1920s. He wrote four specific pieces relating to Christmas, three of which are in this program.

On Christmas Night is the music for a ballet based on, of all things, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  Later in his life, he said to his collaborator in The First Nowell that all Christmas plays should start with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and finish with The First Nowell.  That is what he did he in this work, in The First Nowell, so how could I do otherwise.

: Joyful Company of Singers, City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN10385
(see review)
Douglas LilburnTwo Christmas Pieces for LB (1949)
Lilburn was New Zealand’s most prominent composer, and a student of Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in London.  The LB refers to the dedicatee of these two short works for piano, Leo Bensemann, an artist friend of the composer.
Recording: Dan Poynton Morrison Trust MMT2053 (see review)
Jean Sibelius - Five Christmas Songs (1909): 4. Give me no splendour
This set of five songs were Sibelius' Opus 1, but obviously from the date, not even close to his first work.  The fourth in the set remains one of the most popular Finnish Christmas songs, and exists in four different arrangements by the composer, as well as the one here for baritone and orchestra. This is the first of three selections from this particular CD.
Recording: Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, Allmänna Sången, Uppsala Chamber Soloists/
Cecilia Rydinger Alin BIS NL-CD-5028 (see review)

Bela BartókTwenty Romanian Carols (1915): First set
Bartók's fascination with the folk music of his native Hungary and the surrounding country is well known. Based around a set of songs, the Colinda, sung by children in the villages, these twenty piano pieces, arranged in two sets are over in a matter of ten minutes: blink and you'll miss one.

Recording: Jenö Jandó Naxos 8.554718 (see review)
Witold LutosławskiTwenty Polish Christmas Carols (1946/1985):
In a manger – Lullaby, Jesus – This is our Lord’s birthday

Lutosławski's excursion into the avant-garde followed his earlier interest in the folk music of his country. These works, originally written for voice and piano date from a time when his musical style was in the process of changing, but by the time he returned to them to add orchestration, he had returned, like Henryk Gorecki, to a more tonal style.  The carols set here came from collections by a Polish priest in the mid-1800s, and I have to say that this was perhaps the major discovery of my researches for this program.
Recording: Olga Pasichnyk (soprano), Polish National Radio SO & Ch/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.555994 (see review)
Joaquín RodrigoRetablo de Natividad (1952): I. Cantan por Belen Pastores
Whilst sounding very traditional and archaic, these are original works by Rodrigo, whose music was much more than the Concierto de Aranjuez, attested by the ten volumes of his orchestral works on Naxos.
Recording: Raquel Lojendio (soprano), David Rubiera (baritone), Comunidad de Madrid Ch & O/José Ramún Encinar Naxos 8.557223 (see review)
Benny Andersson – Innan gryningen (Before dawn) (1999)
His name may stir something in your memory: he was the one with the beard in Abba. This isn’t a song associated with the religious aspects of Christmas, but rather for the new year and new millennium.  It has quickly become associated in Sweden with the Christmas season.

Recording: Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, Allmänna Sången, Uppsala Chamber Soloists/
Cecilia Rydinger Alin BIS NLCD5028
Anders Paulsson – Advent Musik III (1992)
A virtuoso on the soprano saxophone, he has had more than forty works commissioned for him, as well as writing numerous of his own. This piece is a curiously effective mixture of modern jazz, traditional choral music and some spoken Swedish.

Recording: Anders Paulsson, St. Jacob Chamber Choir, The Real Group
Caprice CAP21732

Morten Lauridsen – O magnum mysterium (1994)
Of Danish parents, but born in the US, he is described in some places as America’s pre-eminent choral composer.  This is his most performed work.  The text is part of the Christmas matins service.  Numerous composers across the centuries have set the words.

Recording: Stockholms Studentsångare/Karin Oldgren
Proprius PRSACD2035
(see review)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Hodie (1953): Epilogue
Written in his 82nd year, this is his only Christmas-related work not to feature carol tunes.  It uses texts from the Bible, as well as poems by Milton, Hardy and Herbert and his wife Ursula.

Recording: Guildford Choral Society, Royal PO/Hilary Davan Wetton
Naxos 8.570439 (see review)
John Ireland – The Holy Boy (1913)
John Ireland wrote this work as a solo piano piece on Christmas Day, 1913.  He obviously was pleased with his effort, since he also created versions for string quartet, string orchestra and choir - finding words to set to it in the early 1940s.  Here is a traditional English Christmas sound – the brass band – not an arrangement of the composer to the best of my knowledge.

Recording: Hannaford Street Silver Band/James Curnow CBC SMCD5175
Benjamin Britten (arranger) – I Wonder As I Wander (1941)
John Jacob Niles, the singer and collector of folk songs, said that he based his "I Wonder As I Wander" on a line or two of haunting music that he heard sung by a young girl in a small North Carolina town. He asked her to sing the few notes over and over, paying her a few pennies each time, until he had jotted it all down in his notebook. Obviously Britten heard the carol during his time in the US. This is an extraordinarily moving version for soprano with organ accompaniment.

Recording: Gunilla Backman (soprano), Johan Lindström (organ)
Proprius PRSACD2035

Victor Hely-Hutchinson – A Carol Symphony (1927): I. Allegro energico
Hely-Hutchinson was born in South Africa, the child of the last governor of the Cape Colony.  He was educated in England, and taught music by the English musicologist Donald Tovey, he became Director of Music for the BBC towards the end of World War II, shortly before his early death.  Each movement of the symphony is based around a true medieval carol.

Recording: City of Prague PO/Gavin Sutherland Naxos 8.557099 (see review)
Benjamin Britten – A Ceremony of Carols (1942): There is no rose
After three very successful years in America, Britten and Peter Pears boarded a Swedish cargo vessel in March 1942 for their return to Britain. It was a long and boring journey that took nearly a month. At this time Britten had started 'Hymn to St. Cecilia' and a piece for Benny Goodman. He intended to finish these on board but customs officials confiscated the manuscripts on the doubtful proposition that they could be a secret code. Britten managed to restart and finish 'Hymn' but as far as I know the Goodman piece was lost forever. During the voyage they berthed at Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Britten found a book of medieval poems. During the voyage, he worked on setting some of these poems to music, thus producing A Ceremony of Carols. It is an unusual setting, scored for boys choir and harp. Britten had intended to write a harp concerto and so had been studying the instrument.

Recording: Hana Müllerová-Jouzová (harp), Boni Pueri Czech Boys Choir/Jakub Martinec
Arcodiva UP0070-2231 (see review)
Philip Lane – Sleighbell Serenade (1981)
Philip Lane is a very prominent composer and arranger of light music and incidental music for plays and TV, as well as preparing performance versions of many film scores by British composers of the 1950s, such as Malcolm Arnold.  This is his most widely performed work (one of three Christmas Pieces), and was first recorded in Australia, a rather inappropriate venue if you think about it!

Recording: Royal Ballet Sinfonia/Gavin Sunderland - Marco Polo 8.225185 (see review)
Percy Grainger – Sussex Mummer’s Christmas Carol (1905)
A folksong arrangement, originally intended for the cello to be played his great friend and collaborator, the Danish cellist Herman Sandby, who accompanied Grainger on recital tours through Scandinavia in the early years of the 20th century.  A version for piano solo also exists, while this recording is for violin and piano.

Recording: Kenneth Sillito, Hamish Milne Chandos CHAN9746
John Gardner – Tomorrow shall be my dancing day (1965)

A traditional English carol, which extends for another six verses beyond this setting by the English composer and teacher, John Gardner - not the conductor.  A performance that includes the optional percussion, it is anything but a traditional solemn carol, and very much reflects the possible dance origins of the true carol.

: The Sixteen/Harry Christophers Coro COR16004 (see review)
Felix Mendelssohn – Hark the herald angels sing (1840)
Even though it isn’t 20th century, I couldn’t not play this, since it is simply the best performance of this "carol" or perhaps any Christmas standard I have ever heard. I'm sure plenty of you reading this will disagree with this judgement, but equally I'm sure you will appreciate the performance.  The tune is Mendelssohn’s, but written for something quite different to the words of Charles Wesley: in fact, the music was for a cantata celebrating an anniversary of Gutenberg's invention of printing press.

Recording: The third selection from BIS NLCD5028
Vaughan Williams - The First Nowell (1958): The First Nowell
As I said at the start, Vaughan Williams felt that all Christmas plays needed to finish with this, so how could I not. This is the work and the movement that VW had on his desk the night he died.  He had agreed less than a month before to write the music to accompany a nativity play. I include a section of the sleeve notes, quoting a letter written by Pakenham:

In early July 1958, I was asked by Austin Williams, the vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, to persuade Vaughan Williams to collaborate with me on the writing of a nativity play. This was to be given at a matinee at Drury Lane Theatre on 19 December in support of the Ockendon Venture – a charity that was building a village to house refugee children. I hesitated to put this to Vaughan Williams because I knew he was always busy with the composition of the moment… I went to tea at Hanover Terrace on 6 July and I was astonished that he considered the idea at all. The mere mention of Christmas inspired him. He had a passion for carols.

Recording: Joyful Company of Singers, City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Chandos CHAN10385 (see review)

My Twelve CDs of Christmas
Not surprisingly, I have chosen a number of CDs from those in my talk, but this selection is not limited to the twentieth century. Some of these CDs do not have a review on Musicweb and others that do are ones that I haven't heard, but am relying on the opinions of our excellent reviewing team. I offer them without further comment, nor in any particular order (reviews can be accessed, where available, by clicking on the cover image).

Fantasia on Christmas Carols, The First Nowell, On Christmas Night
Joyful Company of Singers, City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox
Fantasia on Christmas Carols, Hodie
Guildford Choral Society, St Catherine’s School Middle Chamber Choir, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
NAXOS 8.570439
Hodie: An English Christmas Collection
The Sixteen/Harry Christophers
CORO 16004
Johann Sebastian BACH
Cantatas Volume 7 (including works for Christmas BWV 61 & 63)
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki
Johann Sebastian BACH
Christmas Oratorio
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
ARCHIV 4232322
Johann Sebastian BACH
Bach Pilgrimage Volume 14: Cantatas for Christmas Day and the Second Day of Christmas
Monteverdi Choir, English Baroque Soloists/John Eliot Gardiner
Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning
Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh
ARCHIV 4392502
Anne-Sofie von Otter, Bengt Forsberg
The Mystery of Christmas
Elora Festival Singers/Noel Edison
NAXOS 8.554179
Candelight Carols
Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, Allmänna Sången, Uppsala Chamber Soloists/ Cecilia Rydinger Alin
Twenty Polish Christmas Carols, Lacrimosa, Five Songs
Olga Pasichnyk, Polish National RSO & Ch/Antoni Wit
NAXOS 8.555994
Julens ljus – The Light of Christmas
Gunilla Backman, Stockholms Studentsångare/Karin Oldgren

So there it is. I hope this might encourage you to seek out some of these recordings. I also to you commend an article on this site from 2000 by Arthur Butterworth.

Wishing you a happy Christmas from the Antipodes, where the only thing white about Christmas is the foam on the beer!

David J Barker


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