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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,
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
and then by Bach, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams and the vast universe
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
Williams' Fantasia on Christmas Carols and Corelli's Christmas
Concerto among others, but had not really
given it much
When I found that Hark the herald angels sing was
actually music by Mendelssohn, my interest was piqued even
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
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
Hark, the herald angels, O come all ye faithful,
Away in a manger and Silent night - Stille
Nacht in the original
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
Ralph Vaughan Williams – On 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
is what he did he in this work, in The First Nowell, so how could
I do otherwise.
Recording: Joyful Company of Singers, City of London Sinfonia/Richard
CHAN10385 (see review)
Douglas Lilburn – Two Christmas Pieces for
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
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 Bartók – Twenty Romanian Carols(1915):
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
a matter of ten minutes: blink and you'll miss one.
Witold Lutosławski – Twenty Polish Christmas
In a manger – Lullaby, Jesus – This is our Lord’s birthday
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 Rodrigo – Retablo 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
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)
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
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
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
1940s. Here is a traditional English Christmas sound – the brass band – not
an arrangement of the composer to the best of my knowledge.
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
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
Backman (soprano), Johan Lindström (organ)
Victor Hely-Hutchinson – A Carol Symphony (1927): I.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Recording: 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
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
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).
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Fantasia on Christmas Carols, The First Nowell, On Christmas
Joyful Company of Singers, City of London Sinfonia/Richard
Hickox CHANDOS CHAN10385
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS 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
Bach Collegium Japan/Masaaki Suzuki BIS CD881
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 SOLI DEO GLORIA
Michael PRAETORIUS Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning
Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh ARCHIV 4392502
Anne-Sofie von Otter,
Bengt Forsberg DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 4775725
The Mystery of Christmas
Elora Festival Singers/Noel
Edison NAXOS 8.554179
Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, Allmänna Sången, Uppsala
Cecilia Rydinger Alin
Witold LUTOSŁAWSKI Twenty Polish Christmas Carols, Lacrimosa, Five Songs
Polish National RSO & Ch/Antoni Wit NAXOS 8.555994
Julens ljus – The Light of Christmas
Backman, Stockholms Studentsångare/Karin Oldgren PROPRIUS PRSACD2035
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
Wishing you a happy Christmas from the Antipodes, where the only
thing white about Christmas is the foam on the beer!
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