The preparations for Christmas are perhaps as exciting as the day itself – putting up decorations, sending and receiving greetings, doing shopping, arranging amigo oculto, planning meals, scheduling visits – and taking out the scores of Christmas Music for some rehearsals.
What is Christmas Music? Well, for me Christmas Carols are songs like God rest ye, merry gentlemen, and Good King Wenceslas, which often come down to us from medieval times, with their words and simple harmonies. They intermingle with Christmas Hymns, like O come, all ye faithful, and Hark the herald angels sing which because of their popularity step out of the strictly Church setting, and are known to all. Then Christmas Songs are those which have found more modern popularity in non-religious settings, like I’m dreaming of a White Christmas, and Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer. Did you know all those? Well, so do millions of other people – and so this music seems indelibly associated with the Christmas Season. We want to hear these again, and probably to sing them, and then pack them up and forget them until next year.
This of course has not escaped the recording industry, and making an album of Christmas Music appears to be an easy way to get some sales for artists who already have a reputation. Take the traditional Christmas Carols and Songs, arrange them into the artist’s well-known sound, and you are bound to make some sales to present-givers. Next year, the cycle repeats.
Best-selling Christmas Music in the UK
Top of the list at amazon.co.uk is If on a Winter’s Night, by Sting, complete with photo of Sting walking through a forest in a greatcoat in the snow. But this is not trivial stuff, because he has gone to the trouble of calling on his immense repertoire of pop, folk, and jazz, to give original settings to Christmas Music both traditional and modern, and to some compositions of his own. He searches for an atmosphere of “mystery and storytelling” and, if you like his voice, you will think he has found it. Interestingly enough, Sting (really Gordon Sumner from Newcastle) says that the impact of Christmas for him was bound up with the contrast between the dark, cold outside, and the warmth, the family, and the feelings of love and tenderness inside…. Which is perhaps why to many of us from colder climes, Christmas seems to lose some of its charm in the sweltering heat of the Rio summer.
Number 2 on the list is Christmas in the Heart, by Bob Dylan, rated as a curiosity for fans, but unlikely to interest anyone else! Many of the other CDs in the top 20 are collections – Carols and Songs by varied artists in varied settings. Perhaps typical is Classic Christmas – where Deck the Hall is played bombastically by the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, and I saw three ships is sung by the choir of Clare College, Cambridge, in a link to tradition, and Silent Night is sung by The King’s Singers. In short, something for everyone.
Also in the top 20 we have albums by Tori Amos, who gives folksy Afro-pop settings to old favourites, but with a squeezed, sometimes-out-of-tune voice, she is apparently a triumph of marketing over musicianship. Then there is Michel Bublé, who sounds like a modern Bing Crosby, except his voice is lighter; James Taylor, who has evidently “gotta friend” for Christmas;, and Diana Kroll, who predictably plays jazzed-up versions of Jingle Bells and many others.
In the top 20 we have some albums which are modern developments from the English traditions of Christmas: At 12 there is Carols from King’s. This is the ethereal choir of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, singing Carols in a format outside their traditional Christmas-Eve service, and at 14, the John Rutter Christmas Album. John Rutter, also Cambridge-based, has become very popular with his compositions for choirs, and for his recordings with his own choir. He manages a blend of melody, modern harmony, and rhythm which is bland and pleasing, and he mixes both old and new songs. At 18 there is Karl Jenkins’ Stella Natalis. Karl Jenkins has written some compositions for choirs which blend jazz and classic forms in a moving way, and he has become popular with choral societies and audiences in the UK. Here he gives the treatment to Christmas Music.
Outside the top20, but there at 22 on long-standing merit, is Handel’s Messiah as recorded by Sir Colin Davis with the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in 1966. Still a wonderful version (see GL of Oct 2008).
The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
For me, the epitome of Christmas is the service of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge at 3pm on Christmas Eve the 24th. (You can hear this through the BBC on the Internet). Broadcasting this started in 1928, and has continued every year missing only 1930 – even through the War – until the present day. The form of service has become a pattern for many other celebrations: the readings tell the story of Christmas, from the eviction from the Garden of Eden, to St. Luke’s memorable story of the birth of Christ, and the equally memorable summing-up of St. John – “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory…. full of grace and truth”. There is a pleasing variety of ages and callings in the readers, and between each are Carols sung by the Choir, and some Hymns sung by all. King’s Choir, which as in many Cathedral Choirs in the UK has boy sopranos, produces a wonderful purity of sound and precision of singing.
In my boyhood, this broadcast coincided with Mother cooking the Christmas Dinner (to be eaten at lunch on the 25th) and Father coming home early with some goodies – and my being allowed to lick out the remains of the cake mixture from the bowl with my finger…. But in any case, when the single treble voice begins to sing Once in Royal David’s city, in the stillness of the packed chapel, and the unseen silence of millions of listeners, there is a hand which reaches in and gives my heart a tweak….. this is Christmas, when we forget the bad things, and celebrate the good, and children especially…..
In our Community in Rio de Janeiro
As you will see elsewhere in the Umbrella, there is no lack of Christmas Music in our Community, with the British School and Christ Church Carol Services, the SCM’s concert on 7th December and Sing-Along Messiah on the 14th, and round-the-piano Carols for Everyone at the BCS Christmas Party on the 12th. Apart from lots of other events throughout Rio.
So……..Good Listening and Singing!