Christmas is on us once again, and instead of dark days and nights and the cold outside (with perhaps some snow) – in Rio we are feeling the heat, getting out the sun block and the mosquito repellent, and rushing to the air conditioning. But some Christmassy things are just the same – getting together the family, putting up decorations, buying presents, sending greetings, planning the traditional dinner, getting in the drinks…. and making – or listening to – Christmas music.
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.
So I checked out some of the hot sellers on amazon.com in both the USA and the UK…
Top of the list at amazon.uk is Christmas at Downton Abbey, which uses the appeal of the wonderful TV series to showcase the more traditional British tastes in Christmas music. So we have The First Noel, The 12 days Days of Christmas and others sung by Julian Ovenden, who is a fine tenor (and in the series is Charles Blake, another suitor to Lady Mary), It came upon a Midnight Clear sung by Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora), Once in Royal David’s City and others sung by the Choir of King’s College Cambridge, the Hallelujah Chorus by Nicolas Harnoncourt, The Holly and the Ivy by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and so on. Sounds a bit like the playlist for the singing at the BCS Christmas Party here in Rio! The 45 songs are described as “the ultimate classical carols and hymns collection”. The sound is better than the sentence construction!
The most successful release of Christmas music in recent years has been Christmas by Michael Bublé. The Canadian singer and songwriter has become an international star, singing in a variety of genres such as traditional pop, jazz, crooner and big band. He looks and sounds simpatico, and the CD has songs like It’s beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas, Santa Claus is coming to Town, Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Ave Maria, Winter Wonderland – some 19 favourites for North-American tastes. The strength of this album, in my view, is that each song has a very distinctive arrangement – and these run the gamut of all the imaginable styles from the past 30 or 40 years or so. Santa Claus is coming is pure Count Basie, and Silent Night starts off with a sonorous brass band and bells…. So it is never tiring, but good-humoured and interesting. When this came out in 2011, it apparently sold 6 million copies in two months, and it continues firmly in most popular listings.
An interesting release this year of 2014 is Holiday Wishes by Idina Menzel, a Broadway star in the Barbra Streisand mould. Very modern, very pop style – she sings with a freedom and conviction which commands attention. Some songs are Do you Hear what I Hear, All I want for Christmas is you, When you wish upon a Star. About her Jewish ethnicity, she says “I know I’m Jewish. But a lot of famous Jewish people have written Christmas songs, so I’m going to try out some of their songs on the album”. Fair enough and why not?
I came across two other albums which are either awesome or awful, depending on your tastes. It’s Christmas is a 50-song collection of all the oldies you can imagine – White Christmas sung by Bing Crosby (the deep mellow tones in his voice are still beguiling), Santa Claus is back in Town by Elvis Presley (memories of Blue Suede Shoes come rushing back), Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas by Judy Garland, Zat You Santa Claus by Louis Armstrong, I’ll be home for Christmas by Johnny Mathis, Santa Claus Got Stuck in my Chimney by Ella Fitzgerald (perhaps it was her brother dressed up?), Let it Snow! by Dean Martin….just about all the American popular singers you have ever known in one album!
Then there is That’s Christmas To Me by Pentatonix, a 4-man-one-girl singing group who were new to me. If you can get past a happy-clappy introduction to Hark the Herald angels Sing, and the pop/rock/soul singing style, you will appreciate that as a small singing group they are simply superb. Distinctive voices with a wide range, perfectly in tune, impeccable timing and rhythm, lots of charm… They have many songs on YouTube, if you don’t like their Christmas material. Definitely worth a listen.
Here in Rio
Our Community in Rio has lots going on, as mentioned elsewhere in this edition – The SCM Christmas Concert, Carol Services at the British School and Christ Church, the BCS Christmas Party, the SCM’s Sing-Along Messiah on the 15th December – lots of chances to hear and to make the traditional Christmas music!
So …… Good Listening, Good Singing, and a Happy Christmas!