I’ll bet many of you have a special place section in your CD library in which all of your Christmas “albums” are neatly ordered—untouched for most of the year, waiting for the golden moment sometime after Thanksgiving for them to fill the air with the familiar melodies of the season. For many—and I’ll include my parents’ generation—Christmas music means “Jingle Bells” (originally a Thanksgiving song—as was “Over the River and Through the Woods”), “Frosty the Snowman,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Just in case you think I’m about to play music-critical Scrooge and damn the lot of them, guess again. For good or ill, most of us, including me, find all of those songs delightful and, more to the point, part and parcel of the spirit of jolly celebration. And, you guessed it, they remind me of my childhood.
Over time, a growing sense of the wonderful mystery of the holiday (really, beginning with Advent) has moved me increasingly to fill the niche in my CD cabinet, as well as the various folders on my computer and online, with music that expresses the soul of Christmas, the coming of the Messiah. With the exception of The Nutcracker, most truly great Christmas music does exactly that—consider Handel’s “Messiah”—and many other pieces at least give a nod to what believers recognize as one of the two greatest mysteries of the faith. Bathed in the sounds of such music, one comes to realize that the “pop” songs of Christmas, the tunes about Santa Claus, snow, and reindeer, indeed are for children and that we mature to embrace greater things even if we don’t entirely forget the joys of youth.
Even so, the music of Christmas most commonly heard in the West (America, Great Britain, and Europe), insulated though it is by the miraculous and evergreen story of Incarnation, runs the risk of becoming too familiar. A year ago, I was watching a dramatized Len Deighton spy thriller, in which one character commented about the yearly broadcast of the famous “Nine Lessons and Carols” from King’s College. “Same damn thing every year,” he bellyached. And you know what? He was right. But so was Bernard Samson, the hero, who responded, “That’s why you listen to it.”
A nasty problem lies at the heart of the exchange. Composers, even great ones, are human and cannot invent endlessly—or not in this life. So, to pose the question: How do we avoid the deadly familiarity that might render songs about the greatest of events, God’s becoming man, a great big bore? The answer is, we lend a hearing to composers who give us the old story with such novelty that even those of us who have heard a great deal will find in their music something worthy of the miracle; or, setting the matter of composition aside in favor of performance, we ferret out recordings by ensembles that present the old as if it was new.
Fact is, both composers and performers manage to face these challenges year after year and, by the grace of God, a few of them succeed. Which is a roundabout way of getting to the real business of this piece, what music should you buy for Christmas? And, of course, I mean what you should buy that’s not too familiar. So let’s begin. (And remember that although I have these works in cd format, all can be downloaded.)
Heading my list is the group New York Polyphony, a skilled male foursome (from, I assume, New York) that has recorded more than one collection of seasonal music; “Sing Thee Nowell” is as good a place to start as any to discover their talents. Many of the songs are familiar (“Veni Emmanuel,” “There is no Rose,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem”), which may leave you wondering why I’ve recommended this collection. But once you listen to these four men sing, you’ll understand. The harmonies are perfection, and the selections, spot on—so good that you may conclude that the songs sound almost new in these versions.
Next, I recommend a cd I first read about at ClassicsToday.com, entitled “Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols.” Here’s where unfamiliarity reigns: of the twenty selections on this disc, all are new, composed by Jan Jirasek. The Jitro Czech Children’s Chorus, led by Jiri Skoupal, performs and does so both beautifully and, quite often, whimsically. If you think “Frosty the Snowman” is fun, give this a try. One more thing: this “Children’s Chorus” is all girls. How’s that for a change?
Two CDs that contain religious music but not necessarily for Christmas make my list for their sheer excellence. The first, from The Gesualdo Six, a relatively new group, displays a quiet mastery of the English motet—and, indeed, the title of the cd is “English Motets,” the ensemble’s first recording. Highlights include an unforgettable rendition of Tallis’s “If ye love me,” an excellent “When David heard” by Tomkins (although I slightly prefer Stile Antico’s version with its larger sound), and an array of works by Gibbons, Sheppard, Byrd, and Morley, among others. If you want to know how good they can sing, check out this performance on YouTube:
The second cd of English liturgical music is really five discs at a bargain price, “The Door To Paradise: Music from the Eton Choirbook,” by the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, under the direction of Stephen Darlington. Almost all of these works celebrate the Virgin Mary, so their relation to the Christmas season will be obvious enough. However, you’ll very likely search the list of choral pieces in vain to find one you’ve heard before—as the liner notes declare, two of them have never been recorded. If you’ve enjoyed King’s College Choir over the years, you’ll take a special measure of delight in these recordings. And, truly, we owe it to ourselves to discover the “other” English boys’ choirs.
My last recommendation (thanks to ClassicsToday.com again) is not about Christmas or Christianity in any way, shape, or form, and it’s not choral. Entitled “Focus Cello,” it offers a selection of (what else?) cello music ranging from the seventeenth century (Vivaldi) to the twenty-first (Peteris Plakidis), performed by four young cellists, Pablo Fernandez, Benedict Kloeckner, Anastasia Kobekina, and Edgar Moreau, accompanied by Kremerata Baltica under the baton of Heinrich Schiff (himself a superb cellist): skillful luscious playing of music that is, by no means, well known. But beware: listening to it may make you wish you’d taken up the cello.
There you have it: gifts of music new enough in one fashion or another to keep you happy Christmas after Christmas—or, at least, until another new and original batch comes along. Happy listening!