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Holiday music

A post on Opera-L (a listserve whose archive has for years been a wonderful repository of information and misinformation, rampant passion and crankiness and brilliance and idiocy, all perpetrated in the name of opera fan-dom) led me to my new favorite website: Opera Nostalgia. I clicked on the site and began scrolling through articles and a treasure-trove of links, and an hour later my husband and I were still sitting at the dining room table listening to a 1957 Mario del Monaco "Ernani" that we had downloaded, having previously discovered interests we never knew we had in Giacomo Rimini, Dorothy Warenskjold, Augusta Oltrabella, and other unknowns.

One thing that disposed me kindly toward the site on my first perusal was an image of my all-time favorite Christmas record (illustrating the article "A Rich Nostalgic Christmas"), a staple of my childhood which probably ruined my ear by training it to adore the great old singers of yesteryear: "A Golden Age Christmas," with holiday music sung by Caruso and Schumann-Heink, McCormack and Martinelli, Ponselle and Crooks and so on. Fortunately, unlike many childhood passions, this one has proved enduring enough (or in sufficiently good taste) to continue with me into adulthood, bookending (with Britten's "Ceremony of Carols") a aural experience of Christmas that can like Proust's madeleine transport me back into Christmas past.
(read more after the jump)

The problem with Christmas music is that we tend to demand of it that it fulfill this function, transporting us back like clockwork every year to our own fond memories of our younger selves. Unfortunately the music can't always support the weight of our demands. Pity poor "Messiah": I love the piece as much as the next person, but I would also love to take a couple of years off from it to allow it to rejuvenate a bit in my own ear. (Furthermore, as I say like a broken record every year at this time, "Messiah" is just as much Easter music as it is Christmas music; when I lived in Germany, it was Bach's Christmas Oratorio that got trotted out innumerable times in December.)

The other problem with Christmas music is that it has become a tinselly commodity, a term synonymous with arrangements of "White Christmas" piped in a dull Musak-ed roar through the department stores and malls of the Western world with the insistent bright brainlessness of a "Baby Mozart" video (you can actually feel your brain cells dying). Against this flood, "Ceremony of Carols" or McCormack's "Away in a Manger" becomes a tonic antidote: something to restore to the ears a sense of quality, an idea that there is some kind of higher meaning to the season after all. (This could be summarized as the reaction of the quintessential classical music snob. But even the most committed pop-culture theorist will have a hard time making any kind of a case for the aural graffiti of piped-in Christmas music.)

Opera Nostalgia made good on the promise of its pictures with a list of favorite holiday recordings, many of which were new to me (Ninon Vallin singing Augusta Holmes's "Noel"?). I've cited some of mine. What are yours? (No need to restrict yourself to Christmas, if music of some other holiday seems to apply.)

And, for a jolt of some kind of holiday spirit or other, make sure to listen to this "O Holy Night" -- a recording that's become a classic in its own right.

By Anne Midgette  |  December 2, 2009; 6:35 AM ET
Categories:  random musings  
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In my house as a young'un, the Christmas Oratorio dominated all comers and was the traditional music to be played first thing on the morning of Dec. 25. And I am not tired of it.

The suite from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Christmas Eve" is my annual nomination for Christmas music that deserves to be better-known, although one's concept of Christmas must be broad enough to include witches if you look at the actual plot of the opera.

Posted by: Lindemann777 | December 2, 2009 8:52 AM | Report abuse

And it is supposedly the 20th anniversary of that O Holy Night rendition.

I remember listening to it on one of Handelman's podcasts three years ago and just being entranced by its genius.

Posted by: prokaryote | December 2, 2009 2:26 PM | Report abuse

"The problem with Christmas music is that we tend to demand of it that it fulfill this function, transporting us back like clockwork every year to our own fond memories of our younger selves. Unfortunately the music can't always support the weight of our demands."

On the whole, it's not, I think, an unreasonable or even a tacky demand, actually. But for me (a down-to-the-bone Jew, but one for whom, oddly enough, Christmas holds a special place in memory), I rather tend to want to be transported back to that time when Christmas held far deeper meaning for Christians than it has since about the middle of the 20th century. And that for me means back not to the 19th century of Dickens, or even to Bach's and Handel's 17th-18th, but back to the time of Tallis, Praetorius (Michael and Hieronymus), de Victoria, Josquin, et. al.; ergo, my two recommendations for music of the season which I posted early this morning on S&F ( Christmas of any period later than that seems, to me at least, and to greater or lesser degree, too-much tainted by the secular.

A curious — even mildly perverse — feeling for a Jew, is it not?

But as Emperor Joseph II (the Emperor Joseph II of _Amadeus_, that is) was wont to say: "There it is."


Posted by: ACDouglas1 | December 2, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

I'm not a huge fan of Christmas music, primarily because of over-exposure. With that said, Kathleen Battle's recording of "O Come All Ye Faithful" is wonderful. I believe the arrangement is by David Willcocks. I'm also not a fan of Josh Groban, but he performs "O Holy Night" just about as well as it can be done. Look for it on's part of a Rockefeller Center Christmas-tree-lighting special from NBC a few years ago.

Finally, who can forget "Blue Christmas" sung by Porky Pig? I can laugh just thinking about that rendition.

Posted by: 74umgrad1 | December 2, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

"But as Emperor Joseph II (the Emperor Joseph II of _Amadeus_, that is) was wont to say: "There it is.""

Incomplete. "Well. There it is." is the phrase. I don't think he ever just says "there it is" without "well" prior.

Posted by: prokaryote | December 2, 2009 5:32 PM | Report abuse

Apart from Bach (not just the Christmas Oratorio, but also the Magnificat and cantatas) I love Jan Jakub Ryba's Czech Christmas Mass. This is one of those pieces that is so simple, simplistic in fact, so naive, yet so utterly charming that you can't resist in spite of your better judgement. Ryba was a teacher in a Czech village, and at that time teachers were supposed to provide music.

The Mass is as popular in the Czech Republic as Messiah is here or Bach's Christmas Oratorio in Germany. It is occasionally played in Germany and Austria too; in fact a search in the archive of Vienna's Konzerthaus ( revealed that it was at one point sung by Walter Berry and Heinz Zednik.

There is a recent recording featuring Magdalena Kozena; for those of you who prefer period instruments, it may be the recording of choice. I learned the piece from Libor Pesek's recording and found it charming in spite of the four-square conducting (I also see there's a DVD of it.) There is also a HIP-influenced recording on Naxos that is very good, and there's also the historical one conducted by Vaclav Smetacek featuring the great Czech tenor Beno Blachut. Smetacek is also the strongest personality at the helm, but I feel that his tempi are a little too fast for my taste (or perhaps it's because I learned the piece from Pesek); still, one can feel the hand of a great conductor. And Blachut is thrilling - listen to the introduction: "Hej, mistře."

Posted by: cicciofrancolando | December 2, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

"A Golden Age Christmas" is my favorite Christmas album, one I play every Christmas Eve at my party for family and friends. John McCormack's "Adeste Fideles" is for the ages. I've never heard it sung better. My European-born father-in-law remembered hearing Ernestine Schumann-Heink's German "Silent Night" at the stroke of midnight on Christmas morning.

Posted by: godspear | December 2, 2009 9:52 PM | Report abuse

Love these suggestions - keep them coming. I'd never heard of the Ryba and had forgotten about Rimsky-Korsakov.

ACD: You touch very nicely on on a point I (deliberately) skirted about the "meaning" of this seasonal music resonating beyond its literal religious function. I am tempted to equate your self-described "mild perversity" to my own fondness for works by certain male artists who thought that women were inferior beings, but that might be too big a can of worms to open.

godspear: I'm glad to find a kindred spirit. A note on Schumann-Heink: I believe that her "Silent Night" at midnight was an American radio tradition that started in the 1920s; she moved to this country around 1906.

Posted by: MidgetteA | December 2, 2009 11:55 PM | Report abuse

Christmas Instrumental Music:

Posted by: tina_gray75 | December 4, 2009 5:13 PM | Report abuse

Christmas songs are way overplayed. Something that I guarantee most people have never listened to is Chanukah music. Not even trying to covert any of you to Judaism, just take a listen to a Chanukah song and I guarantee you will actually enjoy it.
I prefer the Connie Francis album the most. Let me know what you think.

Posted by: mlewis680 | December 4, 2009 7:07 PM | Report abuse

The traditional carols and hymns are wonderful, but they tend to lose all meaning by December 25 because of the way we are assaulted with them everywhere in the weeks before. The antidote in my family is to play the CD "A Christmas Treasure" with Julie Andrews singing fresh, unique arrangements by Andre Previn. We always wait until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day to play it. It always cleanses from our ears the horrors of the versions forced on us earlier. Unfortunately, the CD is out of print, although it is available on the secondary market for outrageous prices.

Other unhackneyed possibilities include "Hodie," "On Christmas Night", and "The First Nowell" by Vaughan Williams; "Noel" from Chadwick's "Symphonic Sketches"; "Adoration of the Magi" from Respighi's "Botticelli Triptych"; "A Carol Symphony" by Hely-Hutchinson; "Improvisation on Christmas Carols" by Bryan Kelly; "A Christmas Carol Symphony" by Patric Stanford; and "Wassail Dances" by Philip Lane.

Posted by: wsheppard | December 7, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

Those who lament the overplaying of certain Christmas tunes every holiday season should listen (and watch) "Christmas Can Can" by Straight No Chaser:

Happy Merry Christmeidhanukwanzivus, folks! :)

Posted by: SportzNut21 | December 7, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

While I'm not a fan of most Christmas music composed after about 1800, one modern -- well, 100 years old -- hymn that I find very lovely is "In the Bleak Midwinter." Holst did a terrific job in composing the perfect music to fit the mood of the C. Rossetti poem on which the hymn is based. There's an interesting essay about this work, with a link to one of several YouTube videos (in the next to last paragraph), on the MusicWeb Int'l site. See:

Posted by: pgaron | December 7, 2009 10:45 PM | Report abuse

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