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.
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