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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sounds of the Season

Some of you, and you know who you are, have already been listening to Christmas music since
November 1. Some, since October 1. Don’t lie. Those radio stations out there which have been playing Christmas music for over two months already have some kind of clientele, and I have deep suspicions that certain ones of you are being pandered to by these Yule-pimps of the airwaves. OK, that’s fine. To each his or her own.

Being in the church music “biz,” I’m not unfamiliar with starting to rehearse music for Christmas in September, and, may I add, always wishing that, getting to this date two weeks before Christmas and wishing I had started in July. But dang it, it’s hard having a barbecue, then going to rehearsal and singing “Gesu Bambino.” There’s an emotional dissonance there. We've had to record an entire Christmas album in summertime, as happened fifteen years ago when Terry recorded On Christmas Day in the Morning.

But the sheer ubiquity of Christmas music now, some of it so hopelessly banal and calculated and cynical (we sing it, you buy it), just makes me cringe ("A Mary Christmas"… Really, Ms. Blige?). As it gets closer to Gaudete Sunday (3rd Sunday of Advent), we start to get the house ready for Christmas and like to put on the iTunes Christmas tracks, which contains only our favorite Christmas music. We disagree on what is the best of the best, but pretty much we like what’s on the playlist of over 300 songs. For instance, if the Doors had a Christmas album, I'd be listening to it, and Terry would throw Christmas ornaments at me, then the tree. Luckily, this is not going to happen.

So that got me to thinking, what are your favorite Christmas songs, and what are your favorite recordings of songs, and what are your favorite out-and-out Christmas albums? Feel free to leave your faves here in the comments area - I haven’t bought any new Christmas CDs this year, and maybe you’ll give me some ideas.

Favorite Christmas songs:
  1. My choir singing “Cantique de Noël” in French at midnight mass. The French version has the word “Noël” at those dramatic points in the refrain where the English text has “O night divine,” and it fits the music perfectly. My choir are such good sports, and have also endured phonetic rote singing of German and Tagalog (so far) just to make Christmas a little more homey for native speakers in the choir and out of it. We were working on the Huron carol in Wyandot, but I decided the arrangement I had in mind wasn't worthy of their efforts. Next year.
  2. I’m a sucker for the Alfred Burt carols, including “Caroling, Caroling” and “Some Children See Him.” These carols were originally unique Christmas cards sent yearly by the Burt family, with texts by his father, Bates, and family friend Wihla Hutson, and music by Alfred, a jazz musician. Burt died in 1954 at the age of 34, having written one of these songs a year for about 15 years. The last one, “The Star Carol,” was written just 24 hours before he died of a heart attack. We used to sing “We’ll Dress the House” with our children’s choir every year  for the Christmas treelighting concert.
  3. “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” — sometimes we think we invented Christmas as a justice feast, but out of Unitarian pastor Edmund Sears of Boston in the midst of the Industrial Revolution comes this amazing text that with timeless freshness proclaims the evangel of Christmas to those “beneath life’s crushing load” in this “weary world.” Most of us have never even heard the third stanza of this carol. How about this?
Yet with the woes of sin and strife

The world has suffered long;

Beneath the angel-strain have rolled

Two thousand years of wrong;

And man, at war with man, hears not

The love-song which they bring;

O hush the noise, ye men of strife,

And hear the angels sing.

I also love the original text of “What Child Is This,” sung to the melody of “Greensleeves.” Unfortunately, the carol has been severely bowdlerized in modern hymnals. Written in the mid-19th century by William Chatterton Dix (“As With Gladness Men of Old”), this text sparkles with juxtapositions of ironies that speak to the wonder of the event celebrated in the season: “the Virgin sings her lullaby”; “in mean estate/Where ox and ass are feeding...the silent Word is pleading”; and the most jarring of all,
Nails, spears shall pierce him through

The cross be borne for me, for you.

Joy, joy for Christ is born,

The babe the son of Mary.

Favorite recorded versions:
Favorite Christmas albums:
In the “Where the H*** Did That Come From” Department:
  • Bing Crosby/David Bowie “Little Drummer Boy” duet (WTF???)
In the “If I Never Hear That Again It’ll Be Too Soon” Department:
  • “Christmas Don’t Be Late,” Alvin and the Chipmunks

  • “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”

  • Those stupid dogs barking “Jingle Bells”

  • The sheer bombast of Glenn Close’s (!) rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful” on some compilation I have from Hallmark or something

  • The Paul McCartney ditty-that-must-not-be-named
Hey, leave me your faves, in any or all of the above departments. Enjoy these last couple of weeks before Christmas.