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As this Christmastide begins to end with the last two days of Christmas, listening to the last two parts of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (if you already haven’t done so) is a great way to finish the season. This being said, here are the last two albums (and some runners-up for your consideration) for days 11 and 12 of Christmastide.
Day 11 (Jan. 4th): Dream Season: The Christmas Harp, Yolanda Kondonassis. This album is a favorite for members of my family (my wife and son), and contains some beautiful music. It does have a rather interesting “vibe” when the percussion accompanist plays along, but overall the quality is quite good, especially considering Kondonassis is one of the world’s great harpists. The harp has always been associated with “heavenly” or “ancient” music, so having an album of such music for the end of Christmastide is more than appropriate. You can purchase the album here, and a couple of the selections are available on YouTube as part of a different collection (same recording however):
Day 12 (Jan. 5th): A Festival of Carols in Brass, Philadelphia Brass Ensemble. To complete our survey of excellent Christmas music, this collection is a bit of a modern classic. This is festive brass to the max, with mostly straightforward arrangements of the vast majority of what most people think are the “normal” carols and hymns of Christmastide. The playing is uniformly of a high quality, and the atmosphere is “festive” in a good way. While free on YouTube, this is a great addition to your physical collection as well.
As always, any feedback on this series is welcome. I hope all of you enjoyed at least a few selections from “Music for Christmastide.” Here are some runners-up as a bonus below:
Joy to the World (Royal Philharmonic/London Symphony)
Classical Christmas (Lumiere String Quartet)
Songs of Angels (Robert Shaw Chorus)
Christmas Carols (Andrew Parrot, Taverner Consort)
A String Quartet Christmas (Arturo Delmoni)
O Come All Ye Faithful (King’s College)
Carols from Trinity (Choir of Trinity College)
The Glorious Sound of Christmas (Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra)
(Part 5 of 6 for Music of Christmastide)
As we continue in the New Year, the last few days of Christmastide are upon us. If you are listening to the Bach Christmas Oratorio, now would be a good time to acquaint yourselves with parts 5 and 6 (involving the visit of the Magi).
Day 9 (Jan. 2nd): “Salvation is Created” (and other works) by Pavel Tchesnokov. While originally intended as a communion hymn, this work is very appropriate for Christmastide, and is often done, either by a symphonic band or choir (even men’s choir). Why is this work appropriate? One, it is one of the most beautiful simple choral works one can hear, the text is beautiful, and it is a good introduction to the huge output of Russian Orthodox choral music in the years before communism. In fact, Tchesnokov wrote hundreds of sacred works, but most were suppressed or hidden because of the Soviet authorities. Here is the text and a video:
Salvation is made in the midst of the earth, O God. Alleluia
Day 19 (Jan. 3rd): Christmas Organ Music (performed by Kevin Bowyer). This is a fantastic album with the “king of instruments” playing a variety of familiar Christmas melodies, along with some compositions that might be unfamiliar. A hidden gem is Brahms’ “Es ist ein ros’ Entsprungen” (Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming), in which he looks back towards Bach after a career of late Romantic classicism. The album is relatively cheap and can be found for download here. The entire album is also free on YouTube!
The first 6 days have been filled mostly with actual “thorough-composed” works for Christmastide, such as Cantatas for church, oratorios, and the like. For these next two days, I have selected 2 albums that are more “collections” or “compilations” of carols, done in a tasteful way. Of course, you should still be listening to the Bach Christmas Oratorio throughout the 12 days!
Day 7 (Dec. 31st): Noels & Carols From The Olde World, by Apollo’s Fire. This album is extremely charming, with some great takes on tunes such as “Fum, Fum, Fum,” “I Saw Three Ships,” and many others. This entire album is actually free on YouTube thanks to Apollo’s Fire, one of the great American period instrument ensembles, based in Cleveland. If you don’t know their work, now is as good of time as any, starting with this evocative album.
Day 8 (Jan. 1st): Christmas Star: Carols for the Christmas Season, Rutter and the Cambridge Singers. This album is beautifully done, even if it is a bit of your typical “warm and fuzzy choir” album. Some of the arrangements are quite good, especially the Baroque-ish take on “Joy to the World” in the style of Handel, and “O Come All Ye Faithful” is quite powerful. If you like Christmas carols, and/or the English choral tradition, you can sing along with much of this album, as my wife and I did on an 8 hour car trip one Christmastide. These arrangements are exceedingly popular in the English speaking world, especially at orchestra Christmas concerts (been there done that). The entire album is fairly inexpensive and can purchased here. Below is the aforementioned “Joy to the World” which is probably my favorite arrangement of that hymn/carol.
Special Note (Bonus listening): January 1st is also the Holy Name Day and Circumcision of Jesus in the Church Calendar, and J.S. Bach wrote an outstanding cantata (of course) to celebrate this day: BWV 190, “Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied.” Here is a translation, and enjoy the festive trumpets!
Day 5 (Dec. 29th): “Von Himmel Hoch,” by Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s chief claim to fame for Christmas music is the tune for “Hark the Herald,” but this cantata, heavily influenced by Bach, is much more intentional on his part. In fact, the “Hark” tune actually comes from a secular cantata! Most English speaking Christians know “Von Himmel Hoch” as “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” and/or, “Welcome to Earth, O Noble Guest,” found in most Lutheran (and some Anglican) hymnals.
“From heaven above to earth I come
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing…”
Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
Thou com’st to share my misery;
What thanks shall I return to Thee?”
Here is the opening chorus:
Here is a link to another disc that contains Mendelssohn’s “Magnificat” (Mary’s song) and other related works in addition to this one.
Day 6 (Dec. 30th): Christmas Oratorio (Oratorio de Noël), Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns is an interesting case, in that while he played organ in churches throughout his life (and was considered one of the greatest organists of his day), and wrote pieces such as this, he himself was fashionably agnostic (in the 19th century French academy that is) about faith. Yet early in his career, he composed this beautiful work, with the heritage of church music before him and the liturgical heritage of the Roman church in his ears. The prelude is in the style of Bach-Romanticized (a staunch Lutheran), and the choral music is very much French Catholic. So here we have a composer writing a beautiful work for the Christ-Child fully within the stream of Western music but not believing it? Or perhaps he did and then left the faith? Either way, this music is certainly a worthy addition to your listening during Christmastide.
For part 2 of our series on Music for Christmastide, we will cover December 27th and 28th, or Days 3 and 4 of the 12 Days of Christmas. As was mentioned in part 1, Bach’s Christmas Oratorio can and should be used throughout the 12 days in addition to the individual pieces here. Happy listening!
Day 3(Dec. 27th): Mass for Christmas Day, Praetorius. . This piece is a fascinating look at how Christmas was celebrated in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with “hold-overs” from the medieval era with some distinctly Lutheran “flavor.” In particular, the recording done by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort is quite good, and if you have good sound available to you, the acoustics inside the church give a nice “authentic” effect. Listen for some rousing renditions of “In Dulci Jubilo” (Good Christian Men Rejoice) and other familiar tunes. “Rousing” and “festive” while still being reverent.
Day 4 (Dec. 28th): O Magnum Mysterium (and other works), Victoria. If you have yet to make your acquaintance with the glories of Renascence church music, this piece by Victoria serves this purpose better than many others I can think of. Victoria was a pastor/priest in addition to being a brilliant composer, arguably the best in Spain during his time. Watch (or just listen) to this beautiful rendition by The Sixteen, and contemplate this text, translated from Latin:
O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
In addition to this Motet, Victoria also composed an entire liturgy, which can be found with more music related to the birth of the Savior on this disc. Listen to the familiar “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the Highest) which comes from the Angels at Christmas, but is also sung every time the liturgy is performed in the West (Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican).
Days 5 and 6 to follow…comments on your experiences with these pieces are of course welcome!
As one who often speaks about reclaiming and restoring the Classic Christian heritage of the West, the subject of Christian Holy days and seasons often comes up. One of the ways the church and its people have expressed the joy of seasons such as Christmas and Easter is of course through music. Not just any music, or the pabulum you hear at the department store or on the “Adult contemporary” station, but actual art music that attempts (and I would argue, sometimes succeeds) at reaching the transcendent. With this in mind, I am compiling a sort of “playlist” for the 12 days of Christmastide, and if you observed Advent (like many Western Christians do), you should not be “burned out” like much of the rest of the world. So here is part 1 of my “Music for Christmastide” series.
Through all 12 Days: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. There are several reasons for this. One, Bach is the master when it comes to music with a message (rarely if ever equaled), the piece is deep and stands up to many hearings (unlike most Christmas music), and the work itself is a compilation of 6 different sections gathered together. Part 1 is for Christmas Day, Part 2 is for the Shepherds (Dec. 26th), Part 3 is for the adoration of the Shepherds (Dec. 27th), Part 4 is for New Year’s Day (Jesus’ circumcision and name day), Part 5 is for the Journey of the Magi (First Sunday in January), and Part 6 is for Epiphany, the visit of the wise men, and the end of Christmastide. So in other words, this is a piece that you can “live with” for the entire Christmastide season. Amazingly, there is an excellent video on YouTube with period instruments and English subtitles in which the applause breaks up the 6 sections. I highly commend it:
Day 1 (Dec. 25th):Handel’s Messiah, Part I. Even though this piece is ubiquitous during Advent and Christmastide, it really is a great piece of music, especially when your sole experience of it is not “sing alongs”. Handel was master melodist and so effective that Mozart famously said “when he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt!” Handel was also Beethoven’s favorite composer, and Haydn was so moved by Messiah that it was an inspiration for his late great oratorios (The Creation and The Seasons). Part I gets you into the Biblical text in English, and demonstrates musically how the Old Testament is about Christ. This is perfect for the contemplation of the text. My favorite recording is with McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort, but this video is infectiously energetic:
Day 2 (Dec. 26th): Italian Christmas Concertos. In the Roman church during the 17th and 18th centuries, it became common practice for famous composers of the time to write “Christmas concertos,” so-named because the concluding movement was often a “pastorale” which evoked the peace and serenity of the Holy Nativity, and the performances were often given during Christmastide. Corelli’s is probably the most famous, but Manfredini, Vivaldi, Torelli, and many others contributed to this genre. There several collections of these on the market like this one, and the YouTube playlist below should provide a good taste.
Day’s 3 and 4 soon to come…
For those of you out there who are concerned about orthodox Christians everywhere, I submit to you a modern martyr, Fr. Francois Murad, who was beheaded by Islamic Jihadists in northern Syria by a kitchen knife, along with two others. The video in the link is graphic (but does not autoplay), so be warned. Fr. Murad was simply setting up a monastery, and was then kidnapped by the Jabhat Al-Nursa group, who executed him in front of a large group of men and boys, who then yell “Allahu Akbar” and capture it as closely as possible on smartphones.
Unfortunately, this has been a normal occurrence since the so-called “Arab Spring” swept across the North African and Middle Eastern world, with the Christian communities in Egypt, Syria, and other places facing virtual elimination in places that have seen churches since the time of the Apostles. While I usually avoid making political statements of any kind, secular western democratic idealists need to think about the consequences of arming and supporting such groups, who are obviously hostile to virtually everything the west stands for. Unless of course being western today means to be anti-Christian.