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A Christmas Festival

Richard Hayman and His Orchestra

There has apparently always been a “market” for Christmas music, albeit only a truly commercial market in the modern sense first with the advent of the gramophone (in the 1890s) and, more recently, with Bing Crosby, Gene Autry and that jolly band of Yuletide crooners who spring to life annually with their roundelay to our Christmas shopping. As the Elizabethan adage runs, at Christmas we must “play and make good cheer” but an element of slightly more serious music in keeping with the Seasonal Spirit is also desirable. Extant commercial recordings show a steady revival of sacred and non-sacred music from the time of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and earlier, and a long tradition of carols and pastoral light musical classics is already well represented on disc.

Sheep May Safely Graze is a prime example. Not exclusively a Christmas item, in its original form this recitative and air with obbligato for two flutes -or recorders- from the secular cantata Was mir behagt (‘What I enjoy’) was revived during the 1930s as a vocal item and arranged in various orchestral and piano transcriptions, most notably that recorded by Myra Hess. Also within the mood of Christmas is the sacred song Mein Jesu, was für Seelenweh (BWV 487), but the omnipresent figure of J.S. Bach extends well beyond his time to the celebrated Prayer to the Virgin, Ave, Maria. Not strictly Bach, but written by Charles Gounod (1818-1893) in 1859, it highlights the seamlessly spherical progression of the opening prelude of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. This much-loved vocal encore also makes a fine solo for violin.

Atop the roster of received baroque and rococo Christmas music ranks the Hallelujah Chorus (finale of Messiah, the 1742 oratorio masterpiece of George Frideric Handel, 1685-1759), while from the pen of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) comes Sleigh Ride (from Ländler or Three German Dances), and from his father Leopold (1719-1787) the Musical Sleigh Ride of 1755. A tradition in sleigh-rides has persisted too in some noted programmatic modern creations, including those by the Bradford (England)-born tone­poet Frederick Delius (1862-1934) and the Russian pianist-composer Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953). Subtitled “A Winter Night”, the Delius Sleigh Ride, dating from 1889, relates to his time spent in Florida; the Prokofiev Troika, from the 1933 suite for Lieutenant Kijé, is a fine early page of descriptive film-music.

Traditional Christmas musical fare nowadays includes arrangements of old tunes, some so old that they are embedded in folklore plus a few others which, while more overtly commercial in origin, have become part of everyone’s vocabulary. Into the first group fall A Christmas Festival (a medley of popular Christmas tunes realised by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-born conductor and arranger Leroy Anderson, 1908-1975), the Elizabethan Greensleeves, O Sanctissima (an eighteenth century German carol also known as O du fröhliche) and Carol of the Bells (a Ukrainian traditional carol for SATB, revised by M. Leontovich, this American publication dates from 1936)- all heard here in arrangements by conductor Richard Hayman.

Owing to severe changes in world weather patterns, White Christmases may now be fewer than they once were (except perhaps in Russia), but the appeal of snow in the ‘Marshmallow World’ sense -always better on cards than on roads- remains undimmed in the Western imagination. The Seasonal landscape is certainly well conjured by Winter, Variations 1 to 4 of the 1899 ballet The Seasons, by Alexander Glazunov (1865-1936).

Peter Dempsey

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