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Christmas Contrasts

December 25, 2015

Christmas has probably inspired a more diverse musical commentary than any other subject. So, hold on to your Santa hat as we take a flying tour around a selection of contrasting styles, genres and instrumental combos inspired by the seasonal spirit.

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
Source: Wikimedia

To set the scene, we might begin on Christmas Eve, when anticipation of the event is almost as exciting as the great day itself. One of my most enjoyable opera-house experiences was a scintillating production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Christmas Eve, brimming with tremendous singing and superb slapstick. The composer completed the work in 1895 and described it as ‘a carol come to life’. Rimsky-Korsakov wrote a significant number of operas which made a major contribution to the then relatively new repertoire for the genre in his native Russia. From an orchestral suite of the music of Christmas Eve (8.553789), here’s “Games and Dances of Stars”.

Heinrich Schütz
Source: Wikimedia

Our oldest snippet comes from the pen of Heinrich Schütz, the German composer who was born in 1585 and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-seven. Some 500 of his compositions were published during his lifetime, which guaranteed a safe passage in posterity. Many others, however, were lost to fire, war and financial constraints following his death. First performed around 1660, his oratorio Christmas Story (8.553514) is all charm from start to finish, but it has a quirky footnote as a sign of the times of its composition: Schütz didn’t publish the work for sale, but made the majority of the parts for hire only so that he could exercise quality control over anyone intending to perform the piece by hiring out only to musicians of a certain standard. In his words: “Other than in well-appointed royal chapels, this music cannot be adequately performed.” Here’s the shepherds’ scene as the three pastoral characters set out excitedly for Bethlehem to witness for themselves the great event of the birth of Jesus.

Witold Lutoslawski
Source: Wikimedia

Fast forward to the 20th century and Witold Lutosławski’s versatile and highly attractive Twenty Polish Carols (8.555994). Originally scored for piano and voice, the set was subsequently expanded and orchestrated, reaching its final form in 1990. It had all started in 1946 when, in post-world war Poland, there was a rapid implementation of Socialist Realist policies that made it hard for Lutosławski to pursue the line of musical development apparent in his earlier orchestral and chamber works. Frustrating for him, maybe, but lucky for us that we can now enjoy this highly approachable set of carols, illuminated by Lutosławski’s sparkling orchestrations. To demonstrate the point, here’s This is our Lord’s birthday, sung in the original Polish.

Jakub Jan Ryba
Source: Wikimedia

The Czech composer Jakub Jan Ryba took his own life in a forest in 1815, following bouts of depression, a scene that’s hard to reconcile with the atmosphere of his Czech Christmas Mass, “Hail Master” (8.554428). Although the shell of the work is in the form of the standard mass—Kyrie, Gloria etc—the standard text is replaced by one telling the standard Christmas story. The Gloria is the vehicle for the shepherds’ tableau; here we have the company of angels encouraging the first shepherd to get into gear and hasten his gait to Bethlehem.

Winter Wonderland
Source: Google Play

It’s a small step from the folksy feel of that music to more secular manifestations of the Christmas season, those that nowadays sit cheek by jowl with sacred carols in the muzak mix heard in shopping malls. Here’s one such piece from the period of American Vaudeville. Felix Bernard wrote his Winter Wonderland in 1934, since when it’s been recorded in various arrangements by hundreds of artists. Our Naxos pick is an instrumental version for piano trio (8.554099).

Jingle Bells
Source: Pinterest

Jingle Bells has had the same treatment, with countless arrangements of what is probably the most famous American Christmas song of all time. Written around the middle of the nineteenth century by James Lord Pierpont, it gets the Swingle Singers treatment here in an arrangement by Ben Parry (8.573030), a former member of the famous a cappella group. A word of warning: don’t try to tap your feet in time with much of the audio clip…!


We raise a glass or two (actually, probably considerably more) in our final stop on this Christmas tour with Roderick Elms’ Wassailing in the Dark (8.570793). Written in 2003 to mark the 50th anniversary of the BBC Concert Orchestra, it’s scored for orchestra and organ solo. Here’s the composer’s note on the piece: “Wassailing in the Dark is a lively piece based on the carol tune Here we come a-wassailing. Despite some flagging spirits in the middle, and a somewhat wayward organist who seems totally incapable of finding his place, they all romp to a very merry conclusion!”

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