Kristine’s Much-Less-Endearing-than-Rosalynde’s Christmas Music Confessions (which may nonetheless redeem themselves by being useful for aspiring classical music geeks)

December 9, 2004 | 39 comments
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So, umm, I sort of dimly know what Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sound like, but the voice that means Christmas for me is John Shirley-Quirks’s.This isn’t mere snobbishness on my part; I am sometimes quite embarrassed by my total ignorance of the American culture everyone else seems to have effortlessly mastered. I grew up on Vaughan Williams’ Hodie and Menotti’s ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors.’ I honestly believed every kid knew “What Shall We do With Your Crutch?” as well as Jingle Bells. (Have I mentioned that I had few friends in elementary school?) When we were really letting our hair down around my house, we listened to Mannheim Steamroller or the Canadian Brass.

With music in general, and I think especially with Christmas music, a huge part of taste is simple familiarity: we like what we know. I’ve been known to make bombastic arguments for the superiority of classical music to other forms, but I’ll spare you (for today, anyway), and offer instead my simple conviction that this is great stuff, and that it is both wholly unnecessary and a crying shame to miss out on the joys of this music because it is unfamiliar or “difficult”. It is less difficult to make it familiar than you may have been led to believe by the existence of college courses on “music appreciation.” There is lots and lots and lots of classical music that one can appreciate merely by listening to it a few times. My husband, who grew up in a decidedly different musical environment than I did, now likes some of my Christmas favorites as much as I do, and is starting to have opinions different than mine on some pieces (the nerve!!) just because he’s heard it in the background (and it has occasionally grabbed his attention) over the years.

So, with that longish introduction, here’s my even longer* list of classical music that I think it’s worthwhile to become familiar with. Pick one of these albums that looks interesting and put it in your regular Christmas rotation for a few years, and see if you don’t get hooked! If you’re already hooked, please add to the list in the comments. Comments can also be used to suggest remedial popular music education items for me!

Chanticleer: one of my favorite choral groups. Their all-male voices (countertenors sing soprano and alto) gives them a kind of blend and purity of sound that is uncanny, really. Their intonation is nearly always perfect, and they perform a wide range of styles–from chant to gospel–very well (though they are occasionally beguiled into an overlush prettiness that may annoy period performance purists). They’ve done several Christmas albums, including
Sing We Christmas: mostly traditional carols, with gorgeous renditions of “Lo, How a Rose” and “O Jesulein Süss” and a great arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo,” including Bach’s harmonization with a bass line that’s amazing, even for Bach. It also has a pretty version of “Quell Est Cette Odeur Agréable,” which, alas doesn’t translate very well and therefore isn’t well-known to English-speakers.

and Christmas With Chanticleer (Featuring Dawn Upshaw), notable for Hugo Distler’s long choral meditation on “Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen” (“Lo, How a Rose”) with Dawn Upshaw’s miraculous singing. Even if you don’t usually like classically- trained or operatic singers, it’s hard not to like Upshaw’s voice–rich and warm, but clean and never flat. She’s also featured in a beautiful setting ofmy favorite Christmas poem.

There’s more, if you get hooked on Chanticleer, but I’d start with one of those.

Resphigi’s Lauda per la nativita del SignoreIt’s hard to describe this piece; it’s really unlike any other Respighi, especially the big Rome trilogy that everyone knows. I always imagine that if God had decided to stage the birth of Jesus as a musical, this is the score he would have used, especially if the shepherds had been a well-trained chorus with a couple of English horns in their backpacks and the angelic messenger could have been an ethereal soprano instead of (presumably) a baritone (sorry, tenors, you get the good love duets in Italian opera, angels are baritones). I don’t really love any of the recordings of it that I know about, though–either the chorus is so-so and the soloists great, or the soprano is good but the other soloists are over-precious and scoopy. I think I like the Decca recording the better of the two I’ve linked, and it has the bonus of Rossini’s cute Petite Messe. However, the Lauda is not a terribly difficult piece for chorus, and does seem to be getting performed more often in the last few years, so you might be lucky enough to see it done live. Do not miss it!!

Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols Britten is a great introduction to 20th-century music for nervous traditionalists. He draws on chant and other early music, and lots of really great medieval poetry in this piece for trebles and harp. The King’s College choir recording is the classic, but if you can abide the heresy of women’s voices instead of boys’, this recording by The Sixteen, directed by Harry Christophers, is really interesting. He does some slower tempos, and it’s recorded in a really resonant hall (cathedral, I presume), and the lush sound is an interesting variant on the usual spare, clear boy-choir sound. Also lusher than some other recordings is this one, also by King’s College choir, which also contains my very favorite Britten of all, “Rejoice in the Lamb” (about which more at Easter!).

*so outrageously long, in fact, that I’m going to split it up over a few days

39 Responses to Kristine’s Much-Less-Endearing-than-Rosalynde’s Christmas Music Confessions (which may nonetheless redeem themselves by being useful for aspiring classical music geeks)

  1. William Morris on December 9, 2004 at 5:43 pm

    Thanks, Kristine!

    I came to this post thinking that I wouldn’t recognize any of the works you mention, but I have seen “Amahl and the Night Visitors” — indeed, my mom would insist we watch it every year. I’m pretty sure it was the 1978 version.

    Any thoughts on that version (if you’ve seen it)? And is the cast recording you link to above the best recording?

  2. Andrea Wright on December 9, 2004 at 5:46 pm

    Kristine, I’m grateful for your suggestions and would love to broaden our current collection. Will you forgive my if I satisfy my curiosity and ask about your musical background? I read in your bio you play the piano and violin, correct (more imporantly, you love ABBA!)? Were your parents both musical? What do you do to pass this on to your kids? I can releate to being very unaware of popular culture, especially music. While my parents did expose us to classical music and forced us to take piano lessons and another instrument (although somehow Ryan and Davis wore them down on that) we mostly listened to broadway classics. I apologize for trying to sidetrack you from your wonderful post :)

  3. Kristine on December 9, 2004 at 5:46 pm

    As with the Respighi, I think the recordings are uneven. I like this one the best overall, but there are a couple of others with particular things to like–it depends on whether you like drama or have perfect pitch, are a choir nerd or an opera buff.

  4. J. Stapley on December 9, 2004 at 5:50 pm

    Their all-male voices (countertenors sing soprano and alto)

    I too love all male choirs, but confess that I don’t know if that would persist if it were castrati and not contratenors.

  5. William Morris on December 9, 2004 at 5:56 pm

    Kristine:

    Try none of the above. Which is the best recording for those into post-punk and new wave? ;-)

    (Thanks. I’ll have to keep the one you suggest in mind.)

  6. Kristine on December 9, 2004 at 5:57 pm

    Andrea, I should do another post on that. My parents were pretty laissez-faire about it, aside from starting me on Suzuki when I was 5. My dad’s the musician in the family–a really good pianist and organist, and my mom was supportive, but she’s a true literature geek and hears the music of words without all that melodic and harmonic excess. I don’t know if they were deliberate in their goals for teaching us; it felt more like they just did their thing and let us participate when we wanted to. Interestingly, none of my three brothers especially care about classical music, although they all took some lessons for a while, and one brother is trying to resurrect his viola playing at the insistence of his wife. My sister got most of the actual *talent,* as well as the interest–she’s a fine soprano and a much better violinist *and* pianist than I. (Not that I’m bitter or anything :)).

    Anyway, I have not done a lot of formal teaching with my kids, although my six-year-old is begging for violin lessons and I’ll oblige her. We listen to Peter and the Wolf a lot, and they like to listen to Handel’s _Israel in Egypt_ on Sunday afternoon, but we’re not doing FHE lessons on opera yet. Anyway, I’ll do another music post soon, I promise. (I owe one to a lurking Heidi, as well! I haven’t forgotten.)

  7. Kristine on December 9, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    J.–it would be a different sound, too; aside from the yuck factor I think it might not sound as good.

  8. Andrea Wright on December 9, 2004 at 6:12 pm

    Thank you for graciously humoring me. I will anxiously await your future post.

  9. Ana on December 9, 2004 at 6:13 pm

    I appreciate your recommendations, Kristine.

    My husband and I had a major incident when it came do deciding whether to listen to “A Ceremony of Carols” or Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” when decorating our first Christmas tree as a married couple, ten years ago (our first year of marriage was treeless). To this day we listen to both and take a long, leisurely time decorating. But he appreciates Britten more than he used to, thankfully. I always did like Nat, but it wasn’t *the* tree-decorating music to me.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

  10. Keith on December 9, 2004 at 6:13 pm

    I second the Britten “Ceremony of Carols”. There’s a women’s choir in Provo that performs this every year early in December (the conductor used to be Martha Sargent and I assume still is). Thanks for the recommended recordings.

  11. Mark B on December 9, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    Kristine,

    For a woman it may well be a “yuck” factor. For a man, it’s an “OWWWWWW” factor.

  12. Kristine on December 9, 2004 at 6:17 pm

    Martha Sargent’s my cousin; the Britten thing must run in the family!

  13. David King Landrith on December 9, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    I’m not sure that the classical Christmas can be complete without Arnold Schönberg’s contribution to the avant garde Christmas cannon Weihnachtsmusik. In my opinion, the definitive version is the Arditti String Quartet (of course) conducted by Michel Beroff in 1974.

  14. Mark B on December 9, 2004 at 6:25 pm

    Back to serious music:

    I’m not sure what you mean by tenors and baritones. Handel’s bass soloists seem regularly to get as high as the tenor lines in the new (1985) debased hymnbook. (Interesting little correlation between debasing and those guys with low voices. :-))

    Anyway, if your comment about the angels is descriptive (of what composers generally have done), then I’ll have to concede to your obviously greater knowledge. If it’s descriptive of the voices of actual angels that you have heard singing, then I’ll have to concede, again. If, however, it’s a normative statement–that angels ought to be baritones, not tenors, then, as good old Ebenezer would say, Bah, Humbug!

    Yeah, I said serious music, not that this would be a serious comment.

    We like the CD Christmas at the Oratory, carols sung by a choir at The Oratory Church of St. Boniface here in Brooklyn. Great music, beautiful sound. Look for it at oratory-church.org.

  15. Keith on December 9, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    Oh, and I should add that I’m going out tonight to buy the Chanticleer with Dawn Upshaw. I didn’t know about this CD. My wife and I went to a concert of hers. Very ‘personable’ and rich–she makes every note count.

  16. Mark B on December 9, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    Perhaps this should go on Rosalynde’s thread, but new depths have been reached with the release of Terry Bradshaw Sings Christmas Songs for the Whole Family. He may be able to throw an Immaculate Reception, but, as the resurrected Howard Cosell said on Imus this morning, “Dear God!”

  17. Kristine on December 9, 2004 at 6:32 pm

    DKL, yeah, that is luscious, and I’ll defer to you on the recording. Maybe I should see if I could go an entire Christmas season listening only to variations on “Lo, How A Rose.” It might not be bad at all!

  18. Kristine on December 9, 2004 at 6:34 pm

    Mark, my comment about baritone angels, was, alas meant to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive of the history of composition. If it helps any, I still married a tenor. :)

  19. Jonathan Green on December 9, 2004 at 9:40 pm

    I’ll add mine:

    Tallis Scholars, Christmas Motets and Carols. I was looking for “Christmas with the Cambridge Singers” as a present for my not-quite-yet fiance, and Bill recommended I pick up this instead. I bought both. (For the record, the Tallis Scholars of the Tallis Christmas mass does nothing for me.)

    Michael Praetorius, Mass for Christmas Morning. Not actually a mass he wrote, but a recreation of what a Lutheran mass might have sounded like around 1620. After listening to “Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem,” you will never be satisfied again with your ward music director, organist, chorister, and the congregation you sing with.

  20. Bryce I on December 9, 2004 at 10:06 pm

    Kristine, we sang “Whence is that Goodly Fragrance Flowing” in our ward choir some years ago (I’m assuming that’s “Quell Est Cette Odeur Agréable”).

    After we all made the requisite poopy diaper jokes, I really enjoyed it.

    As for castrati, I can’t imagine that a good castrato wouldn’t sound better than a tenor or a baritone. There’s a reason why so many young boys had their manhood sacrificed for so many years.

    And is The Messiah now lowbrow? Every year after Thankgiving I dust off my score and try to sing through parts of it. If you can’t sing to it, it doesn’t make my playlist.

  21. Chad Too on December 9, 2004 at 11:25 pm

    I’ve sung Chanticleer’s Ave Maria (Biebl) before. It’s written in eight parts and sung as two SATB choirs. It tends to get a little long for my taste but the harmony is divine. For those who have Chanticleer’s CD version, I would have been singing in the second choir third voice from the top. As a true first tenor, I’d like to have seen their TTBB 2-choir version looked like on sheet music. I can go high, but I’m neither a contratenor nor castrati.

  22. Clark on December 10, 2004 at 12:01 am

    Wiilliam Morris, have you heard Soundgarden’s Ave Maria? It’s quite an amazing version, all things considered.

  23. Kristine on December 10, 2004 at 8:50 am

    Bryce, I don’t think castrati would sound just like boy trebles or like countertenors. What’s cool about countertenors singing alto & soprano parts is that you get almost all head voice, while with castrati, I would think you’d get more chest resonance mixed in. I’m happy not to know for sure, though!

    And no, Messiah’s not lowbrow (though it’s not my favorite–too many times hearing it butchered at sing-alongs), I just didn’t get to it yet.

    Jonathan–I don’t think I have that one; I have an ancient cassette of Tallis Scholars doing Christmas stuff. I’ll have to check it out. And your friend made a good call–the Cambridge Singers (especially in the last few years) are churning out an awful lot of popsy schlock. John Rutter has become way too popular for his own good.

    And I was, alas, ruined for ward choirs and congregational singing a long time ago! (And don’t even get me started on our lousy organs).

  24. Curtis on December 10, 2004 at 9:34 am

    Hear, hear!

    Anything with Dawn Upshaw in it gets my vote. Along with the Christmas album with Chanticleer, I would also recommend her delightful “I Wish It So” disc, which is terrific even if you don’t think you are a huge classical music buff — lots of clever, classic tunes. (I came to classical music late, by marriage… my wife is a voice professor and working soprano.)

    By way of shameless spouse-promotion, I might also recommend Rodney Lister’s “A Christmas Album” on the Arsis label, which features my wife on one of the song cycles. This CD has a mix of traditional Olde English Christmas music, as well as some other modern stuff that is well worth a listen. (www.arsisaudio.com).

    In addition, I have long loved Kiri Tekanawa’s “Christmas with Kiri.” Even before I met my wife.

  25. Bryce I on December 10, 2004 at 9:35 am

    Kristine –

    The ward building that Danithew and I attended growing up has an honest-to-goodness real pipe organ. The ward organist (who has had the calling ever since I can remember) is quite proud of her instrument.

    As for the quality of the castrato voice, you’re right, but isn’t that the draw?

    A question: Has anyone heard the recordings done by Moreschi (as I understand, they are the only known recordings by a castrato)?

  26. Bill on December 10, 2004 at 2:33 pm

    “After listening to “Ein Kind geborn zu Bethlehem,â€? you will never be satisfied again with your ward music director, organist, chorister, and the congregation you sing with. ”

    Unless you were in the Manhattan 3rd ward circa 2001 when we had nine musical numbers for Christmas including “This is the Record of John” by Orlando Gibbons (really an advent text), Hugo Distler’s setting of “Es ist ein Ros,” and several settings/compositions by ward members. Those days are over now.

    It is true that most of the services I sing or play for at other churches are far superior to and more satisfying than the regular ward choir experience. And, I must admit, more lucrative.

    As for recordings, the one I find myself listening to most often was given to me by my sister: “O Great Joy! Baroque Music for Christmas” by the Harvard University Choir. I think it’s still available on the Choir webpage.

    Bryce, I have heard those recordings. They were made early in the 20th century, if I remember correctly, when Moreschi was already an old man, and don’t really give any kind of true picture of the castrato sound.

  27. Kristine on December 10, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    Bill, that’s my choir! (and the source of my ruination, alas). I graduated right before they started recording “Alleluia,” which was the disc right before O Great Joy! I wish there were more recordings from the John Ferris years–I like Murray a lot, but John was far more subtle and restrained, and I liked the repertoire he picked better than the florid English stuff :) John’s worst insult, by the way, reserved for days when we were *really* flat and draggy was “you sound like the ##*$&! Mormon Tabernacle Choir!”

  28. Kristine on December 10, 2004 at 3:52 pm

    Wait a sec–Bill, Manhattan 2001, CD from your sister–your sister’s Jenny, right?! Hi!!!

  29. Bill on December 10, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    Exactly

  30. Rosalynde Welch on December 10, 2004 at 4:02 pm

    Kristine, between this thread and Kaimi’s cheese thread, I’ve come to realize that I’m a true middlebrow, with highbrow notes and a few lowbrow undertones.

    On Sunday I’m going to hear the King’s College Choir in concert, and they’ll do Britten’s “Ceremony.” I’ve only heard it (the piece; the choir I’ve never heard) live once before, and I’m excited to hear it again. I love a number of King’s College Choir Christmas discs. There’s also a Placido Domingo Christmas recording that I grew up with and love, although most of the pieces are not classical–there’s one in particular, “Long Time Ago in Bethlehem,” that means Christmas to me. And I love the butchered stake Messiah sing along–we do our own family version every year, and butcher it even more sorely, but it’s always a highlight of the season.

    And let’s not forget lowbrow classical music (not a contradiction in terms). Elena discovered “The Nutcracker” this year, and listens to it every night as she falls asleep.

  31. Bryce I on December 10, 2004 at 4:10 pm

    Rosalynde –

    As long as you’re not a unibrow.

  32. Kristine on December 10, 2004 at 4:12 pm

    Don’t worry, Rosalynde–the cheese thread is scaring me, and I love Nutcracker, too. I took Louisa to see it for the first time a couple of weeks ago–bliss!!

  33. Rosalynde Welch on December 10, 2004 at 4:31 pm

    Bryce–HOW DID YOU KNOW! (I thought I doctored my bio photo!)

  34. D. Fletcher on December 10, 2004 at 5:13 pm

    Christmas, for me, is British traditional music, carols and whatnot, partly due to Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Joy to the World, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, etc. Hence, Boy sopranos. King’s College Choir. Handel, Mendelsohn, Vaughn Williams, Britten, and Rutter. And indeed, all of these have contributed to various collections of carols and Christmas-type pieces.

    The David Willcocks arrangement of “O Come All Ye Faithful” found in the Oxford carols books is the best one — I play it on organ every year and literally wail.

    By Vaughn Williams, “The blessed son of God only,” which is contained in Hodie I believe, is the most sublime chorale ever written, short of Bach.

    And it’s pretty interesting that Messiah, written as an Easter piece, is more associated now with Christmas. Because it’s in English. English composers were… lacking… for almost two hundred years, between Purcell and Elgar. Handel and Mendelsohn, transplanted Germans, took up the slack in the meantime.

    Here’s what I’ve accompanied in various programs this Christmas: Handel duet; Do You Hear What I Hear?; Lovers on Christmas Eve (Cy Coleman piece); Pie Jesu (from Lloyd-Webber requiem, done with organ/cello/violin); Christ Child (Hawley Ades); an aria from the Christmas Oratorio by Bach; and O Holy Night, a duet for Jenny and Darrell Babidge (originally a French piece).

    Favorite Christmas recordings: Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, Kathleen Battle, Barbra Streisand, The Bells of Dublin (Chieftains), JingleCats, the soundtrack to Scrooge, and various Messiahs.

    I like the Messiah with George Solti and the Chicago best, for the quality of the choruses. For solos, I like Eileen Farrell and Martha Lipton on the MoTab version with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia.

  35. Hans Hansen on December 10, 2004 at 6:39 pm

    My choice would be Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux aeterna” (Eternal Light), especially the third section “O nata lux” which tells of the evening of the Savior’s birth. Lauridsen reaches a level of expression and emotion in this piece that transcends earthly surroundings. You can hear samples of this piece at

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B000006OF1/104-7186386-4532732?v=glance

  36. Kristine on December 10, 2004 at 8:28 pm

    Lux Aeterna was going to be in Part II–way to steal my thunder, Hans! Your description is apt, and I heartily second the recommendation.

  37. Hans Hansen on December 10, 2004 at 8:49 pm

    Also, Rutter’s “Magnificat”, a real fun piece of music. And for contrast, J.S. Bach’s “Magnificat”. I also favor the “Messiah” recording by John Eliot Gardiner with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists; Gardiner restores all of the vocal and choral ornamentation typical of the period, the tempos are dancelike and the balance with the choruses is light, not your typical heavy elephant-galumpfing Motab sound. See the link below and sample some of the pieces

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0000040VU/002-6574684-0300825?v=glance

  38. Keith on December 10, 2004 at 9:02 pm

    Part II. We want Part II. Please.

  39. Jeff Lindsay on December 13, 2004 at 1:43 am

    Just before I read your post, I posted something about musical devotionals on Christmas Eve. In my ward, it has become a wonderful opportunity for sharing the music of Christmas, and one of the best missionary events I’ve ever seen. I’d appreciate any related experiences regarding Christmas Eve services – something that I think is too rare in the Church.

    Christmas and music should be inseparable – just like worship and music.

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