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 SÃ¼ss” 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 AgrÃ©able,” 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