The Music of Christmas
Most of us enjoy contemporary art – specifically music, television and films – during the Christmas season. Songs, television programs and movies have become as essential to family traditions as gathering around the Advent wreath, putting up the Christmas tree, or baking Christmas cookies. Like those traditions, music and the visual arts evoke the memories and feelings of past Christmases, or create new ways of capturing, or even defining, our present experiences.
For me, the Advent and Christmas seasons are both joyful and sad, cheerful and melancholic. I embrace the yearning of O Come, O Come Emmanuel alongside the exultant Joy to the World. I would not want one without the other. Just as I appreciate a mix of the Sacred and the Secular in my seasonal enjoyments.
To give examples, consider this particular list of music that will be heard in my house at Christmas.
O Come, O Come Immanuel and The First Noel, as arranged by Arthur Harris for the 1962 album The Glorious Sound of Christmas by The Philadelphia Orchestra (Eugene Ormandy, conductor) have a particular emotional potency for me year after year. Percy Faith’s The Music of Christmas and Mantovani’s Christmas Carols – which, in my younger days, I would have dismissed as “Muzak” – are deeply evocative. I only recently discovered Morton Gould (with various orchestras) and his A Musical Christmas Tree album, with his Serenade of Carols becoming a must-listen.
John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers are mainstays, along with the Robert Shaw Chorale, the Roger Wagner Chorale and various performances of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Christmas works.
But my vocal enjoyments aren’t limited to classics. Bing Crosby’s and Nat King Cole’s Christmas albums are necessities. The Carpenter’s pop-turn on Christmas Portrait, and the blended arrangements found on Josh Groban’s Noel and Michael Bublé’s two Christmas discs will be heard throughout the season.
Coming from a different direction, we’ll play The Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin and John Michael Talbot’s The Birth of Jesus, often back-to-back.
The non-synth efforts by Mannheim Steamroller, along with George Winston’s December and Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas get placed in their own playlist.
I’ve come to appreciate last year’s album Twelve Tales of Christmas by British pop vocalist Tom Chaplin (lead singer for Weezer), as well as Coldplay’s one-off Christmas Lights.
Overkill has diminished my appreciation for many of the rock-and-roll “classics,” especially when they’re heard in stores as early as Halloween. However, 1960s pop star Lou Christie did a remarkable version of O Holy Night that I put as a favorite. And if your taste leans to rock, you’ll be surprised (in a good way) by Hanson’s Snowed In album from 1997. 1980s performer Richard Marx created a worthy effort a couple of years ago with Christmas Spirit. No kidding.
This isn’t the sum-total of the music I listen to during Advent and Christmas, but it’s a sampling. These artists and songs fill the season with a wide range of emotions – bringing to mind the many memories of people and places long gone, as well as my appreciation for my present life.