Monday, 19 December 2016

Lesser-Known Sonic Gems of Christmastide

By Dr Leslie McMurtry

Last year, 33,000 people voted for their favorite Christmas songs on British radio station Classic FM’s annual poll.  The winner was “Silent Night” with “O Holy Night” taking second place.  On American site Ranker, “White Christmas” takes the prize with “Silent Night” in second place.  While these songs are undoubtedly beautiful and perennial favorites, it occurred to me as I looked over my Christmas song collection that out of nearly 250 songs, I had 192 different titles, and many of them relatively obscure.

I have been interested in the origins of Christmas songs and carols for almost as long as I can remember, looking with interest at the date and composer of songs published in children’s books with lyrics for singing.  With several centuries of tradition, it seems miserly to focus on tunes of the last two hundred years.  I would like to highlight here some of the lesser-known Yuletide songs and their stories.
I applaud the website Hymns and Carols of Christmas which provides not only a wealth of information but keeps the spirit of Christmas all year round.

Corelli’s Christmas Concerto (Concerto Grosso Opus 6, No. 8)

Arcangelo Corelli is remembered as “Founder of Modern Violin Technique,” the “World's First Great Violinist,” and the “Father of the Concerto Grosso.”  However, he is probably not known very well outside of reasonably au fait classical musical listeners. claims that Corelli would have been as well-known for his violin in the 17th century as Paganini was in the 19th, but that he was not a virtuoso in the modern sense.  We are more concerned here, naturally, with his composing technique.  He popularized the Concerto Grosso and made it as integral to music as the symphony became in the classical period.  He wrote comparatively few compositions but all were popular, and he labored hardest on Opus 6, which was not finished in his lifetime.  As a teacher, he influenced a whole generation including Vivaldi.  There actually is not a great deal of biographical information available on Corelli; however, his composition definitely speaks for itself.  What is the Christmas connection, you might ask?  In the notes, the composer wrote “Fatto per la note di Natale,” i.e. written for Christmas Eve.

What is beautiful about Corelli’s composition are the varying moods.  The Adagio is contemplative and soulful—indeed, you could almost describe it as melancholy or wistful.  The first time I ever heard this piece of music, it was not associated with Christmas and was part of the soundtrack of the Peter Weir film Master and Commander.  The film is important to me as it introduced me to Patrick O’Brian’s book series which is the best historical fiction ever written, and to several beautiful pieces of baroque music such as Corelli’s Adagio from the Concerto Grosso.  The scene for which this piece is the accompaniment was the incredibly sad moment when Dr Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany), having been accidentally wounded, is brought on a stretcher to the Galapagos Islands by his concerned friend Captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe).  Although (spoilers) he survives the surgery, I thought in the context of the film that he had been brought to the islands to die.  Thus, that movement will always be tinged with unwonted sadness and poignancy for me.  I can imagine, though, that Corelli wanted to compose something reflective, as, with much in Christian tradition of centuries past, the joyousness of the Nativity is colored by the knowledge of Calvary to come.  Listening to the Adagio reminds me to be still and reflect on the mystery of Christmas with meditation and focus.

Very different, indeed, is the Pastorale Movement.  Oddly enough, once again I had to rely on another medium to introduce me to this joyful and exquisite piece.  It has featured in years’ worth of Jacquie Lawson computer Advent calendars and though I had often heard it and enjoyed it, it wasn’t until I heard the full Concerto Grosso on YouTube that I recognized its provenance.  Although its tempo is slow, the Pastorale is delightful and full of good feeling.   

This is my favorite rendition of the Christmas Concerto on YouTube, it’s beautifully played and beautifully filmed.  It is interesting to see the faces of the performers as they interpret the soulfulness of this composition. 

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The beautiful poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, written during the American Civil War in 1863, has been set to various pieces of music, something I did not realize until I came to research the Advent Calendar in 2011.  The poem reminds us that while many Christmas songs have been composed with the abstract (or even the flippant[1]) in mind, some have concrete and sometimes poignant backgrounds.  Longfellow, one of the most iconic American poets of the 19th century, wrote this poem after his son Charley was wounded in Virginia in December 1863.  You can read more about his story here.
In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin arranged a shorter version of the poem “Christmas Bells” with the verses about the Civil War removed, and provided music, which he published in 1912.  There are at least three other tunes which have been assigned to this poem.  This is the version I heard first. 
Here is another version about which I can find little information.  But I like the tune.
A more recent arrangement was made by Christian rock/pop group Casting Crowns’ frontman Mark Hall and Dale Oliver.
More than ever, we need to heed its message and try to take some comfort from it:
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said:
"For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!"

The Seven Joys of Mary

Like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” there is a real sense of satisfaction at having got to the end of this carol; it really feels like climbing up toward something important!  The words and music of this carol are traditional English and it is probably medieval; one version was collected by Mrs Milligan Fox and recorded by Richard Runciman Terry in Two Hundred Folk Carols (1933).  
Here is a version of that traditional tune, though personally I think it was best interpreted by the Pro Arte Singers with music arranged by Joshua V. Himes.  (Buy their album.  Buy it now!)
There is another version, called “The Seven Blessings of Mary,” collected by John Jacob Niles in Appalachia, coincidentally also in 1933.  This is quite different from the traditional English version. 
As noted by Erik Routley in The English Carol (1961), the so-called “primitive” versions in the medieval manuscripts have five joys:
The Nativity
The Crucifixion
The Resurrection
The Ascension
The Assumption

The sevenfold pattern of joys or miracles in the familiar version:

The Nativity
Making the lame to walk
Making the blind to see
Raising the dead to life

The version with twelve may date to the mid-17th century.   

Loreena McKennitt sings the lyrics of “The Seven Rejoices of Mary” to a different tune which much resembles that from the Irish folk song “The Star of the County Down.”  This tune, according to Routley, is heard “everywhere,” was recorded at multiple places in England such as Weobley, Lew Trenchard, Kingsfold, Scotland, and appears three times under different titles in English County Songs. 

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

One of the best Christmas album purchases I ever made was Christmas Center Stage by the San Francisco cast of Phantom of the Opera.  Although some might argue the instrumentation is basic—a piano—it’s a wonderfully interpreted album with plenty of variety, from “Merry Christmas, Darling” and “White Christmas” (with the original opening from Holiday Inn intact) to this musical setting of Clement Moore’s famous poem.  (In fact, I blogged about it here previously.)  I didn’t think much about where the music came from; it just seemed a nice piece for multiple voices.

Flash forward several years: This was solved for me when I was carrying out my listening for a previous guest blog.  Writing the blog got me started on my odyssey to listen and catalogue Christmas-themed audio drama, and I heard the piece once again in “Fibber Paints the Christmas Tree White,” an episode of Johnson Wax/Fibber McGee and Molly (NBC, 18 December 1945). 
Like Burns and Allen, Fibber McGee and Molly (written by Don Quinn, sponsored sometimes quite outrageously by Johnson Wax, and played by Jim and Marian Jordan) were a fixture of Depression-era humor.  The real-life married couple started in radio in the late 1920s.  They were Irish-American Catholics, but as you can hear, this is an entirely secular program.  It took me awhile to get into the show, but Fibber’s hapless but well-meaning character won me over at last. This story is one of several from 1945 that address the short-lived craze for white flocked trees.  Evidently, though, the song featured in several episodes of the radio comedy program and was composed by Ken Darby c. 1941.  It was performed by the King's Men and arranged by Harry Simeone and performed by the Billy Mills Orchestra featuring the King's Men.

You can hear it here:

Here is another version on early television by Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians from 1951 (it’s a bit strange):

Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (1967)

This must surely rank as one of the most exquisite Christmas carols ever written.  Its unaccompanied sound lends an ancient feel to it while the harmonies suggest a modern composition style.  The text hails from Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs, compiled by Joshua Smith in New Hampshire in 1784 (though it was apparently first printed in London in 1761 and signed by one "R. H.").  The music is a different story altogether, having been composed by Elizabeth Poston in the twentieth century.  Poston was a talented composer who wrote a variety of music, including scores for television and radio. 
The conceit of the lyrics compares Jesus Christ to an apple tree, with some Biblical precedent, though others have speculated it is an attempt to Christianize the pagan ritual of Wassailing the apple orchards, popular in the West Country.  In any case, it’s beautiful imagery.
Here is a lovely version:

Twas in the Moon of Wintertime

Written probably by Jean de Brébeuf in the early 1640s (I have seen three dates proposed), a Jesuit missionary, at the Sainte-Marie Huron community, with the original words in the Huron language, the best-known English translation was made in 1926 by Jesse Edgar Middleton.  The tune is a French melody, “La Jeune Pucelle,” but as the song went unrecorded for 100 years, it’s impossible to know if this was the original tune.  The carol was collected from the Hurons by Father de Villeneuve, a Jesuit stationed 1747-94 at Lorette, Quebec.  Brébeuf was certainly the author of the first Huron catechism and a French/Huron dictionary. He was killed by Iroquois and the mission destroyed in 1649, and Brébeuf has since taken on legendary status.  The song endured, was translated into French by Paul Picard (Paul Tsaenhohi, son of the famous Huron leader Point of Day).  Father Paul Lejeune wrote in 1634, “The Indians are great singers, they sing like the great majority of nations on Earth for pleasure and for worship; that is to say with them during their pagan beliefs . . . they use few words when singing, using tonal variation and not varying the words. . . They say that we imitate the cries of birds in our tunes” (somewhat freely translated by myself, I must say).

While it is an official Canadian carol and remains a common Christmas hymn in Canadian churches of many Christian denominations, I think outside of Canada it is not particularly well-known (except perhaps in music education where the modest range makes it easy for students to play and sing); in any case, it is not particularly frequently recorded or broadcast on conventional pop radio.

The opening lines in English go,

“ 'Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled . . .,”

making obvious that the carol uses a number of concepts familiar to Algonquin peoples.   Among the Iroquois, specifically the Seneca, the Midwinter Festival took place five days after the new moon following the zenith of the Pleiades.  On the first day there was the “Boiling of the Babies,” the public naming of babies who had been born since the Green Corn Ceremony.  The corn soup was boiled to be eaten the following day.  New Year officially began at dawn on the next day.   Late December was known to the Lakota as “The Moon of Popping Trees,” when it was so cold twigs would snap in the cold.  
Here is a version of “ ‘Twas in the Moon in Wintertime” in English:

Here performed in several languages:

Still, Still, Still

“Still, Still, Still” is a traditional Austrian melody which, as you can imagine from the title, is a lullaby.  The words were first printed in 1865 in a folk song collection. The Salzburg melody dates from 1819.  I’m afraid there isn’t much more I was able to dig up on it.

Here is a version in the original German:

Star in the East

Not to be confused with this version, collected by J. M. Lowrie, in The Silver Song, by William A. Ogden and music from William Augustine Ogden (Toledo, Ohio: W. W. Whitney, 1870). 

I first heard this haunting carol on Anonymous 4’s album The Cherry Tree Carol.  It has also been recorded by the Rose Ensemble who cite The Southern Harmony (1854) as its source.  Not surprisingly, Anonymous 4’s version is more Early Music in approach and the Rose Ensemble is more “southern harmony hymn.”  Both versions are beautiful. 

Here is yet another interpretation with guitar with clear links to the southern harmony hymn. 

Stan Freberg
As this is “lesser-known sonic gems,” you can’t have Christmas (I’ve learned in the last year) without a liberal sprinkling of Stan Freberg.  Freberg (b. 1926) was a maverick, who reportedly entered the world of making commercials on radio and TV because he found most adverts moronic.  He injected everything he did with satire.  Evidently he was even an influence on the Beatles, according to Paul McCartney.  He didn’t impress everyone—while elected to the Radio Hall of Fame, he was never elected to the Advertising Hall of Fame.  He is a bit of a hero to us radio folks as he loved the medium and served it well.  By the way, it’s his voice you hear as the beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955). 

This is great—though better if you know Dragnet. 

Wow, they even animated it!
Greed is never welcome at Christmas:

Noel Nouvelet

A traditional French carol from the 15th century, numerous versions exist of this New Year’s Carol.  Keyte and Parrott took their version from the 1721 Grande Bible des noels, tant vieux que nouveaus.  Translations were made into English as early as the 17th and 18th centuries.  The tune, as Hymns and Carols of Christmas notes, echoes in its first five notes the Maris Stella Lucens Miseris. 
Here is Loreena McKennitt performing her excellent interpretation.
Here is a more traditional version.
Please be adventurous in your Christmas song listening and discover a tune you may not have heard before.  There are hundreds of them! 

Wishing you peace this holiday season. 

[1] I love the story of how “The Christmas Song” was composed, which you can read about here.

1 comment:

  1. Great list! I love obscure Christmas music. Here's a playlist of some lesser-known Christmas songs: Obscure Christmas Songs