National Catholic Register

Arts & Entertainment

The Splendid Sounds of Christmas

Inspired music-some traditional, some little known-for a holy season

BY Gabriel Meyer

November 15-21, 1998 Issue | Posted 11/15/98 at 1:00 PM


Clearly, the most important thing about Christmas is the nativity of Christ. But mention Christmas to many people and visual images come to mind: the tree with its pointillist magic, the intimate light in a Christmas crËche, the blaze of colors on a holiday dinner table. But for this writer, the first thing that comes to mind about Christmas is sound: bright carols and wistful winter songs, hand bells, a snatch of Gregorian melody, Handel's Messiah, hymns about the Christ child, about angels who come disguised as beggars, and, of course, that quiet chorus about a certain silent night.

The holly and the ivy are fine, but it's the music that truly sets the mood for this season. From the early medieval village songs chanted over fires during long winter nights to the elaborate sequences composed in convents and monasteries to adorn the Christmas liturgy, to more recent additions to the seasonal repertoire, the musical treasury of Christmas is an embarrassment of riches.

Everyone, of course, will have his or her own list of favorite carols and hymns. In this review of new Christmas compact discs, I'll offer some suggestions out of my own family's Christmas traditions, along with a nudge or two in the direction of some of the more remarkable new choral CDs issued in time for the holidays.

George Friederich Handel's Messiah (at least the so-called Christmas portion of the famous oratorio) tops anyone's list of the more-serious classical works on Nativity themes, and there are many fine recordings available on CD, from the massive, “politically incorrect” sound of Eugene Ormandy's old version with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to the newest “lean and mean” attempt to realize what 18th-century listeners might have heard.

But I'd like also to alert readers to an alternative Christmas oratorio in the form of French composer Hector Berlioz's 1854 masterpiece L'Enfance du Christ(“Childhood of Christ”). I can hardly imagine Christmas morning without the naive delicacy of this work, Berlioz's musical evocation of his own childhood faith, and his ingenious settings of episodes from the infancy of Christ: “Herod's Dream,” “The Flight into Egypt,” the “Shepherds' Farewell to the Holy Family,” and the moving “The Holy Family's Repose.” Because L'Enfance features evocative music telling a familiar story, it's a good work to use to help children get over the hurdle of classical music.

A new Hyperion CD of L'Enfance with Matthew Best conducting the St. Paul's Cathedral Choir, the Corydon Singers and Orchestra comes highly recommended, along with “old friends” like the London-Decca re-release of the familiar early 1960s performance featuring Sir Colin Davis and tenor Peter Pears. Erato also boasts a fine idiomatic reading of the work with John Eliot Gardner, the Monteverdi Choir, and the Lyon Opera Orchestra. All of these come with English translations of the French text.

Oratorios like Handel's Messiah and Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ were written to bolster the faith of sophisticated urban believers in a Europe that was then at least nominally Christian. But music was also an integral part of the Catholic missions as they spread the faith to indigenous cultures across North and South America. Many visitors to the Jesuit missions in Latin America and their Franciscan counterparts in California testified to the vital part that choral and orchestral music played in the evangelization of indigenous peoples, and to the high cultural level of mission musical life.

We can sample some of that vitality in an attractive new Zephyr CD entitled A Choir of Angels. Zephyr/Voices Unbound is a Los Angeles-based collective of professional singers. Aided by scholars, they've assembled a lively and innovative program of the 18th- and early 19th-century music written and sung at the 21 missions established by the Franciscans up the coast of California—everything from Latin-language liturgical chant to a dawn serenade to the Virgin in Spanish to the haunting bird songs of Cahuilla Indian converts who lived and served at the missions. It's more than fine choral singing. Through their identification with this music, Zephyr recreates the sounds of a lost world.

Sequentia, an ensemble specializing in medieval music, is another choral group making a name for itself by unearthing a great tradition of spirituality in music—this time the Christmas music of the fertile and prosperous medieval duchy of Aquitaine, homeland of the troubadors.

Having heard Sequentia live several years ago, I can only say that their devotion to this deeply spiritual music is only matched by the extraordinary energy they bring to their performances of it.

Aquitania, recently released on the Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (DHM) label, is the second in a series of CDs featuring both the instrumental and vocal music of the 12th-century Aquitanian monasteries. The first disc, Shining Light, which came out two years ago, is a dramatic account of the solemn beauty of medieval Christmas imagery. No Santas and reindeer here. Just resplendent light triumphing over the darkening world.

Finishing one of Sequentia's CDs, one could be forgiven for thinking that the profound integration between art and faith exemplified in the best of the medieval heritage is a thing of the past. But, happily, one would be wrong.

Paralleling today's revival of representational schools in painting, many composers, without sacrificing the gains of modernism, are once again seeking to infuse beauty, order, and religious meaning into their work. Morten Lauridsen, chair of the department of composition at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is a prominent figure in that return.

His most recent work, Lux Aeterna,just out on the RCM label, is little short of a revelation. A setting of Latin texts from several sources, including the Requiem Mass, the work for chorus and orchestra has something of the majesty and sweep of Brahms' Ein Deutsche Requiem. Commentators familiar with Lauridsen's work are finding it hard to come up with superlatives to match his achievement, though—a blend of tonal beauty, flowing melodic line, pulsing sonori-ties, and deep serenity. Critic Peter Rutenberg has called the 55-year-old musician “the composer of the dawn of the third millennium.”

The new CD also includes Lauridsen's choral settings of the Ave Maria and the great Christmas antiphon O Magnum Mysterium. It could be the most important CD you buy all year.

Not to neglect old favorites, however. There's a spunky new recording of Tchaikovsky's perennial Christmas favorite, The Nutcracker (complete), out on a Philips CD, under the baton of Valery Gergiev, the dynamic new maestro of the Orchestra of Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg. And for the annual all-star every-Christmas-carol-you've-ever-heard-of album (and a few you wish you hadn't), the prize goes to London's The Greatest Christmas Show on Earth featuring tracks with opera greats Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Kiri Te Kanawa, Placido Domingo, the King's College Choir, and many others.

Back to family traditions. In our house, one of the favorite post-presents, post-supper, post-dish-drying-detail Christmas day activities involved taking turns reading aloud poet Dylan Thomas' famous short story “A Child's Christmas in Wales.”

It's now available on a Harper-Collins CD, A Child's Christmas in Wales and Five Poems, read by the poet.

This poignant, funny, wistful account of a boyhood Christmas in a Welsh seacoast town gave us a rare opportunity to sit together in the aftermath of a busy American holiday and call to mind the human face of the feast, and of the people with whom we shared it, before we all dispersed to tinker with new acquisitions or be gently hustled to bed.

Oh, yes, there was always one thing more, one final nod to the soul of a Christmas almost past. We sang “Silent Night” one last time.

Senior writer Gabriel Meyer is based in Los Angeles.