My Favorite Christmas Album
I fell prey to Amazon’s come-on to order just a little bit more, and bought A Medieval Christmas by the Boston Camerata (directed by Joel Cohen, Elektra Entertainment, 1991)
It is delightful. We had a wobbly LP of this album when I was little, and played it all during Advent and Christmas. It’s not just childhood nostalgia that makes this music wonderful, though. If I had to be transported to some other age during Christmas, I’d chose some time and place in the medieval world. They understood Christmas so well!
Sadly, I haven’t been able to upload the tracks I wanted to use. You can get just the merest taste of each piece here on Amazon’s page. Here’s why I love this album:
The medieval sounds featured here strike my modern ears as so frankly Incarnational: there is something middle-of-the-night-ish about those intervals; and the period instruments—the hairy thrum of the strings, the brazen quacking of the horns—sound so human, you’ll never get that spacey lost-amid-the-chorale sensation of so much Christmas music. There is polyphony for the chorus of mankind; dissonance for the mystery of two worlds converging for the Incarnation; strange and spare sounds for the new star blazing in the middle of the night, for the fire of the angels calling out into the cold.
This album is truly multicultural—not in some limp, generic, holiday call to coexist, but in a kind of jubilant cacaphony of language and musical texture, as befits the coming of the king of the whole world: we hear Hebrew, Franco-Provençal, Catalan, Dutch, Latin, Italian, Old Saxon, and German.
Furthermore, the entire Christian narrative of salvation is included in this Christmas album—beginning with Isaiah’s prophecy chanted in Hebrew and “The Sybil’s Prophecy,” a pre-Christian apocalyptic passage co-opted by medieval Spanish liturgists, foretelling
Who shall reign forever,
Present in flesh
To judge the world
and continuing through songs of praise and warning, quiet reverence, readings from scripture and from Chaucer, and ending with what can only be described as party music for a centuries-old Spanish liturgical innovation that makes giant puppets look tame and reverent.
Gabriel’s Prophecy is sung by a countertenor, which is as close to the voice of an angel as a human can sound—not male or female, and not of this world. (If you have children, get them to listen to this at an early age, before countertenors sound sissy to them.) He is sparely accompanied by tambourine, recorder, and some throaty strummed instrument:
Do not fall asleep!
And he rose—the scripture tells it!
I am Gabriel; he sent me here.
Wait for him; He shall come soon.
Do not fall asleep . . .
This is followed by an instrumental passage which starts with quiet promise and, as instruments are added, builds up to a messy and raucous crisis of anticipation—which then suddenly gives way to the lovely and profound “Conditor Alme Siderum,” chanted simply in meditative unison:
Kindly maker of the stars,
Everlasting light of the faithful,
Christ, the redeemer of all men:
Hear the suppliants’ prayers.
Other highlights: passages from the Gospel of John read in tender and rhythmic Old Saxon (something everyone should hear at least once); and a warm and trembling Mediterranian thrum accompanies the Baritone as he proclaims in “O Maria, deu maire”:
Eve trusted the serpent,
A shining angel.
And so it turns out well for us:
God is truly man!
The album also includes an instrumental version of one of my favorite Christmas songs, the sweet, tender and oh-so-human lullaby, “Josef Lieber Joseh Mein,” as Mary asks her husband to help her rock the Child; and a lovely setting of “In Dulci Iubilo”
Sing now, and be happy,
With quiet joy:
Our heart’s delight
Lies in a stall
And shines like the sun
In Mary’s lap.
You are Alpha and Omega.
It concludes with all the all-out exultant “Lux hodie,” full of bells, chimes, and originally, a live donkey:
Today’s light is the light of happiness, by my judgement.
Whoever is sad shall be renewed by these festivities!
Well, you can’t possibly beat this album for Advent and Christmas music, but what’s your favorite? What will be playing at your house or in your car in these last few days of Advent, and on Christmas day?
And Merry Christmas to all of you. Thank you for joining me here this year. “And so it turns out well for us!” Merry Christmas again, my friends.