A Tuneful, Off-Beat Christmas Music List

Salvation is at hand for those despairing of Yuletide’s musical schlock.

“In spite of all that can be said against our age, what a moment to be alive in!” So said Australian poet and Catholic convert James McAuley in 1957. McAuley had primarily in mind magazine-publishing – his own periodical Quadrant, then a quarterly, had just been launched – but his sentence applies as much, if not more, to the bewildering range of music recordings (many gratis) which the Internet has made available for us, almost sixty years later.

A fine book will one day be written about this whole trend: not principally in terms of commerce – already several million words have been expended on, for instance, Taylor Swift’s boycotting of Spotify – but in terms of repertoire. Such a cornucopia, one suspects (and hopes), can hardly fail to kill off those gate-keeping petty academic tyrants of old, who often enough sought to conceal their musical ignorance under the mantle of “progressive” connoisseurship.

Any Australian music undergraduates in the 1970s or 1980s who admitted in an essay to cherishing, for example, Respighi – or Rachmaninoff, or Puccini, or Sibelius, or Richard Strauss, or some other such Demon King of progressivism’s default narrative – could well have faced literal expulsion. They would not face it now. These days the campus janitor, if he be so minded, can acquire familiarity (either online or through bargain-priced CD labels like Naxos) with more Respighi compositions than collegiate gate-keepers two generations ago knew even by name. And similarly with the other composers then so thoroughly demonized.

(We must not now overlook the pseudo-moral factor which this demonizing involved. The typical antipodean collegiate gate-keeper confronted, circa 1980, with The Pines of Rome or some other such “fascist” construct would have expressed the same totally subjective, indeed visceral, aversion voiced by Zhdanov when he called Anna Akhmatova “half whore, half nun.”)

There being no immediate prospect of the Internet being disinvented, the role of any conscientious musicologist in our time must be very different from what it was during most of the twentieth century: less prone to Zhdanovshchina-style browbeating, and, one trusts, more genuinely humble. The late, great Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans had it about right when it came to literature. Somewhere – at the very height, among modish Australians, of French postmodernist prattle about the Death of the Author – Ryckmans described the good literary critic’s function as that of the cinema usherette: one who shows audience members to their seats, and assists their discernment, rather than treating them to her own unsolicited Foucaultian or Barthesian adjudications about the ethical shortcomings of what appears on-screen.

Herewith, and supplied in an usherette’s unobtrusive spirit, a purely capricious selection of seven worthwhile Christmas works off-beat enough, one suspects, to have escaped many readers hitherto. All are short (no Bach or Heinrich Schütz Yuletide epics here, however musically superb) and not one is monophonic (no plainchant either).They are cited out of chronological sequence, but within a kind of emotional sequence, according to which the loudest bit can be found in the second-last item, before the hushed finale.

(1) “Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn”, by John Byrom and John Wainright. Why do certain Nativity carols vanish from collective consciousness when certain other, and often far less musically significant, Nativity carols become as inescapable as taxes and Kardashians?

Consider the case of Christians Awake. In rural New South Wales during the 1970s, every single Yuletide churchgoer knew this grand, striding, Handelian melody by heart; and their great-grandfathers had probably sung it in the real-life equivalents of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Now, hardly any churchgoer seems to be aware of it, and few hymnals can be bothered with it. Seeking an adequate online performance took some labor. The one included here appears to be uncredited (can any listener identify its origins?) but gives a fine idea of the hymn.

Composer John Wainright is otherwise obscure. Lyricist John Byrom, who devised a workable system of shorthand a century before Isaac Pitman’s, further deserves our gratitude on the strength of his magnificent political bet-hedging when it came to post-1688 England, above all when it came to the Jacobite challenge:

God bless the King – I mean, the Faith’s Defender –
God bless (no harm in blessing) the Pretender –
But which Pretender is, and which the King,
God bless us all! That’s quite another thing.


(2) “Riu Riu Chiu”,
attributed in most modern sources to a Spaniard, Mateo Flecha the Elder, who died in around 1553. This shamelessly anthropomorphic carol (“[With the kingfisher’s cry of] ‘Riu riu chiu’, God kept the wolf from the Lamb”) dates from the early sixteenth century; and, while it might or might not be of narrowly Catalan provenance, it emerged four hundred years later from a music collection which made its way to Sweden. Hence the collection’s unexpected name, Cancionero de Up[p]sala.

Any Internet trawl will disclose at least a dozen recordings of this carol, many redolent of the worst Anglo-Saxon tea-and-crumpets effeminacy. Here, at last, is a performance that includes a vigorous instrumental ensemble and manages to sound recognizably, you know, Iberian. It involves a group entitled Capella de Ministrers under the direction of one Carles Magraner. Better yet, this video offers, as a bonus, the sheet-music.


(3) Extracts from
Harmonia Caelestis, by Pal Esterhazy. In retrospect, one of the Cold War’s most extraordinary aspects was the failure of godless communism, at least when Moscow-directed, to extirpate a taste for sacred music entirely (when compared with, for example, the far greater success of current Western nihilism at unchurching the populace). On some not immediately observable pretext – national pride? residual aesthetic decency? – the Budapest-based, state-controlled Hungaroton label issued in 1969 a handsome three-LP set, Harmonia Caelestis. This comprised short, mostly single-voice, motets by Prince Pal Esterhazy (1635-1713), grandfather of Haydn’s patrons. For those fortunate enough to have snapped up that pioneering, limited-edition box (which, like so much beguiling LP material, has eluded CD reissue), the performances and engineering there will represent the gold standard.

Still, not all the later attempts at rendering Harmonia Caelestis are amateurish, though – as YouTube will confirm – many are. Here is a bracket of Esterhazy’s Christmas-related motets in comparatively recent and indubitably refined, if less than ideally robust, recordings from a different Hungarian ensemble. Notwithstanding Esterhazy’s aristocratic lineage, his composing idiom retained a folk-like character, manifest in his preference for short, blunt phrase-lengths. He did not need Hairspray to tell him: “Get back to your roots!”.


(4) “O Magnum Mysterium”,
by Francis Poulenc. Those who have read this far could well have heard Tomas Luis de Victoria’s motet of the same title, but how about Poulenc’s? It comes from Quatre motets pour le temps de Noël, begun in 1951 and finished the following year. Somehow, despite the more or less complete moral mess which Poulenc made of his private life, he retained enough of a religious spirit to have responded intermittently to Chesterton’s “twitch upon the thread.”

After one has heard this, it comes as no surprise that Poulenc would soon knuckle down to the best and most powerful thing he ever did: Dialogues of the Carmelites.The inimitable Robert Shaw (R.I.P.) conducts.


(5) “Variations sur un Vieux Noël”,
by Marcel Dupré. From Poulenc to his compatriot Dupré, 13 years his senior, is a logical if unconventional step. Along with many another musician before and after, Dupré found himself haunted by the French carol theme known as Nouvel Nouvelet, which forsakes the conventional minor-key scale in favor of the Dorian mode. Unlike lesser mortals, Dupré had the executant and creative wherewithal to transform this theme into ten minutes of systematic, glittering organ brilliance. The 1922 outcome: his Variations, one of sadly few Dupré creations to have attained some popularity among thousands who never darken a church door.

England’s Dame Gillian Weir delivers it, at a Stockholm venue, with her customary panache.


(6) “Puer Natus in Bethlehem”,
by Germany’s Michael Praetorius, who died, apparently on his fiftieth birthday, in 1621. Printed in 1619, when there seemed every indication that the Thirty Years’ War would (like certain subsequent conflagrations) “be over by Christmas”, this masterpiece bespeaks a button-holing optimism which Central European composers would seldom show again in their liturgical work over the next few decades. The words here are macaronic: partly in Latin, but switching periodically to German for the passages conceived with congregational rendition in mind.

Do not be deceived by the quiet, genteel start to this slow-burning performance (captured in Roskilde Cathedral, Denmark). Being thus lulled into inattention will completely fail to prepare anybody for the climax, with the tempestuous organ solo followed by the explosive massed singing of the original tune, already old in Praetorius’s day.


(7) Geistliches Wiegenlied, Op. 91 No. 2,
by Brahms. To abet the needful calming-down process after Praetorius’s high-jinks, who better than Brahms, master of the autumnal valediction? It sometimes seems as if everything Brahms published, however outwardly joyous, could bear the subtitle “Songs of Farewell.” Few concert-goers appreciate the extent of Brahms’s antiquarian enthusiasm. He was, paradoxically, a musicologist before the term “musicology” (a noun, like Brahms himself, of Teutonic birth) had been invented.

At the same time, like any other great composer, he had strict limits to his chameleonic functions. So when he came to arrange for soprano, viola, and piano the ancient tune known variously as Josef Lieber Josef Mein and Resonet in Laudibus, the outcome clearly derived from the same brain as his Intermezzo in A for piano (Op. 118 No. 2) and his Clarinet Quintet. Here Jessye Norman joins with Wolfram Christ and with none other than Daniel Barenboim to redefine the word Gemütlichkeit:

Have yourselves a schlock-free little Christmas!

About R.J. Stove 0 Articles
Australia’s R.J. Stove, organist and adult convert to Catholicism, is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Lanham, Maryland, 2012).