the music of Christmas, part one

It’s going to take me several posts to get through the music I associate with this season.

First up, since my mother and I were talking about it earlier today: The Nutcracker. The ballet itself is not one of my favorites; I like the second act well enough, but so much of the first act is taken up by people wandering around being at the Christmas party, without much in the way of actual dancing going on. I do, however, adore the music, most especially “Trepak” (the Russian dance) and “Coffee” (the Arabian dance), but also standards like “The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy.”

Really, I just kind of adore Tchaikovsky overall. Him and Prokofiev. If I sat down to work it out, they’d probably turn out to be two of my favorite classical composers.

Most of the other music I want to talk about will deserve separate posts — there’s a story behind much of it — so I’ll just use the rest of my time here to bring up Christmas music overall. We have a number of compliation CDs that are a part of the season for me just because I’ve been listening to them for ten, twenty years; there isn’t anything particularly special about them. I do not, however, like everything on them equally. In general, my favorite carols are the ones played less often, which I doubt is coincidence: I don’t get bludgeoned with them every time I turn on the TV or walk into a store, so I haven’t gotten tired of them yet. But I also like them for a reason that probably feeds back into them not being played as often: many of them are in minor keys, or otherwise darker-sounding. You can keep your “Away in a Manger” and your “Jingle Bells” and most especially your bloody “Sleigh Ride*;” give me “Coventry Carol” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Carol of the Bells” and “We Three Kings,” “What Child Is This” and “Oh Come Emmanuel” and most especially “O Holy Night,” about which I will have more to say later.

Favorite carols? Least favorite? Anything you’d rather rupture your eardrums with a spork than listen to?

*It should be noted that my hatred of “Sleigh Ride” has less to do with the song than the fact that I had to play it. On French horn. Which meant six goddamned pages of upbeats. My hatred of “Sleigh Ride” is just my hatred of marches transposed to the Christmas season. “Rudoloph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” on the other hand, I hate because I had to play it, but not because of upbeats; that one we played in a parade, and two hours of any carol alternating with a drum cadence is pretty much guaranteed to make you hate the carol.

0 Responses to “the music of Christmas, part one”

  1. gauroth

    During the Midnight Service on Christmas Eve I’ll be singing ‘O Holy Night’ with the Church Band. Glorious!

    I hate, hate, hate ‘Little Donkey’ and ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ (sentimental tosh) but the worst, the very worst song is Cliff Richard’s ‘Mistletoe and Wine’ because once I hear it I can’t get it out of my head!

  2. sartorias

    I loathe bouncy Xmas tunes. Loathe.

    You might want to try Lux Venit, the Wessex Carol, the Sussex carol, “Sing Noel Sing Halleluia”, “Praise to the Lord the Almighty…” and if you can find it, the eerily powerful Mormon Tabernacle Choir version of “Now Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.”

  3. lady_puck9999

    “Oh Holy Night” is verging on my favorite carol. It’s just so EPIC!

  4. mrissa

    “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

    I mean, I love “Good King Wenceslas” and “The Coventry Carol” and “God Rest Ye Merry” and the rest of what you’ve listed. But: “Snow is falling, snow on snow, snow on snow.” How could I not love that?

    • Marie Brennan

      I have yet to find any renditions of that song which make it appealing rather than ponderously slow and boring. I would take a recommendation, though.

      Thanks to Pamela Dean, however, my brain persistently sings the wrong lyrics to “Good King Wenceslas.”

      • kizmet_42

        Twila Paris did a version on her 1991 album It’s The Thought that’s very 90s sounding, but I wouldn’t call it ponderous.

      • mrissa

        Ah. My solution to this is to sing things myself, so I can control key and tempo. It does wonders for “I Wonder As I Wander,” too, because unlike half the people who sing that, I am not in luuuuurve with my own voice.

  5. elizaeffect

    There’s some crappy-ass rendition of “Let It Snow” that I keep hearing on the radio at the store. The singer is off-key and off-beat constantly and her voice sounds like it’s being pushed beyond its limit.

    I can only imagine that it was one of the cheapest songs to license out there and therefore made it onto every budget store-music CD in the area, possibly the country. When it came on yesterday the guy ringing up my groceries swore under his breath.

  6. kizmet_42

    Prokofiev’s Love of Three Oranges is probably the first classical piece that I knew the name of (my mother still has the vinyl album if not a way to play it.) It, and he, remain on my top ten list some 40 years later.

    I’m sick of We Three Kings thanks to my daughters’ decision to narrate their lives one day to that tune. I love Loreena McKinnett’s version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen* with its mideastern drumming. I could listen (and dance) to it for hours.

  7. khet_tcheba

    “Coventry Carol,” “Carol of the Bells,” and “Behold the Lamb of God” from Handel’s Messiah are my all-time favorites, but I’m with you on the minor key thing in general. And the Tchaikovsky/Prokofiev love.

    Most of the saccharine jingles that end up as Holiday Shopping Season muzak tend to drive me batty, though I’m not sure whether that’s the music itself or the fact that you here it everywhere you go for a month and a half solid.

  8. shui_long

    I’m with you on “Jingle Bells” and “Sleigh ride” – in fact, anything played as Musak in shopping malls etc at this time of year. (I don’t know how the shop assistants avoid being driven mad by it… )

    And the unbearably cute – “Away in a Manger” sung by the children’s choir

    Not to mention the Victorian carols with far from subtle messages about how good a child Jesus was – middle verses of “Once in Royal David’s City”

    Favourites? Adeste Fideles (and I did once know it in Latin); “Three Kings” (Cornelius); “O Holy Night” and many more…

  9. diatryma

    My family’s Christmas music used to be heavily Chipmunks, but we’ve recovered and now… Roches. Santa help me I imprinted on the Roches Christmas album.

    I don’t like Carol of the Bells because people keep trying to sing it, and no, not so much the lyrics. Wenceslas is good, Kings is good, What Child Is This was amazing one year in choir. That was the year we sang the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria for the Holiday Pageant* in three-part women’s harmony. As Lately We Watched makes me happy. Once in David’s City is fun because of the soprano descant and the last line– “where like stars his children crowned all in white shall wait around.” I have no idea where the punctuation goes because it’s such a bad boring song but they wait around! Just waiting around.

    *Yes, holiday! Pay no attention to the verse choir, the tableaux, and Angel Gabriel!

  10. c0untmystars

    Favorites: Carol of the Bells, “All I Want For Christmas Is You”

    Least favorite: “Snoopy and the Red Baron”

    Most amusing: “She’s Underneath the Mistletoe Again”

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