the music of Christmas, part four

This post? Is the reason I did this whole series. I figured if I was going to write up something about this one aspect of my Christmas traditions, I might as well talk about more of them. And the really real reason for the post is that I found a Youtube video weeks ago, that allows me to demonstrate what I’m talking about.

Which is the Vocal Majority.

As with Peter, Paul & Mary, these are not people I generally listen to. They’re a barbershop chorus, and I do not especially like the barbershop sound, at least not in large quantities. But I think the existing melodies of Christmas carols confine the barbershop-ness of their arrangements, or maybe they just tone it down, or maybe I don’t hear it as much on these albums, or something. I have no perspective. With the occasional exception (“Little Altar Boy”), their Christmas songs do not sound barbershop to me.

They just sound awesome.

The Vocal Majority is a chorus of 150+ men with some of the most amazing diction and dynamics you have ever heard. Their lyrics are crystal clear, and they can go from full-bore fortissimo belting down to almost-inaudible pianissimo in about half a second flat. How good are they? The rules of the International Chorus Championship say that when a group wins, they can’t compete for the following two years. The VM won in 1975, placed second in 1978, won in 1979, and has proceeded to win every three years like clockwork ever since then. If they manage it again next year, that’ll be a thirty-year unbroken streak.

I promised to talk about my other favorite Christmas carol recording, and I told lady_puck9999 that I would have something to say about “O Holy Night.” Unsurprisingly, these two things coincide. The sound quality on the following video is crap, regrettably, but it should give you an idea of the real thing, which puts chills down my spine every. time. I hear it. You want “O Holy Night,” I’ll give you “O Holy Night.”*

My apologies to all the church choirs and soprano soloists out there, but as far as I’m concerned, they shouldn’t even try. “O Holy Night” rendered by anything less than a hundred and fifty men is a pale subsitute for the real thing. I’ve heard the VM in concert, many a time, and let me tell you — in live performance, it’s like being smacked in the face by a solid wall of sound. When they sing “Fall on your knees”? You feel like FALLING ON YOUR KNEES.

If men’s choruses are your thing, or you want a rendition of “O Holy Night” that makes you believe the angel voices are huge resonant basses instead of sopranos with way too much vibrato, you can buy a recording or three. The Secret of Christmas is the one with the good rendition of “O Holy Night;” for some reason they over-orchestrated it on The Twelve Days of Christmas, instead of leaving it with just the organ. But there are other good songs on Alleluia, and even Twelve Days, which rehashes a lot of songs done elsewhere, redeems itself with “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” another favorite of mine.

These guys, more than anything, are my Christmas inheritance from my father. I have childhood memories (if by “childhood” I mean anything up to and including the present day) of him singing along with “The Little Drummer Boy” — I told you I had reasons of association to like that song — and I think I’ve assimilated harmonic lines from their “O Come All Ye Faithful” into some part of my DNA. They are the sound of Christmas to me, and my father’s the one I got them from.

And every year, I regretfully put their albums away, and promise myself that the day after Thanksgiving, I can hear “O Holy Night” again.

*Ignore the bit where it says “The Battle of Jericho.” That song’s on the video claiming to be “O Holy Night.”

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

  1. sartorias

    I love those two, too. But I have to confess, I prefer a woman’s voice on “O Holy Night.” Once I heard a woman sing from the gallery of a cathedral. She was alone except for the organ. Her voice kept gaining in power, then at the end, she went into the organ descant while the organ carried the melody. It was so beautiful the audience gasped and about sucked every molecule of oxygen out of the room. I got that painful skin tingle that comes rarely with ravishing musical surprise: it affected me enough that in after years, when I suffered through a series of migraines that caused me to lose all color vision, and actual voices sounded like the buzzing of bees, I’d revisit that performance deep inside my head, and I swear it made the pain slightly easier to bear.

    • Marie Brennan

      That sounds like a lovely arrangement, and a good soprano. Unfortunately, I tend to find sopranos grating more often than not, and most of the ones I’ve heard attempt “O Holy Night” have been in love with their own vibrato like a fanficcer’s in love with her Mary Sue heroine.

      And, y’know. When you grow up with something, you tend to consider it the One True Way, at least as far as your own listening habits are concerned. So it is with me.

  2. eclectician

    Send me an mp3? The sound quality on that sent chills down my spine for entirely the wrong reason. And merry christmas!

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