When I first arrived in the States from the United Kingdom, I took a long-term sub job teaching K-6 music in a school in Southern California. Almost as soon as I began the semester, I was asked to begin to prepare the Holiday Program. One of the first things that surprised me was the protocol around this event. In England, when I was growing up, this was known as the Christmas concert and was full of traditional Christmas music. In California by contrast, it was made very clear to me that the only way I would be able to include any Christmas music—carols etc.—was if I were also willing to include a Hanukkah song, and songs relating to Diwali and Kwanzaa. While I soon realized that this was important as a statement of religious non-partiality, I was disappointed not to be able to include much of the material that was dear to me. I also was a novice in terms of my knowledge of Jewish, Hindu, and Kwanzaa musical traditions. I eventually worked out a beautiful program of music, and was also happy to learn new secular holiday songs I had not heard before.
Yet eight years on, it is still a source of sadness to me that comparatively few people in America know and appreciate the hundreds of years of traditional Christmas music that are a part of our Western classical heritage. I have no desire to proselytize here. Religious freedom is one of the great precepts of the American nation. Yet I wonder if there are still ways to educate our students in this ancient tradition. After all, we would not expect a teacher of art history to refrain from discussing paintings with sacred themes. That would pretty well wipe out the masters of the Renaissance!
In this blog post, I have the great pleasure of introducing to you several Christmas carols that you may not know. Perhaps you may decide to use them as instrumental pieces, or as vocal pieces with those students who are comfortable with the lyrics. In the following blog post, I will focus more on 20th century additions to the repertoire.
The first carol is “Gabriel’s Message”, originally a Basque carol, but best known in an English translation by S. Baring-Gould. It depicts the Annunciation, and conveys a lyrical poignancy and mystery that is very touching, making a striking contrast with more celebratory carols. “Gabriel’s Message” is sung beautifully here (in an arrangement by Sir David Willcocks) by the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge, conducted by John Rutter. Educational aspects to point out to students include the switching between two time signatures, 9/8 and 12/8, and the use of natural minor (the Aeolian mode).
My second choice is “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten” (originally a Latin plainchant from the 12th century named “Divinum Mysterium”, and later published in 1582 as part of the collection known as Piae Cantiones). Of the recordings I listened to, the one by Roger Judd and the Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, best conveys the majesty and uplift of this ancient melody. Comparing the arrangement with the original plainsong would be a good way to introduce students to plainsong itself, one of the fountainheads of Western melody.
Of the Father’s Heart Begotten
The last carol is a lovely Victorian composition, “See, Amid the Winter’s Snow”, here sung by the St Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, New York, directed by Gerre Hancock. It was written by Edward Caswall (1814–1878), with music composed by Sir John Goss (1800–1880). I would use this an example of how a simple melody and classical harmonies can combine to create a song of such affecting purity, aptly reflecting the text. It would also be easy to create an effective instrumental arrangement.
See Amid the Winter’s Snow
All of these carols are of course available in many versions- if you go the iTunes store and search by the name of the carol, you will find everything from Celtic harp arrangements to Tijuana brass to Gospel and pop. I deliberately chose traditional arrangements, as they are my personal favorites. They also provide a good starting place for students because they give the melody unadorned.
Are you familiar with these carols? Are there any carols you particularly love? Do you ever use traditional Christmas music with your students? I’d love to hear your take on this topic.