Almost every year, someone in our parish asks me to recommend some recordings of Christmas music. Since I’ve been collecting such albums since before there were commercial cassette tapes readily available (let alone CDs or MP3s), it’s not easy to come up with a short list. Over the twelve days of Christmas, I hope to have the time and discipline to offer here some suggestions about music to listen to that transcends the tendency toward sentimentalism in the sounds of Christmas that characterizes (tragically) the experience of far too many people.
I’ll start with a very approachable recording that features a number of familiar carols and hymns, including many arrangements that have been standards in the choral repertoire of the past sixty years. It’s a 1987 album from the Cambridge Singers called Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity. If you’ve ever listened to the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, you’ll have heard some of the music on this disc. And no wonder, since this group has its roots in the rich and accomplished musical culture of the Cambridge college chapels; founder and director John Rutter was director of music at Clare College, Cambridge, before forming his own ensemble. While the college chapel choirs sing regularly in services, Rutter’s singers focus their energies in studio recordings, which (somewhat ironically) have introduced many listeners to a choral tradition that is historically rooted in liturgical life.
This album includes twenty-two pieces, and the CD booklet helpfully informs us that all but three of them are arrangements taken from books of carols published by Oxford University Press (and, not incidentally, co-edited by John Rutter; the man’s a commercial genius!). Our parish choir has sung four of these works in Christmases past. These include a setting of the Christina Rossetti poem which we sing every year as a hymn, In the bleak mid-winter. Our hymn version is by Gustav Holst (of The Planets fame); the version for choir and soloist is by Harold Darke (1888-1976).
Another arrangement on this album that members of our choir have sung is the duet by Patrick Hadley (1899-1973), I sing of a maiden. Born in Cambridge, Hadley spent much of his life in the college/music culture there. His time away from those environs included studies in composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music in London.
The text to this lovely fifteenth-century text has been set by many composers.
I sing of a maiden that is makeless [matchless],
King of all kings to her son she ches [chose].
He came also [as] still where his mother was
As dew in April that falls on the grass.
He came also [as] still to his mother’s bower
As dew in April that falls on the flower.
He came also [as] still where his mother lay
As dew in April that falleth on the spray.
Mother and maiden was never none but she;
Well may such a lady God’s mother be.
One more highlight from this album is worth mentioning. It was on this disc that I first heard A spotless Rose, a setting of another medieval Christmas poem (this one from the fourteenth century). The composer in this case is Herbert Howells (1892-1983). The text:
A spotless Rose is blowing
Sprung from a tender root,
Of ancient seers’ foreshowing,
Of Jesse promised fruit;
Its fairest bud unfolds to light
Amid the cold, cold winter
And in the dark midnight.
The Rose which I am singing,
Whereof Isaiah said,
Is from its sweet root springing
In Mary, purest Maid;
For through our God’s great love and might
The blessed babe she bare us
In a cold, cold winter’s night.
Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity is available from Amazon Prime, Spotify, YouTube, and other sources. Or you can even buy a recording and benefit from the informative material printed in the album’s booklet, including the texts to these wonderful carols, hymns, and anthems, for when you want to sing along.