Christmas Music Geekery, Part II–Hodie and Messiah

Yesterday I mentioned Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Hodie’, but did not rhapsodize about it. Allow me to rhapsodize: ‘Hodie’ is hard to categorize generically–it includes a boys’ choir chanting the text of the Christmas story from Luke 2, huge orchestral & choral settings of medieval chant texts, a couple of sublime chorales, and arias and chorales setting British poems on Christmas themes. I think, actually, that I first got hooked on poetry because of this piece. It has the best parts of Milton’s ode, ‘On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,’ George Herbert’s “Christmas Day,” and Thomas Hardy’s small, perfect poem, “The Oxen”:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
‘Now they are all on their knees,’
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearth-side ease.

We pictured the meek, mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
‘Come; see the oxen kneel,

In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know’,
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
*That* is what the English language is for! And Vaughan Williams’ setting of it is why God made baritones. You can hear a tantalizing snippet here. While you’re there, scroll down a couple and listen to Janet Baker singing the Lullaby–this recording was made in her glory years and her voice is rich and tender but not yet heavy. (Perhaps this is as good a place as any to reveal that I’ve been in negotiations with God for several years to include, as part of my eternal reward, 90 minutes of being a really great mezzo. I believe that this would be the concluding piece in my recital. You’re all invited.)

Enough rhapsodizing–I really wish this piece were as well-known as Handel’s “Messiah.” It’s such different music that it’s impossible to say one is better than the other, but there’s a richness, even a little tragic weight, to the Vaughan Williams within a relatively spare and concise piece (just exactly an hour long), that I find an appealing counterweight to Handel’s sprawling and optimistic idiom.

Since we’re there, let’s talk Messiah: of course it’s great, of course everyone should hear it a half-dozen times or so every year. But, for pity’s sake, listen to the whole thing!! Whatever you do, do NOT mistake MoTab’s old highlight reel with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Ormandy for “Messiah”. Ormandy and MoTab just reinforce each other’s worst tendencies, and the result is a gooey, overlush mess that has little to do with Handel. I sort of like it sometimes, in a nostalgic mood, but it’s important to recognize that listening to this is like eating Velveeta (you know, a product where the label has to insist that it’s “cheese food”, because otherwise people would doubt that it’s even edible) instead of any of the many luscious creations that deserve the name cheese. I like Christopher Hogwood’s recording with the Academy of Ancient Music and Emma Kirkby, but lots of people find this recording bloodless. They often prefer this recording by the Boston Baroque. I think this one is good, too, but I really love Emma Kirkby and Carolyn Watkinson, the soloists on the other. (For a gorgonzola, I’m pretty dry, I guess :)) If you just gotta have big and modern, then this recording with the London Philharmonic is not bad at all. Robert Shaw’s late 60s take is an interesting compromise–modern instruments, but scaled-down instrumentation, and mostly faster tempos than the Ormandy or other pre-70s recordings. And nobody gets clean, unfussy choral sound and diction better than Shaw.

It’s awfully hard to pick favorites from Messiah, but, if pressed, I’d choose “He Was Despised” (as long as it’s performed with a light touch, not the morbidly obese, vibrato-ey nasal alto style sometimes inexplicably preferred for this piece), “Behold and see if there be any grief”, “He trusted in God” and “But thou didst not leave his soul in hell”, and, of course “He Shall Feed His Flock”,” I Know that My Redeemer Liveth”, and “Comfort Ye” * and… oh never mind; I said it was too hard to pick favorites! What are yours?

*(random capitalization of titles especially for Matt Evans)

11 comments for “Christmas Music Geekery, Part II–Hodie and Messiah

  1. Thanks again for these posts, Kristine! I confess that my favorite recording of “The Messiah” is “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration”, a fabulous jazz, rap, R&B, gospel and soul recreation of Handel’s music. My favorite cuts include Dianne Reeve’s upbeat gospel take on “And the Glory of the Lord,” Patti Austin’s intense and funky “But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming?,” an impossibly smooth “O Thou the Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” by Stevie Wonder and Take 6, and a short swinging version of “Why do the Nations Furiously Rage?” by Al Jarreau. The Boys Choir of Harlem and Sounds of Blackness provide background harmonies throughout.

    Incidentally, at midnight on Christmas eve, all animals are granted the power of speech. It’s a fact.

  2. Last night I attended Songs of Good Cheer, a charity Carol singing party/concert at the Olde Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I’ve been every year (this was the sixth year). In introducing “Joy to the World,” the MC (a columnist for the Chicago Tribune) announced that the music was influenced by Handel’s Messiah. But it is a little know fact that Handel originally intended the music to be performed by three banjos; at which, the folk musicians on stage dived into a delightful three-banjo accompaniment as we sang “Joy to the World.”

    Great holiday fun.

  3. I wanted to wait until you finished, Kristine, before gushing about my love for John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers. You can find CDs here

    I find Cambridge Singers to be everything MoTab is not: nimble, bright, and with a dazzling repertoire of impeccably selected pieces. They do a bang-up job on Rutter’s own compositions (such as “Candlelight Carol,” which many of us have sung in ward choirs, I think) and arrangements as well as on some by Britten, Vaughan Williams and others.

    A great entry point is “The Cambridge Singers Christmas Album” which includes an arrangement of “What is That Lovely Fragrance Wafting,” discussed earlier. (And this translation, I think, could fly for U.S. audiences. Or maybe I’m thinking wishfully.)

    Favorites from Messiah for me: “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” which my grandfather asked that I prepare to sing at his funeral. That was one of the most difficult but spiritual experiences of my life so far. And the whole sequence including and following “Surely He Hath Borne Our Griefs,” based on what I feel is the most weighty and beautiful poetry in the scriptures.

    Thanks for the chance to think music for a while before I go off and think words for the day …

  4. Ana, I’m not done–I’m just warming up :) But thanks for mentioning the Cambridge Singers–they are good, and of course more nimble than the Tabernacle Choir, because the group is what, maybe 1/3 as big as MoTab? Anyway, I’ll mention a couple of their recordings in Part III (and try to refrain from overzealous thrashing of John Rutter’s recent compositional endeavors).

  5. I like “Behold the Lamb of God” from Messiah. Not as well known as some of the choruses, but still moving a beautiful.

    By the way, I agree that Cambridge Singers are wonderful. Dale Warland Singers are great as well. Their Christmas stuff isn’t as available as Cambridge singers, but it is around and worth the effort to find.

    Don’t kick out the Tabernacle Choir so soon–especially the recent stuff. The last two Christmas recordings (including the one this year) are really a step up, as have been the recordings in general the last few years. The Wilberg (and some of Bradford) arrangements are great and a better trained choir is singing and annunciating more clearly. The latest Christmas album has a number of Rutter pieces.

  6. I agree, Keith, MoTab is massively better in the last couple of years, especially their diction. Still, the choir is just too darn big to do a lot of the things that would be interesting (at least to me–can’t imagine why they haven’t consulted me yet :)). It seems as though Wilberg is suffering to some extent from the same malady as Rutter–being too popular and having to crank out arrangements too quickly so that they become somewhat formulaic and predictable. I still like many of them, but not as a steady diet. (And yes, I’m aware of how snotty it is for me to say that, considering that it would take me a month or so to come up with a simple descant!)

  7. I shouldn’t write while I’m packing for holidays. “Annunciation” is a good slip at Christmas time, but diction is what I meant.

    I probably like Wilberg a bit more than you, but I don’t think you’re snotty. You’ve got taste–probably more refined and educated than anyone on the blog. You realize what this means though? Virtually noone could by you a CD for Christmas that you would like. It’s like being an English major and someone wanting to buy you one of those nice books from the mall for Christmas. You just have to be gracious and hope they won’t be around to make you read or listen to the whole thing in front of them.

  8. I agree with Kristine on the Wilberg-Rutter “malady”. That said, I do enjoy much of Rutter’s Christmas arrangements – as sung by the Cambridge Singers. Gotta have the right production – it’s all about getting the right texture. We like it because it “sounds” like Christmas.

  9. I agree with Kristine on the Wilberg-Rutter “malady”. That said, I do enjoy much of Rutter’s Christmas arrangements – as sung by the Cambridge Singers, of course. Gotta have the right production – it’s all about getting the right texture. We like it because it “sounds” like Christmas.

    As for the Messiah; well, I can’t leave anything out. I will say this: there’s nothing like hearing the finale as a finale. I’ve heard it performed out of context as a separate piece and well, the yield just isn’t the same. But hearing it after having listened to everything leading up to it – glorious!

  10. “Virtually noone could by you a CD for Christmas that you would like”

    Oh, but they could!–the wonders of the Amazon wish list :)

  11. Other Christmas favorites:

    Choral selections: J.S. Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio”, Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols”, Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”, Poulenc’s “Quatre Motets pour le temps de Noel”, and Respighi’s “Lauda per la Nativita del Signore”.

    Instrumental: Anything by The Canadian Brass.
    The London Brass: Have you heard their transcriptions of selections from Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker”? It’s on their “Romantic Journey” album.
    The series of “A Winter’s Solstice” CDs on the Windham Hill label.

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