Christmas Music for Choir Nerds, Part III

My first two posts were mostly devoted to large-scale pieces; this one is for miniatures, carol collections, and other minor or miscellaneous loveliness.

Several people have mentioned the Cambridge Singers’ collections. My favorite of these is Christmas Night. I think it has the most interesting repertoire and plenty of really good singing. My favorite piece is the Boris Ord “Adam Lay Ybounden” (which, incidentally is one of the texts whose false doctrine makes me saddest–there are a half-dozen settings of this which would be accessible for ward choirs and great fun! Still, I guess I prefer not believing in original sin :)). Their stuff is all good, though, although it seems to me that their sound has gotten too prettified and precious lately. Which album you pick should probably be a function of how much John Rutter you want.

However, if you want to hear the Cambridge Singers doing some really good stuff, pick up their 1993 recording of Poulenc’s Gloria, which contains, besides the glorious title work, four small and perfect “Motets pour le temps de Noël.” These are twentieth-century settings of medieval chant texts–O Magnum Mysterium, Quem Vidistis Pastores, Videntes Stellam, and Hodie Christus Natus Est (same text as the Vaughan Williams begins with, but, of course, a completely different treatment–as raucous a good time as choral music geeks are ever likely to have!). Don’t let the “twentieth-century” part scare you. These are melodic and accessible and great. I have fantasies of someday building a Christmas sacrament meeting program around them. (One could wish that this recording had been made in a slightly less resonant hall, and with a couple of Russian basses to add some ruggedness to the low, low bass parts, but then one would be quibbling, and one oughtn’t really.)

Another favorite group of mine is Joel Cohen’s Boston Camerata. They are small, and their singing is a little rawer and more energetic than the Cambridge Singers, but they are terrifically musical and really exciting. An American Christmas is their impeccably-researched paean to the little-known American tradition which existed alongside the reproduction and imitation of European classical music in the colonies. Joel Cohen’s impassioned introductory essay in the liner notes is delicious, and the music itself is everything that Christmas music sometimes isn’t–unrepetitive, fresh, vital, energetic. You get the picture. This is unlike any other Christmas album you own, and deserves a listen. This group has also recorded A Medieval Christmas, A Renaissance Christmas, and A Baroque Christmas. All are expertly performed and carefully annotated–the most pleasant music history lesson one could possibly hope for!

If you like the earliest music on those, you should not miss the two Christmas recordings by Anonymous 4: On Yoolis Night and Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols. On Yoolis Night is for purists–just 4 incredibly beautiful voices, perfect intonation, gorgeous blend, good recording quality. Even I, querulous and snobbish criticaster that I am, can find nothing to quibble with in this recording. It is beautiful enough to make medieval plainsong and early, early polyphonic stuff vivid and appealing–no mean feat. Wolcum Yule is maybe a little more accessible, with at least a few songs like “The Cherry Tree Carol” that one might sing along with. It adds a few instruments, including Irish harp, baroque harp, and psaltery–“rollicking” would probably be taking the description a bit too far, but there are lively and fun moments interspersed with the ethereal perfection of the voices. This album lets you breathe a little more–the first feels so delicate and perfect that I’m always afraid to put it on if I can’t just sit still and listen worshipfully. Anyway, if you like vocal music at all, you owe it to yourself to hear Anonymous 4. Now.

Strangely enough, though I would certainly choose the Romantic period if pressed to find the musical Zeitgeist that appeals the most to me, I can’t think of a collection of stuff from this period.

Mendelssohn’s little-known Sechs Sprüche have been in the Christmas rotation a lot at our house lately–they’re not all Christmas pieces (they’re called (approximately translated) “Six Anthems for Different Times of the Year”), but there’s one for Advent, one for Christmas, and one for New Year’s. It’s a good enough excuse for me to put on this recording of Mendelssohn’s Choral Music. Not that I really need much of an excuse for that–the Corydon Singers are just great–clean, bright, warm sound; polished, but not precious technique; nice balance with really solid bass. This stuff is a lot more fun if you know German, but the liner notes are good, and all the texts are translated.

Brahms also wrote lots of stuff that fits at Christmastime, and if you don’t know his small choral works, you are missing some great stuff. The best collection I know, also by the Corydon Singers, is this one . Texts appropriate for Christmas include: Es ist das Heil uns kommen her, Regina coeli laetare, Ave Maria. (Same caveat as with the Mendelssohn, easier to fall in love with if the German speaks to you, but good translations and notes). Although it’s not the exact text of Simeon’s speech, I always think of “Mit Fried’ und Freud'” (the last section of “Warum ist das Licht gegeben”) as Brahms’ Nunc Dimitis, and it’s the last thing I play on Christmas night.

Which seems like a good place to finally stop for this year–if you’ve read this far, thanks for indulging me.

26 comments for “Christmas Music for Choir Nerds, Part III

  1. Kristine thank you for the Corydon recommendation. I love german and french christmas hymns. It takes me back to school when we were basically forced to learns the hymns of the languages we were majoring in… There is nothing better than a good rendition of Il est Ne’. I can hum it all season!

  2. Cooper, I can’t think offhand of a good recording of “Il Est Né,” but Chanticleer has a cool setting of “Noël Nouvelet”, which is another great French one.

  3. I too love On Yoolis Night and highly recommend it. I have a good friend who grew up Catholic but is now atheist, and he loves it, too.

  4. Not to be missed is the very nice material by the Tallis Scholars–perhaps someone has mentioned it already. Peter Phillips conducts. “Christimas in Rome” is excellent: video or CD, live performance. J.D. Zelenka wrote a very nice Magnificat; and of course, there are 14 indispensible performances of Bach’s Magnificat, all on original instruments. Herreweghe’s is best, at the moment. (Having only one performance of any musical work is worse than having none. Less than three is perilous) Both Couperin and Charpentier have very nice Nativity sets, so does H. Schutz–most every version on original instruments is great. (If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.)

    Anon 4 did a lovely concert in Provo a few years ago.


  5. Thanks for the Boston Camerata recommendation.

    I don’t know that much about classical music, but I think one of the problems I have is that I don’t relate well to the music of the Romantic period.

    On the other hand, all the early music stuff I’ve heard, I’ve really liked.

    For awhile there was a great Sunday radio show on in the Bay Area called Chapel, Court & Countryside that featured early music. Sadly, it isn’t around anymore.

  6. I love both the Tallis Scholars and Heinrich Schütz–just figured I’d gone on long enough. Thanks for adding them to the list!

  7. Kristine,
    What about high-quality choral Christmas music for free? Some very accomplished choral groups offer complete songs for download that drop easily into a Christmas mp3 compilation. While looking for Tallis’s “If Ye Love Me” a while ago, I ran across, the website of a male acapella ensemble. Click on “CDs,” and you’ll find several samples for download, including renditions of “Es ist ein Ros entsprungen” and “Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier,” two of my favorites from the massive stock of German Christmas songs. If you buy one of their CDs, I will earn a 0.00% commission.

    Are there any more free samples out there where 1) the songs are complete; 2) the bitrate is >= 128 kb; and 3) the performers are first rate?

  8. Hmmm, well, there’s my little sister’s choir’s CD, available at, which has a few full-length and first-rate samples.

    Alas, I’m about as net-savvy as my grandmother (probably less, actually) and have no useful information besides shameless, nepotistic advertisements. However, I’d bet that hunting around college music groups’ websites could yield some good stuff.

  9. Kristine,

    I just hit the link and answered my question.

    They’re both ’05s, it appears.

    I’ll have to ask Kathryn . . .

  10. The Christmas Night recording by Cambridge Singers is one of the best.

    Thank you for including the Brahms. I’ll have to check it out. I really can’t say I’ve heard any of it.

    Make sure to give the Dale Warland Singers’ Christmas stuff a listen.

  11. Musical Heritage Society has re-released a 2 CD set titled “Christmas with the Robert Shaw Chorale” that is really nice. It was originally a 3 LP set recorded in the 1950s & 1960s that has been reengineered. The first CD is nearly 73 minutes and the 2nd is nearly 75 min. Contents include: Christmas Hymns and Carols, Vols. I & II, and the Britten set of “A Ceremony of Carols”, “Festival Te Deum”, and “Rejoice in the Lamb”. The Carols and Hymns in Vol. II are for the most part the famous arrangements made by Shaw and Alice Parker.

    And now for something completely different!
    “Dr. Demento Presents The Greatest Christmas Novelty CD of All Time” on the Rhino label. Highlights include: “The Chipmunk Song”, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” (Spike Jones & His City Slickers), “Jingle Bells” by The Singing Dogs, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer”, “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas” by Yogi Yorgesson (unfortunately they don’t include Yogi’s “Yingle Bells”), and of course Cheech & Chong’s “Santa Claus and His Old Lady”, and a number of other equally weird selections.

  12. I just bought the DVD of Chanticleer’s PBS special this weekend and promptly spent 2 hours figuring out how to rip the songs from the DVD and save them as mp3’s so I could use them in my mp3 player and burn cd’s for the car too. If that doesn’t qualify me as a choir nerd I don’t know what does.

    I did find one new song in common between Chanticleer and the Cambridge Singers, a traditional Spanish song called Riu, Riu, Chiu that is now one of my favorite songs. And it’s public domain! Guess what my choir will be singing next Christmas!

  13. Chad, are you going to use a tambourine? And will your choir not flip out if you ask them to sing in Spanish? I’d have mutiny on my hands if I tried.

  14. It depends. If it’s the stake program held separately from Sacrament meeting, I just might. I wouldn’t for a Sacrament meeting.

    Up until a separate Spanish Branch was created this past summer our ward had a parallel Spanish congregation complete with an extra Bishop’s counselor and everything. The choir often learned a verse-or-two in Spanish when we sang right from the hymnbook, so I suppose we’re already used to it.

    Riu, Riu, Chiu is basically a solo verse followed by a chorus that’s identical each time (except for the tenors changing from minor to major on the last note the last time the chorus is sung) so I suppose if I used a Spanish-speaking singer (I have a great tenor who fits that bill; he’s a counselor in the Spanish Branch presidency who used to tour with Ike and Tina Turner) for the verse all the choir has to learn the 5-measures in Spanish and repeat them.

    And if planning next year’s program before this year’s performance doesn’t make me a choir geek nothing ever will ;-)

  15. On Sunday night I went to hear the boys’ Choir of King’s College at the St. Louis Basilica. It was a glorious evening, even though we were sitting in the balcony and couldn’t actually see the entire choir. (That inconvenience was more than compensated by the felicity of having gotten there just in time to snag the *last two tickets* available, and of my friend’s infant not crying the whole time.)

    The did Poulenc’s “Quatre Motets” and Britten’s “Ceremony of Carols” in the first half; in the second half they did a series of short carols, my favorites of which were Elizabeth Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” and JOhn Woolrich’s “Spring in Winter.” They ended with Vaughan-Williams’ “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.” Most of the short carols had been commissioned for the annual Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that the choir broadcasts every Christmas Day.

    So is this music so beautiful to me because of my faith? Would an unbeliever find it as moving on purely aesthetic grounds?

  16. Possibly, Rosalynde. I once left a Bach concert at intermission because, during a year that I saw a lot of Bach performed by amateur groups, this was the first one that seemed to perform an “atheist” Bach. No, I can’t tell you what I mean by that, because I don’t remember exactly why I thought that, but I remember thinking that at the time.

  17. Rosalynde, what a good question. I’ve performed with lots of people who didn’t identify themselves as believers, at least not in Christianity, and I’ve seen them visibly moved by the music despite not “believing in” the text. I’ve heard directors whom I knew to be fairly hostile to religion, at least in its organized forms, speak eloquently and profoundly about the text of the Requiem. I can’t imagine how one would perform “atheist” Bach, Jonathan–not doubting your sense of it, but I just can’t imagine it.

    For myself, I think I’ve got things exactly backwards–I don’t love this music because I believe; I’m a believer largely because of the way I respond to this music. My two earliest memories of what I would describe as spiritual experiences are of hearing “High on a Mountain Top” played on a really good organ (or at least one with some nice 16′ stops in the pedal, because what I remember is the bass line), and of reading the Psalms and wanting to weep without quite knowing why. Sometimes it seems like a lame excuse for a testimony that this is the “only true church,” but for me, the fact that this is the only church with “Come, Come Ye Saints”* is nearly good enough. I think it’s uncommon for Mormons, but not so uncommon for other religious people (think of all the great Catholic poets and novelists) to practice their religion largely in and through aesthetic experience.

    *(yes, I do know the provenance of the song, and that bastardized versions appear in several Protestant hymnbooks; it ain’t the same.)

  18. This belongs in an “On Language” column by William Safire, but is “bastardized” a bastard step-child (how’s that for attenuation?) of “bowdlerized”? Got any etymologists here?

  19. Well, I’m not an etymologist, but I used to play one on TV. I don’t think they could be the same–bastard is from Old French “fils de bast” or maybe from Latin bastare, while “bowdlerize” is a tribute, of sorts, to Thomas Bowdler, who published a Varsity Cinema version of Shakespeare. (Did I get it right, Rosalynde?)

  20. Hmmm…..maybe that’s why I never heard Bach’s “Coffee Cantata” at BYU; there were rumors that they could only perform it there if it was either “bastardized” or “bowdlerized” and presented as the “Postum Cantata”!

  21. Mark, I think you’re on to something. I don’t have access to the OED at the moment, but a denominal verb with an -ize suffix really should have the sense of “to give something the quality of X,” where X is the noun in question. And since you can’t make anyone a bastard–you’re either born that way, or not–the verb “bastardize” really shouldn’t exist. Which probably means that the OED will list precedents since the early 19th century or so. How about ‘adulterate’ instead?

    Kristine, I wish I could have figured out why I disliked that one Bach performance so much. I saw the same choir perform several other times, including Bach, and I quite enjoyed them. Maybe they just stunk that night. Perhaps it was something like watching a favorite piece of sacred music performed without any sense of sacredness, but who knows? I’m probably straining the patience of the musicologists too much already.

    I’m entirely in favor of better aesthetic experiences.

  22. The Rutter piece on that Christmas Night recording is the last one, Nativity Carol, which I could listen to until I die.

  23. Great choice, D. I suppose my Rutter death carol (sounds like a classical punk band) would be Wexford Carol.

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