Arts/Literature

Christmas music (19)–Best 20th century choral Christmas music albums

There isn’t just one, so I’m suggesting a bunch here. The first two come from the English Group Polyphony, with two albums called O magnum misterium (note the middle English spelling) and A Christmas Present from Polyphony. You would never know what a wasteland much of 20th century composing was from listening to these albums. Maybe there is something to the notion that all great music is, at some level, religious music. Certainly, many of the century’s greatest composers–Poulenc, Messianen, Britten, Vaughan Williams, Copland–were deeply religious. That’s as far as I’ll go. This album is mostly British composers, notably Howells, who wrote some great stuff. It doesn’t have the four wonderfully meditative Poulenc Christmas Motets, that we discussed a couple of posts ago, but you can’t have everything. But you can find that on an album called Child of Light by the Elysian Singers, yet another album of 20th century Christmas music by yet another fine English choral group, which also has a very nice version of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.

There have been hundreds—perhaps thousands—of Christmas works composed over the past century, and many of them are noteworthy in some respect. I don’t know for sure, but it certainly seems as if the vast majority of them are from England. This may be because a number of major English—or British, rather, if we include Scottish, Northern Irish or Welsh in the mix—composers took, and still take, Christmas seriously. There are multiple reasons for this—the long musical history of the country, the adaptation of so many English pagan and folk customs to the Christmas ceremony, and the fact that the English made serious efforts to start popularizing Christmas carols in the 19th century. The English had had a vigorous carol tradition prior to the ban on Christmas celebrations and church music by the Puritans in the 17th century, and many carols and songs were lost. This carol tradition did not resume in earnest until the publication in the early 19th century of various editions of carols—and the Victorians, with their love of ceremony, embraced the carol tradition as if it had never disappeared in the first place.

A further reason, certainly, has to be the influence of the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was the first major English composer to take folk songs seriously. In fact, Vaughan Williams was a diligent collector of folk songs, and much of his collection found its way into his symphonic and choral output. Vaughan Williams had a significant influence on subsequent generations of English composers, particularly from his teaching position at the Royal College of Music. Vaughan Williams is perhaps best known for his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (written when he was 81!), but he also has a magnificent Christmas Cantata (Hodie) to his credit, as well as any number of arrangements of traditional carols.

The title piece of one of the first Polyphony album above, ironically, is often associated with the American composer Morton Lauridsen. Lauridsen’s O magnum mysterium is one of the most glorious choral pieces of the 20th century, and is available on any number of albums—but not this one. The reason I like this album is its broad representation of English composers, particularly from the first half of the 20th century, when composers of Christmas music were flourishing—William Walton, Herbert Howells, Peter Warlock and Kenneth Leighton are all well-represented on this album. In addition, Stephen Layton, Polyphony’s musical director, does something that I don’t think is done enough, even on Christmas albums, which is to try to recreate a concert. So in this case, the sequence of 20th centuries carols and songs is bracketed by Sarum chant—a form of monophonic chant associated with the Sarum rite used in English churches from the 13th century until the Reformation. There are a number of gems on this album—Howells’ A spotless Rose and Sing Lullaby (both of which I sang last year!), several pieces from Peter Warlock (including I Saw a Fair Maiden, which alone would justify Warlock’s fame), Leighton’s Lully, Lulla, thou little tiny child, and Walton’s What Cheer—one of the most delightful and joyful Christmas songs ever written. And Peter Warlock’s Bethlehem Down, with lyrics from poet Basil Blunt.

The story of the composition of this piece is so good it should be apocryphal, but isn’t. But it has become legendary anyway. Warlock and Blunt, who shared a house together in the English village of Eynsford, in Kent, for a while when both were constantly broke, and in need of funds for their patronage of the local pub. So wandering home in a bit of a haze one evening, across the downs, Blunt came up with the lyrics. The next morning, Warlock, who was an early riser, saw what Blunt had produced and immediately set it to music. They then sent it off to The Daily Telegraph as an entrant to the carol competition the Telegraph was running that year, and won, which kept them in funds for the next bout of carousing, including, according to Blunt, an “immortal carouse” on Christmas eve in 1927. It is astonishing, still, to think that a piece of such delicacy and beauty can come from a bender, but there it is. The lyrics themselves are stunning, given the source:

When he is King we will give him the Kings’ gifts,
Myrrh for its sweetness, and gold for a crown,
Beautiful robes,” said the young girl to Joseph,
Fair with her first-born on Bethlehem Down.

Bethlehem Down is full of the starlight —
Winds for the spices, and stars for the gold,
Mary for sleep, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

When he is King they will clothe him in grave-sheets,
Myrrh for embalming, and wood for a crown,
He that lies now in the white arms of Mary,
Sleeping so lightly on Bethlehem Down.

Here he has peace and a short while for dreaming,
Close-huddled oxen to keep him from cold,
Mary for love, and for lullaby music
Songs of a shepherd by Bethlehem fold.

A Christmas Present from Polyphony is a bit more current in its scope, although, again, it has significant pieces from Howells, Walton, Britten and Warlock—there is some overlap with O magnum mysterium, in fact. In addition to the Lauridsen, it also has Bethlehem Down, Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin, written when Britten was sixteen (!), and several other notable works. This album isn’t just English—there are several works from Estonian composer Arvo Pärt—O Morgenstern and Magnificat—which are breathtaking.

The two Christmas albums put out by Ex Cathedra have a lot of overlap with the two Polyphony albums. Sir Christemas (or Christmas Past & Present, depending on which edition you want) isn’t just 20th century music, and it isn’t just English composers—but it has enough spectacular 20th century pieces to warrant attention anyway. These include No Small Wonder by contemporary English composer Paul Edwards, John Tavener’s The Lamb (with words from Blake), and the Harold Darke arrangement of In the Bleak Midwinter, which most Americans will be unfamiliar with. But a better bet is Christmas Music by Candlelight, which is all either 20th century compositions, or 20th century arrangements of earlier works. And the list of composers here is prodigious: Holst, Lauridsen (again!—he’s everywhere), Roderick Williams, the American composers Samuel Barber and Sydney Carter, Bethlehem Down again, and others. A stunning album.

The Sixteen also has an album of 20th century Christmas music which has many of these same chestnuts—Walton, Leighton, Britten, Tavener, Warlock, Howells—in fact, many of these same songs. There’s a reason for this, and I can vouch for it having been a member of an English choral group the past five years—not only are these lovely or stirring works to hear, they’re also a joy to perform. Which is why singers don’t get tired of singing them. The Sixteen album, called A Twentieth Century Christmas Collection (reissued as Hodie—An English Christmas Collection) also contains a very dramatic version of O magnum mysterium by the British composer Peter Maxwell Davies that will knock your socks off, including the 11-minute organ fantasia that closes the piece. There’s also a lovely carol by the little-known English composer Edmund Rubbra, which you probably won’t find anywhere else. Any album put out by The Sixteen is worth owning.

Two albums from local London choruses are also worth a mention. The first, Child of Light by the Elysian Singers, was mentioned above, and it’s worth tracking down. It has one of the best versions of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols that I know of, all four Poulenc Christmas motets, and a fair mix of other English composers, including Maxwell Davies, Tavener, and Leighton. It also has a stirring version of Judityh Weir’s Illuminare, Jerusalem, which proves that modern choral composing can be both interesting and listenable. And Weir does something here that should be familiar—setting a 15th century text in a modern dramatic context. The Elysian Singers have a genuine affinity for late 20th century choral works, and there are several on this album in addition to the piece by Weir, yet another contemporary composer who takes Christmas seriously. The second is from the Vasari Singers, Noel Nouvelet, which isn’t strictly just 20th century works—we start out with Mendelssohn’s Weihnachten, for example. But there are enough 20th century choral works to justify thinking of it as a 20th century album bracketed by some older stuff. We have yet another Lauridsen magnum (you really can’t have too many), the Weir Illuminare, Leighton’s Coventry Carol, Edward’s No Small Wonder, along with works by lesser-known or contemporary composers such as Jonathan Rathbone and Michael Head. Again, a delightful presentation of some of the best 20th century English Christmas songs. And it’s available! I would be remiss if I did not also mention the good old City Chamber Choir’s Christmas album, culled from live performances over the past decade, available from the CCC website.

So there are a raft of English 20th century works, and a profusion of albums on which you can find them. It would be nice to say that there is a comparable depth to modern American Christmas music as we find in England (or Germany, or Sweden, for that matter). But there isn’t. There is that great Tin Pan Alley tradition, of course, which gave us White Christmas, The Christmas Song, and, perhaps most importantly, Frosty the Snowman. But nothing striking from any American composer comes to mind here—aside from Lauridsen, and while he may be the best choral composer in modern America, he’s hardly a household name. Samuel Barber wrote some Christmas pieces. Sydney Carter composed the wonderful Every Star Shall Sing a Carol. Randall Thompson’s Allelujia is often performed this time of year, but it’s not even really a Christmas work. Daniel Pinkham wrote a glorious Christmas Cantata, which does indeed show up on any number of albums, but it used to show up on more. The Boston Camerata, as discussed earlier, have a glorious American Christmas album, but this is early American Christmas music, of which, ironically, there is no shortage. Peter Schickele, in his non-PDQ Bach persona, has actually written some lovely Christmas pieces (some of which I sang years ago), but it doesn’t appear as if any are currently available. What there is will invariably show up on one of the Christmas albums put out by the estimable Dale Warland Singers, thankfully—but compared to England (or most European countries, for that matter), America has produced surprisingly little serious Christmas music over the past century. Bleak midwinter indeed.