Christmas music (21)–What I want for Christmas

It being 12th night and all, we’re waiting for another bout of snow to hit London, getting ready for the feasting and partying to mark the end of the Christmas season (except in the Armenian Orthodox church, which celebrates Christmas today, and other Orthodox churches, which celebrate it tomorrow). The wild boar is roasting away merrily, and everyone’s mead cup is full. So here we are. This will be the last post on this series for this Christmas season. There’s quite a lot I didn’t cover—Renaissance Christmas music being the most gaping omission. Still, one of the great things about Christmas music is that there’s always more of it. Whether it’s new songs being written by contemporary composers, or thousand year old chants being rediscovered, there’s more music out there all the time. Every year I stumble on an unexpected delight—this year it’s been an album by the Netherlands Chamber Choir, conducted by the erstwhile Paul van Nevel, called Mirabile Mysterium, mainly a bunch of little known but nonetheless stunning choral pieces, mostly from the 15th and 16th centuries. Particularly noteworthy is the title piece, by Jacobus Gallus (1550-1591), as well as a whole raft of Spanish Renaissance songs. And next year I imagine there will be something else equally captivating.

But that’s only if the dim bulbs still running the music industry haven’t killed the industry dead at that point. Really, the major surprise in doing this series was discovering how many of my favorite albums are, as Amazon delicately puts it, “no longer available from the manufacturer.” This isn’t necessarily surprising for an album I bought fifteen years ago—but for this to occur for an album issued by Sony that I bought three years ago, and was new then, is astonishing. Here is a product with a built-in and enthusiastic audience that keeps coming back for the same product year after year—and like everything else in the music industry these days, it’s being trashed. We ought to get Bill O’Reilly on this. That would fix it.

Or not. Watching the management of the music industry, and the rest of the media industry, grapple with the internet over the past decade has been an exercise in…well, I don’t exactly know what to call it. Has there ever been a group of people who so thoroughly misunderstood, mischaracterized, misjudged and mishandled what was going on around them in the annals of American business? If there is, it’s hard to think of who that might be. And they’re still trying to figure it out. Here’s a tip. Stop running the industry as if 14 year olds are the only ones who matter. The rest of us buy music too. It’s not as if you can’t actually make money selling CDs of early or just plain classical music—there are a number of small labels who seem to be able to do that. So what’s the problem?

For example, they could start be reissuing some of the albums I’ve discussed—none of these should be unavailable. And let’s go one step further—there are some wonderful Christmas albums that, so far as I can tell, have never been issued on CD in the first place. What’s up with that? For example, one of my favorite Christmas albums is A Nonesuch Christmas. Those of you who like to check out the record–sorry, vinyl–bins at flea markets and such, searching for that one Cowsills album that you need to fill out your collection, keep an eye out for this one. Nonesuch was a small classical and folk label that got absorbed into the Warner empire at some point, and of course it’s been worthless ever since. I still play the album (on vinyl!), but it would sure be nice to have a CD. That way I could get it on my iPod as well. I’ve even written to Warner asking for this–but no response. No wonder record companies are collapsing. It’s a lovely album, mostly German, and mostly medieval and early Renaissance, of course.

Another Nonesuch goodie to keep an eye out for is Christesmas in Anglia, from the Ensemble for Early Music ensemble conducted by Frederick Renz. Again, this is exactly what it says it is—Christmas songs from early England, mainly the 13th to the 16th century. It’s good to keep being reminded that many of he songs we’re familiar with now, Christmas or otherwise, actually go back hundreds and hundreds, of years. The great chain of music, or something.

Then there’s the Robert Shaw Chorale’s older version of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. We’ve already discussed this. This is the one with Rejoice in the Lamb and festival Te Deum as well. I still think this one’s the best version of this stunning piece.

And then there’s the Elly Ameling/Thijs van Leer Christmas double album, simply called Christmas. Ameling was, and still is, a lovely Dutch soprano, and van Leer was, and still is, a founding member of the Dutch rock group Focus—one of the best rock groups ever. A darn good flautist, too. They collaborated on this effort of classical Christmas songs, with a lot of Bach thrown in for good measure, and it would be nice to be able to load this one up on my ipod too.

The Roger Wagner Choral did a number of Christmas albums, many of which are still available—but not A Christmas Festival, although I notice that there are some available on Amazon at amazing prices. This is a solid effort, with lots of Renaissance stuff, and the wonderful Pinkham concerto. But what sets this album apart are two songs by Flor Peters. Peters was a 20th century Belgian composer, mainly known for his prodigious organ output. But he also composed a number of choral pieces, including something called A Flemish Christmas—four songs based on medieval Flemish folk songs. And this album has two of them. So far as I know, in fact, this is the only recorded version of these pieces, and I’ve been looking for the whole work for years. Which makes this album a rarity indeed.

So what I want for Christmas eleven and a half months from now are these albums, on CD. That way I can push them again, and you’ll actually be able to get them. As opposed to checking out the vinyl bins at the flea market.

Oh, and peace on earth, too.

3 replies »

  1. My sister Sue (affectionately called Sooz) and I compiled our own version of A Nonesuch Christmas from MP3s — we call it A NanSooz Christmas. I’ll be happy to send our Windows Media Player playlist to anyone who requests it via email. Then you’ll have all the artist/album information you need to find and purchase the MP3s online, and burn your own CD.

    BTW, there are a couple of extra Daniel Speer fanfares on our version — they were too good not to include.

    Best to all,

    Nancy Peress

  2. OK, that’s good to know. I’m going to be doing another post on Christmas music in a couple of days–just on what I got this year–but I’ll make sure to include this. Many thanks! And Merry Christmas!