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''Grandiose Sound'' : On Christmas Day

The MHS Review 408, VOL. 12, NO.12• 1988

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David M. Greene


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Ah, yes! I see by the old (actually current) calendar on the wall that it's time for the annual weather report. Less than a month ago we had a week that delivered nearly six inches of rain. Then it turned beastly hot. My lawn dried up. My vegetable garden became concrete that turned to powder and blew away when one tried to cultivate it. It is now the eve of the Fourth of July holiday. Last night I had to sleep under three blankets. Today there is brilliant sunshine and a howling north wind that is finishing up the damage begun by the heat. So naturally they want me to talk about Christmas carols. Bah! Junebug!

This time we have a record featuring the American Boychoir. In case you are wondering whether you have it in some other avatar, it was originally published by Ocaso Record , a division of Headstrong Records, Inc. Headstrong is located in Princeton, NJ, the seat of the American Boychoir School. The school takes in around 60 carefully selected boarders, educates them through grade eight, and drives them about the nation at times to do concerts. Here they are joined by a dozen adult gents, identified as the New York Vocal Consort. And they are accom­panied by the Cathedral Symphony Or­chestra, which is the musical limb of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Newark, and by an organ and two pianos.

Half the program is made up of the half-­score department-store evergreens (or un­forgettable heartwarming old favorites, depending on how you view such things). Most of them came into being or became popular in the last century when Christmas became very Dickensian and an enormous boost to the economy, and Cle­ment Clark Moore invented Santa Claus, and some nameless genius thought up the Christmas carol so that we might have one more reason to feel guilty. (The Making of the Modern Christmas, by J.M. Golby and A.W. Purdue [Athens, GA, 1986] says he wasn't nameless: the idea was Henry Cole's, who published a card designed by H.C. Horsley, RA, in 1843.)

There is not much I could say about these "standards" that I haven't said here a dozen times before. We are told that "The First Nowell" is "French traditional" but there's no hard evidence; the version we all know shows, in any case, 19th­-century monkeying with the traditional tune. "Personent Hodie" is northern Euro­pean and possibly goes back to Chaucer's time. One book claims that Mozart used "Deck the Hall," a Welsh number, in a "duet for violin and piano." Another notes that "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is the only traditional Christmas song known to the author that speaks of giftgiving. No one is yet sure who wrote "O come, all ye faithful." Mendelssohn's familiar tune to "Hark, the herald angels" comes from a cantata Festgesang, where its words are "God is light." And so on.

The arrangements are by Sir David Willcocks (six) and John Rutter (three). Both lean to grandiose sound and Sir David is very big on treble descants--better than those available at your local descant store. Rutter's treatment of "The Twelve Days," following its text, is musically cumulative. There is lots of pedalboard from the organ throughout.

In short, the treatment of the old favorites should please those looking for that sort of thing. But there is also some "new" stuff to satisfy novelty-seekers. I don't suppose "Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree" by Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987) counts, since it turns up regularly these days, but you might take note of "I sing of a Maiden" by Patrick Hadley (1899-1973 ), a charming composer whose music is beginning to get some attention. The big work, however, is the 19-minute "Salvator mundi" by the important Welsh composer William Mathias (b. 1934). Writ­ten only six years ago, this is a cycle of medieval carol settings for boys' voices, strings, two pianos, and percussion that has some things in common with Britten's Ceremony of Carols.

Review Of On Christmas Day on page 1

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