While we tend to thing of Christmas carols as being timeless, they're mostly a Victorian invention. That's not to say there's not a rich repertoire of seasonal classical music. From the 10th century on, liturgical texts have been set to music. But it was always designed for worship, not singing door-to-door.
So what about the modern era? In my two-hour show, I tried to balance original and traditional works -- and in all cases avoiding the trite and cliche. Here's the run down:
Daniel Pinkham: Christmas Cantata
- This short, three-movement work from 1958 is somewhat thorny, but still leans toward the tonal. If nothing else, it shows that seasonal music doesn't have to be pretty to be emotionally moving.
Lars-Erik Larsson: Four Vignettes to Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale"
- I know not everyone celebrates Christmas. My definition of "sound of the season" include music inspired by winter. In this lush, post-romantic work Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson encapsulates the inherent drama of the play in a shimmering orchestral context. The Vignettes were completed in 1938, which may be a little outside the bounds of a "contemporary" music program. But what the heck.
Jake Heggie: On the Road to Christmas
- Heggie's 1996 work for mezzo-soprano and string orchestra has eight movements that range from the completely original to arrangements of traditional carols. Frederica von Stade was the original soloist, and contributed text for two of the movements, including the titular section. It describes her impressions as a young girl riding to grandma's -- on the road to Christmas.
David Del Tredici: Wollman Rink, from "Gotham Glory"
- This is another work for those who want to pass on Christmas. Del Tredici's 2004 piano work "Gotham Glory" has four movements; each a study of a different aspect of New York City. The final movement, "Wollman Rink" references the famous ice-skating rink in Central Park. Subtitled "Grand Fantasy on the Skaters' Waltz" is a 17-minute knuckle-busting tour-de-force. And Del Tredici's inviting neo-romantic style lets you enjoy every note.
Jean Belmont: Nativitas
- I couldn't resist the opportunity to air "Nativitas" on "Novitas." This 1981 work is an exciting and challenging work for a capella choir, with plenty of shifting meters and extended passages in the extremes of the register. Belmont does quote from medieval and renaissance sources, but there's no mistaking this for anything but a contemporary work.
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- The Boston Symphony commissioned Barber for this seasonal work in 1960. Barber took many beloved carols and wove them together to create an entirely new work. I don't know why this work isn't played more often -- and neither did several listeners who called in while it was airing.
John Tavener: Magnificat and Nunc dimittis
- John Tavener may have grown up in the English choral tradition, but his conversion to the Eastern Orthodox church opened him up to an entirely different world of liturgical music. His settings of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (key Advent texts) combine both eastern and western Christian music in a way that's uniquely Tavener. It's serene, deeply spiritual, and totally original.
Kevin Oldham: Silent Night, from Three Carols, Op. 20
- Whenever I have a Christmas or Christmas eve show, I end with this work. Oldham's 1992 setting of Silent Night is for soprano, flute, and harp. He kept the words, and created an entirely new melody for them. It's a delicately beautiful work that I think should be better known. And so I air it -- year after year...
*Since Adam came before Eve, it only makes sense that the day before Christmas Eve would be called Christmas Adam.