The Greatest Story Ever Told, George Stevens’ epic film depicting the life of Christ, received mixed reviews. It continued to do so more than forty years after its release, the Guardian opining on Christmas Day 2009 that ” … it suffers in the retelling. With such inherently dramatic source material, George Stevens’s cameo-packed 1965 dramatisation of the life of Jesus Christ still manages to be long, plodding and unintentionally funny.” I hope this blog won’t attract a similar set of adjectives, but I thought we could attempt a cameo-studded snapshot of music that’s been written in response to the first part of the film’s story-line, the birth of Jesus, aka Christmas time.
The sacred and secular counterpoint to the Christmas story has surely produced the largest ever cache of single-subject related music. Knowing that traditional fayre will be well served outside these paragraphs, I’ve selected a few pieces for your delectation that might not otherwise make it to the table.
We’ll start with one of Bruce Adolphe’s short Piano Puzzlers (8.578349). Your challenge is to name the two Christmas tunes that have been modestly disguised, plus the name of the composer whose style has been cribbed to cloak them. If you can’t figure out the answer, then nuzzle up to your nearest piano teacher. If you can, read on.
If a Christmas tree has already taken root in your living room, you might find inspiration for getting on with wrapping presents to install under it in our next extract. It’s taken from a 2007 sequence of carols that sets to music lyrics by the UK’s Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy; the composer is Sasha Johnson Manning. Everyone involved in making the Naxos recording of the carols hails from Manchester in the north of England, hence their title The Manchester Carols (8.572469). The sequence re-tells the Christmas story for the 21st century, celebrating a child’s birth and all that child was to become: a man who lived by a humble, selfless creed, championing the marginalised in a society which was, as it is now, fraught with political tensions. The encore to the set is The Present Song, described by the composer as “a fun piece made up of Christmas presents of all types, from the edible to the furry.” Here’s how the fun ends.
The Present Song
Also by Carol Ann Duffy, Another Night Before Christmas (8.572744) updates the nineteenth-century original poem by Clement Clarke Moore (’Twas the Night Before Christmas) to the present day. In this version the little girl in the tale (Duffyʼs own daughter, Ella) is represented by the piano; Philip Lane set a reduction of the text for narrator and orchestra. Here’s the opening of the story. If you want to know how its ends, you’ll have to apply a few clicks to your mouse… (not the mouse in the original poem…)
Another Night Before Christmas
Watching the US President make his traditional pardoning of a turkey on the country’s Eve of Thanksgiving, I can imagine many a gobbler in other countries hoping for similar largesse in order to escape taking centre stage on the Christmas dinner table. Listen now to a 1934 recording of Leo Wood’s song The Ghost of the Turkey (8.120564) and you might want to change your order this year to a nut roast.
The Ghost of the Turkey
It’s probable that only those with long memories or comprehensive recording collections will have heard of Men of Goodwill (CD93.114) by the English composer Benjamin Britten. It’s a set of variations (without opus number) on the Christmas carol God rest ye merry gentlemen. It was first performed in a BBC programme in 1947, broadcast immediately before King George VI’s Royal Christmas Message on the radio. You could be forgiven for not being able to readily identify the composer without this spoiler. See if you agree after hearing Variations 2 and 3 of the work.
Men of Goodwill
You may think I’m going a bit mainstream in presenting a performance of the carol In dulci jubilo (CD93.114) at this point, but I defy you to remain in your seat while listening to this rendering of the piece by Michael Praetorius, the man who liberated music of the Lutheran Church and the musical spirit of German Protestantism from its provincialism at the beginning of the 17th century. It’s taken from his collection Polyhymnia Caduceatrix and Panegyrica. Try saying that after a blessèd trinity of sherries.
In dulci jubilo
I’m going to sign off by hitting the other end of the musical spectrum to what we’ve just heard with something that’s just the job when you’re in a flop after that last-minute Christmas shopping: Is scho still, is scho kalt (It’s quiet, it’s cold) (C49329).
Is scho still, is scho kalt
Season’s Greetings and a Happy Christmas to you all from the Naxos Team.