Rooted in Christmas

While the more commercial aspects of Christmas move in tandem with market sentiment, some elements of the season’s celebrations happily remain more constant. Christmas cards (dating from the 1840s), Advent calendars (the first examples appeared around the same time) and attractively wrapped presents (a reminder of the Three Wise Men’s gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh)—they all endure as seasonal fixtures. But one of the sturdiest symbols is provided by Mother Nature: the Christmas Tree.

Bringing fir trees indoors as part of the Christmas celebrations has been practised for some 500 years and the song most commonly associated with that custom is probably O Christmas Tree, which originated in Germany as O Tannenbaum. Here’s part of an entertaining orchestral version à la Baroque (8.550301) by Peter Breiner.

The decorated tree is prominent in Tchaikovsky’s last ballet, The Nutcracker (8.550324-25), in which the work’s fantasy action opens with the tableau, Decorating the Christmas Tree. It also pops up off-stage in works such as Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas Tree), a suite for piano (8.553461) which he composed between 1874 and 1876, dedicating the 12-piece set to his grandchild, Daniela von Bülow. The child-like excitement and sparkling candles of the fourth movement, Lighting the Christmas Tree, are clearly portrayed.

The Russian composer and pianist Vladimir Rebikov (1866-1920) wrote several major works but seemed happiest as a miniaturist. His six-movement Christmas Tree Suite (8.572744) is taken from incidental music to a fairy play called Yalta. The popular opening Waltz was later extracted and published in a version for strings.

Trees are also firmly embedded in many a Christmas carol. The tree of life finds an important spot in many cultures and religions, representing a range of concepts, from fertility to the interconnectivity of all living things. Its symbol in Christianity is well aired in Elizabeth Poston’s Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (8.554179), which begins as follows:

The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree

This theme is mirrored in The Linden Tree Carol (8.554179). The tree’s natural fragrance still falls short in comparison with the heavenly image of the Virgin Mary. The carol starts as follows:

There stood in heav’n a linden tree,
But tho’ t’was honeyladen
All angels cried, ‘No bloom shall be
Like that of one fair maiden.’

A miniaturist now best remembered for his distinctive songs, Peter Warlock was an enigmatic composer who pursued a reckless life in London’s Bohemia and died (by suicide) the week before Christmas in 1930. In mid-1923 he responded to a request from Vaughan Williams for carols with soprano solo, chorus and orchestra for a concert that December. Warlock produced two arrangements for the event, and one newly composed work (8.572102) that has the narrator contemplating the Christmas Story in the shade of yet another tree. The piece opens with this stanza:

As I sat under a sycamore tree,
a sycamore tree, a sycamore tree,
I looked me out upon the sea,
A Christmas day in the morning.

The fact that Warlock’s carols come with orchestral accompaniment reflects how the celebration of Christmas was finding a wider reach, spilling out from churches into concert halls. Vaughan Williams had himself written a popular addition to this type of repertoire with his Fantasia on Christmas Carols (8.570439), first performed in 1912 and a good example of one of his folk-song works. The piece incorporates four traditional English carols, one of which had been collected in Sussex in 1904 by Vaughan Williams himself: On Christmas Night.

A hundred years on, that secular-instrument attachment to the Christmas carol tradition is furthered in a setting by Bill Chilcott of the traditional Cherry Tree Carol (8.573159). It’s a wry observation on Joseph and Mary as they have a slight tiff: Joseph is an old man and, to his slight chagrin, Mary has experienced an immaculate conception; when they walk through a cherry orchard and the pregnant Mary asks her husband to pick her some fruit, Joseph gruffly tells her to pick her own, at which point the miracle happens:

Then bowed down the tallest tree, it bent to Mary’s hand;
The she cried: ‘See, Joseph, I have cherries at command.’

But for anyone looking for a non-religious musical cherry that makes a jolly good accompaniment to a glass of port and a mince-pie, I can recommend Mario Lanza’s recording of Oscar Asbach’s setting of Joyce Kilmer’s popular poem, Trees (8.120720). Lanza sadly had his tree of life cut short at the age of 38, possibly accelerated by his fondness for food and drink, not just at Christmas; fortunately, his captivating voice survives.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

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