Sounds of the Holidays

I have been blessed through the years with a love of music, both as a performer and as an audience member.  My music library consists of vinyl, CD’s, tape, and sheet music.  It ranges from classical to pop.  And more than any other genre, there is Christmas music.

I am a child who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s.  This means I was exposed to sacred music in church and secular music in school concerts.  perry-comoIt means I watched Perry Como and Andy Williams on our black and white TV.  It means I learned the “12 Days of Christmas” for the school concert along with “Silent Night” for the church service.

These choral experiences were supplemented with trips to see “The Nutcracker” and in my early piano lessons, endlessly playing the “Russian Dance” (Trepak) by Tchaikovsky because I loved the harmonies.  Because these were the golden years when music was a part of the curriculum of elementary schools, there was also the orchestra concert.  I remember the thrill of being first chair oboe (actually, I was the only chair oboe) and playing another Tchaikovsky hit, “Swan Lake“.

In my teen years, I had the privilege of traveling to Europe twice with our orchestra when I was in high school.  We played concerts in Moscow, Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), Vienna, and Amsterdam on a winter tour in 1970, a magical combination of Winter Wonderland and a Dickensian, Olde Worlde trip.

vienna18We were in Vienna on Christmas Eve.  I remember gathering pine branches left on the street outside our hotel, taking them up to the hotel room and making decorations using my oboe reeds to trim a little tree.  I also remember that it snowed, but that may be my imagination just adding to the whole picture.

 

It wouldn’t be Christmas for me without Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.  I make it a tradition to watch White Christmas every year.  I admit that I fast forward through a couple of the numbers, but that is because I am impatient to get the final scene when the wall is lifted revealing a Currier and Ives scene with snow, a sleigh, and jingle bells.  I was probably around 18 or 19 before I fully appreciated the irony of a Jewish cantor writing the iconic secular Christian Christmas song. The lilting harmony and wonderful lyrics of Irving Berlin open my heart to warm memories of simpler times.  It brings me to tears every time.

white-christmas-sing-a-long-1920x1280

For a while back in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, it seemed that every well-known pop star had to make a Christmas album.  This was fine for the greats who had gone before like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Elvis, Andy Williams and Perry Como.  But it also included folks who should have just declined the invitation:  Yuletide Disco, David Hasselhoff, Snoop Dog, William Hung, and for the younger generation, Mariah Carey, Faith Hill, and Justin Bieber.  Sometimes it is better to just leave well enough alone.

Other iconic Christmas sounds include Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops doing “Sleigh Ride”, Canadian Brass doing pretty much anything, and Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”.  There are endless novelty albums including the Chipmunks singing “Christmas Time”, the Andrews Sisters singing the “Christmas Tree Angel” , and Burl Ives singing “Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.  Each of these evokes different memories for me.

A dear friend of mine, who is an opera singer, provided me with a treasure trove of music for 10 years by sending an annual CD she and her husband (also an opera singer) put together containing the best of sacred and secular holiday music.   This task of love exposed me to some of the best music I had never heard, to renditions (both good and bad) of holiday classics such as “Ave Maria“, “The Christmas Song“, and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus“.  Each year I now pop one or more into my CD player (yes, I still have one of those) and sing along while decorating my tree, addressing Christmas cards, or just sitting around reading.

For some reason, I am able to recall lyrics of many Christmas songs in their entirety, while other songs are a mixture of my memory and imagination.  Verses of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” jump to mind as I cut vegetables. I hum “We Three Kinds of Orient Are” while I sort and fold my laundry.  “Silent Night” (in both English and German) follows me as I do my grocery shopping.  Then there are the earworms arising from grandma getting run over by a reindeer and directives to have a holly jolly Christmas while rocking around the Christmas tree.  It can become confusing.

Kiddy Xmas ChoirAs Christmas approaches this year, I hope you can find music that brings back memories of happy times, shared love and joy, and hope.  Whether you find it by singing in a group or in the shower, playing with other musicians and/or sitting in the audience while a grandchild or other family member performs, know that you are part of a tradition that crosses generations and continues to bring joy around the world.

The last two stanzas of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” speak to me especially this year.  They originally came from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow back in 1863 when our nation was at war.  The poem was published in 1865, months before the war ended in April of that year.  I am hoping these soaring words will reach across the years and inspire us to find a way to come together in our current days of darkness.  Here is the poem in its entirety.  I trust the music will come to your mind unbidden.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day,
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Christmas Bells

7 comments

  1. thanks mary-hope this finds you singing around the house-and a dance move or two as well-merry Christmas my dear-enjoy to the fullest best nan

  2. Thank you for that and all of your blogs Mary. Love and hugs to you this holiday season and throughout the year(s) to come. I was just waxing nostalgic to one of my friends about the European concert tour we shared! We have so many wonderful memories at this point in our lives. I only wish I could see you more often so we could create more!

  3. My favorite carol is “Oh, Holy Night.” In high school, I was in the guitar club and several of us went Christmas caroling in my neighborhood. It was a picture perfect night, with a gentle snow falling, and Sarah, our soprano, singing this carol, which I played on my guitar (I don’t remember the key, but we capo’d to the 7th fret!). It is a cherished memory! Music is such a gift!!!! And one that Mary and I have shared way back when….! Peace on earth and Good Will to all !!!

  4. Thank you once again for sharing your beautiful thoughts. Hadn’t known of your musical background. Happiness to you this holiday season and always.

  5. Thank you for this blog…

    Many Memories of music, time spent with my mother watching the Christmas specials & movies on TV and listening to music on the stereo, in church & So many other places.

    Merry Christmas to all and a happy new year!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.