Every fall I go through a lengthy process of selecting music for the Christmas services. This year I have been very aware of stylistic differences among the various national traditions from which we draw Christmas music each year. (For this post, the phrase “Christmas music” refers to music with lyrics that deal with the Incarnation of God generally or the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem specifically.) This is an interesting and sometimes also amusing phenomenon; but I think there is a deeper reality at work here, something alluded to in our New Testament reading a couple of Sundays ago. Rev. 21: 24, 26 say, “And the nations of those who are saved shall walk in its light, and the kings of the earth bring their glory and honor into it. And they shall bring the glory and the honor of the nations into it.” Here we see that God allows peoples and nations to bring their unique treasures into the kingdom. I would like to highlight a few of these unique national treasures and supply a link for each to a YouTube performance that exemplifies those qualities.
We’ll begin with our own native land. Most of the familiar Christmas music that we hear every year does not originate from America, except for a few songs, like I wonder as I wander and Go tell it on the mountain. But the composer who probably best exemplifies the unique character of American choral music is William Billings (1746-1800). Billings mostly wrote a cappella choral music with sacred lyrics, including a few Christmas pieces. His style might be described as “rough around the edges,” and the performance practice associated with this style would strike many people as the same − coarse, unrefined, maybe even raucous. Even his lyrics reflect a refreshingly unrefined quality, like this verse from his Christmas anthem Shiloh, in which he tells us what he really thinks about the innkeeper refusing a room to Mary and Joseph:
The Master of the Inn refus’d
A more commodious Place;
Ungenerous Soul of Savage Mould
And destitute of Grace.
Here is a link to a shortened version of that same piece, which illustrates his style very well. A couple of things to note about the performance. As I mentioned, it’s a pretty “rough” kind of singing. These singers are not likely candidates to sing on “The Voice.” After a pretense of giving the pitches, the group then sings the piece to “solmization syllables,” like fa-so-la, then with the words, reflecting the genre’s roots in the singing schools of a bygone era. You’ll notice that many of those present can’t help but perform seemingly random movements with their arms, as they match what the director in the middle is doing. The singing is exactly opposite of every principle learned by those who are vocally trained. But the roughness is the key to rendering this music well; the essence of the style is bound up in ordinary Christians singing this music in the most heartfelt and robust way they know. That’s where the beauty lies, the thing that I think will be treasured in the age to come.
This Sunday at our yearly Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, one of the groups will sing another of Billings’ Christmas pieces, A Virgin Unspotted. You’ll have to be the judge as to whether we’re sufficiently “rough around the edges” to bring this music to life. If you’re interested in listening to more of this style, go to youtube.com and search with the keywords “sacred harp.”
My second example comes from Germany. Most of us would recognize the carol, In Dulci Jubilo, in English as Good Christian Men, Rejoice. The original text is 14th century and macaronic (a mixture of two or more languages, in this case German and Latin). The melody started appearing in hymnbooks in the early years of the printing presses, setting the original text as well as additional verses, possibly by Luther. It must have been a catchy tune, since it was quickly exported to other European cities. A hundred years into the Reformation, composers were taking congregational hymns like this one and “pulling out all the stops” − the whole setting might be given over to choir and instruments, as in this example by the early Baroque German composer, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621).
When you listen to this recording with the benefit of high-fidelity speakers, you will hear quite an amazing sonic palette − high and low voices and instruments, softs and louds, and shifts from one texture to another. Praetorius arranged this hymn for several ensembles, each group with its own set of instruments typical of the times − cornetts, shawms, crumhorns, sackbutts and all manner of keyboard instruments. What stands out to me is the aspect of unbridled joyful celebration embodied in this style. Any poor soul who thinks that hymns are stodgy and dull will get a very different impression upon hearing this remarkable performance. This music is for people who don’t merely confess the Incarnation as an abstract doctrine of the faith, but who respond to it with visceral joy and with merriment. This performance has six (!) trumpets and drums (yes, drums, and you thought that didn’t happen in church until the 1960s!), which go off on a seemingly impromptu fanfare right in the middle of the piece. I can’t imagine this music coming out of most other parts of Europe. These people know how to celebrate Christmas! By comparison, just think of the unremitting sonic assault we must all endure through the tinny speakers of our grocery stores and shopping malls. Here is truly a distinctive national treasure for the ages!
Incidentally, this Sunday, the combined octet and choir will sing another piece by Praetorius in the prelude. This one will be quite different in style − simple! If you would like to hear more of Praetorius and similar composers, you can hear the entire album that has the above piece or search with “Praetorius Christmas Mass.” This album is an unusually fine recording of what a German Christmas service might have sounded like around 1620, recorded in the beautiful cathedral at Roskilde, Denmark.
This rambling discussion wouldn’t be complete without naming an example from England, for here we draw near to the source of our beloved Anglican heritage. The hymn that traditionally opens the annual Lessons and Carols service is Once in Royal David’s City, a hymn with poetry by the English poet Cecil Frances Alexander. Each year, we also begin our Lessons and Carols services with this hymn. (Shouldn’t I be calling this a “carol?” What’s the difference between a Christmas hymn and a carol? I’m so glad you asked! Simplistically, hymns are high art, carols are folk art. Hymn: “We, like Mary, rest confounded / that a stable should display / heaven’s Word, the world’s creator, / cradled there on Christmas day.” Carol: “Cradled in a stall was he with sleepy cows and asses; but the very beasts could see that he all men surpasses.” If I ever write some lyrics, I’m quite sure they would fall more into the “carol” category.)
Here is a link to this fine Christmas hymn, Once in Royal David’s City, performed by the King’s College Choir, Cambridge. This recording begins with a boy soprano singing verse one. From the first look at his face, you know this hymn will be reverent, fitting and perfect in every way (or is he just terrified?). He does not disappoint, with textbook everything − pitch, tone, diction, cassock. Verse two begins with the very liturgically aware camera man giving us a gradual descent from the lofty vaulted Gothic ceiling to the parishioners seated far below, as we hear the words, “He came down from earth to heaven, who is God and Lord of all…with the poor, the scorned, the lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.” And so on it goes through each perfectly tuned and phrased verse, culminating in the final verse in which the candle-lit choir leads with soaring descant and roaring organ. Here we see the quintessence of our Anglican high church heritage in full display, where corporate worship is reverent, solemn, beautiful, with all things done decently and in order (1 Cor. 14.40).
Thus ends this impromptu overview of a few musical numbers that exemplify national characteristics, of kings of the earth and their peoples. The Spirit of the one true King is blowing through the world, not only bringing ordinary rebels − like ourselves − to repentance, but also inspiring ordinary folks made in his image − like ourselves − to exercise their gifts to his ultimate glory. Surely God, and God alone, is ultimately behind the truly astonishing cultural beauty, glory and wonder all around us. And none of it will be lost.