I’ve been thinking a lot about my favorite Christmas music in preparation for this post. Until this morning, I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about. As a musician who’s had a decent career as a choral singer and conductor, I’ve performed a lot o Christmas Music and while there are certainly plenty of songs I do not enjoy (“All I want for Christmas is You,”
“Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,”
anything sung by Josh Groban.
And do not even speak to me about “The Christmas Shoes.”).
But there are even more that I love. Trying to pin down one favorite is a challenge. There’s “Once in Royal David’s City,” which I wait to hear on Christmas Eve every year at the beginning of the broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.
Or the Coventry Carol, which I sang to AJ nearly every night until a year or so ago because he insisted. He still knows it as “My favorite lullaby.”
But the one that starts it all is Veni, veni Emmanuel. Episcopalians tend to sing it on the first Sunday of Advent every year at the beginning of the season. And so it seems an appropriate place to start a blog chain about our favorite holiday music.
Last Sunday, the first of Advent, we were, as usual, running late for Mass. AJ was dragging his feet and I made us sprint the few blocks from our apartment to the church. I didn’t want to miss it. We didn’t miss it, but it never came. There were no familiar hymns at all. Leaving the church, it didn’t quite feel like Advent at all.
Part of my affection for Veni Emmanuel is its simple, almost mournful plainchant tune that dates back at least to the 15th century, and is likely much older than that.
I particularly love it in Latin and in a chant-like setting. I’m less enthralled with attempts to make it sound more contemporary, more romantic, or more Enya:
This morning, we got there in time for me to look up the hymn numbers on the board at the front of the church. Two of them were very low numbers — a good sign, as the Advent hymns are at the front. Veni, veni was scheduled for the recessional at the end of the Mass. I was looking forward to hearing our Russian organist sing it with his heavy accent from the choir loft.
Because we go to the earliest Mass, music is generally performed by the organist alone, singing and playing. The choir doesn’t show up until the later services. The organist has a nice voice and I love to hear his heavy Russian accent in tandem with the Brooklyn accents all around me. He is a lovely player and I am enjoying being in a church with a real organ again.
Partway through today’s Mass liturgy, a second voice joined the Russian’s. This is the first time we’ve heard anything but The Russian’s voice. The newcomer appeared to be sightreading, but he had a nice voice and the harmonies were pleasant to hear. At communion, as I made my way up the aisle toward the priest distributing the host, the organist played a chord and the voice came from the loft. From its first minute, it was arresting, but as the voice sang jazz-inflected setting of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” it was like the air inside the church changed. I tried to find the singer in the choir loft as I came back down the aisle, but there was no one to be seen. A disembodied voice.
It wasn’t that it was a beautiful voice exactly. His voice was breathy and his navigation of the transition between baritone and falsetto was not entirely reliable. Once in a while, his pitch fell a little short. But there was passion behind his singing. By the time I got back to my pew, I had tears in my eyes and I spent much of the rest of the service trying to pull myself back together.
While I was sitting there, listening, I was reminded of a paper I read this week for someone. She was comparing the work of a composer to oriental rugs, which use patterns made — deliberately or not — imperfect. It is the variation in the pattern that gives the rug its character, that lets you know it’s real. I also thought of the story of the building of Roslyn chapel in Scotland, whose sanctuary is flanked by beautifully carved columns, except for a single plain one. Our guide told us that it was left plain because to create something too perfect was to compete with God. Only God is perfect. The plain column, however, is the most interesting one. The break in the pattern is what makes you notice the pattern. Perhaps that is why that is the column inside which, legend has it, sits the Holy Grail.
The man’s voice wove in and out of my ears, attaching me to the church in which I sat, thrumming around me until I felt almost like I was singing too. No, it was not a perfect performance, but it was the right one. It was the song I’d been waiting to hear, but told to me in a new way at an unexpected time. It was perfect in its imperfection and I’ve been thinking about it all day.
One of the important things about holiday music is that you hear it every year at the same time, the music itself both a symbol of the celebration and the celebration itself. We tend to like the songs of our childhoods sung the same way we remember them, just the same way we like to eat the same foods and watch the same movies. Even now, I am typing this in front of Miracle on 34th street, which I watch every year because I’ve watched it every year since I was a child. And yet I’m dissatisfied, because it’s been colorized, so it is not the same as I remember it. It seems like a poor copy.
But then every now and then, you can hear something new and unexpected. And it reminds you that maybe your feelings might go beyond nostalgia to rigidity. Maybe you need to be pulled out of your muddy rut. That’s what happened this morning. I spent the afternoon trying to recreate the music in my head and wishing I had a recording of that moment. But somehow think that if I did, it might damage of the moment that I sat in that view hearing the oldest and most familiar of hymns made entirely new, trying not to be shaken by a moment that was no less startling than if the roof had blown off the church and it was filled with light.
This is the first post in a blog chain about holiday music. You can read more about the chain here Next up is Hugh at Permanent qui vive.
The rest of the chain includes:
Jeanne at Necromancy never pays
Cranky at It’s My Blog!
Dr. Geek at Dr. Geek’s Laboratory
Lemming at Lemming’s Progress
Readersguide at Reader’s Guide to…
Freshhell at Life in Scribbletown
edj3 at kitties kitties kitties
My Kids’ Mom at Pook and Bug
joyhowie at The Crooked Line
Magpie at Magpie Musing
and back to me for a wrap-up at spynotes
I hope you’ll all join us!