It is the Christmas season, and I am writing this article for anyone in danger of being institutionalized if they have to listen to Handel’s Messiah again, or for those shopping for a music lover sure to possess a recording of it already. So let us go beyond that sublime masterpiece to a variety of worthy alternatives that can enrich your celebration and preserve your sanity. Some of my recommendations have been covered more extensively in earlier issues of Crisis.
The great J.S. Bach, of course, immediately springs to mind with his marvelous Christmas Oratorio, composed in 1734. This work is really six separate cantatas meant to be heard over six days during the Christmas period. Bach called it an oratorio, however, and that is good enough for me. As one would expect, it is less overtly dramatic than his Passion oratorios. In fact, there are only six passages of direct speech in the whole work, one of which, the chorus “Glory be to God in the highest,” is stunning enough to stand beside Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus. While for the most part the work is meditative, it is interspersed with outbursts of joy. Just listen to the opening chorus, “Rejoice, exult!”—one of the greatest musical celebrations of the Good News.
Christmas Oratorio is as melodically and contrapuntally rich as Bach’s finest works. John Eliot Gardiner’s 1987 recording on Archiv, with the Monteverdi Choir and the English Baroque Soloists, has held up as one of the best. If Gardiner has sometimes been criticized for taking a cool approach toward Bach, here he invests the work with enlivening energy and touching refinement. One does not know if the instruments are trying to imitate the human voice or the voices the instruments, so beautifully are they blended together by Gardiner.
Few did more to promote the music of Bach in the 20th century than Pablo Casals. But when it came to composing his own Christmas oratorio, El Pessebre (The Crib), Casals eschewed any reference to Bach, except for some occasional fugal writing. Casals’s music is more steeped in his native Catalan folk traditions, with added touches of Brahms, French Impressionism, and Wagner. And in its vocal style I curiously detect traces of Franz Schmidt’s glorious opera, Notre Dame. In any case, Casals had a hilarious reply to the critics who reproached him for not writing in a more advanced musical idiom: “The figures in a creche are folk figures; why, they can’t sing twelve-tone music!”
Casals once recorded this very charming and melodious work for Columbia, but Sony has not seen fit to release it on CD. To the rescue comes the Auvidis label, with a recording of a live 1997 performance in Barcelona with local forces, conducted by the capable Lawrence Foster. (If you have trouble finding this recording in stores, you can buy it for half-price on the Web site of the Berkshire Record Outlet.)
Joseph Eybler’s Christmas Oratorio (1784) is undeservedly obscure. According to the 1889 Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, Eybler (1765-1846) was a lawyer who abandoned his legal career when his parents became poor. It must have been a much less litigious time, because Eybler evidently believed he could make more money composing music. In this project, he was aided by his teacher and friend, Mozart, who advised Eybler to specialize in church music. Two releases from the CPO label prove that this was good advice, as does the fact that Eybler eventually rose to become kapellmeister to the Austrian emperor. His Requiem (CPO) demonstrates that he had the gravitas to address the gravest subject matter, but the Christmas Oratorio, subtitled “The Shepherds at the Crib in Bethlehem,” shows that he also possessed good cheer. His oratorio is an enlivening, delightful, and wonderfully melodious work that will brighten any music lover’s season, especially in the lovely performance by I Febiarmonici, directed by Wolfgang Helbich, on CPO 999 667-2.
In 1907, French composer Gabriel Pierne composed Les Enfants a Bethleem, an utterly charming hour-long work for narrator, soloists, and children’s chorus. It portrays the Nativity through the eyes of a child. Spun from musical gossamer, Les Enfants is the kind of lighter-than-air work that only the French can write. This is not to say that it is a mere soufflé. It is both substantial and ethereal. Erato Classics reissued the only recording of this piece in a bargain Ultima two-CD package (3984-24239-2). The 1987 live performance of Les Enfants is beautifully performed by the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, under Michel Lasserre de Rozel. Alas, no libretto! No matter—the music is magic.
Even agnostics love Christmas, as proven by Ralph Vaughan Williams’s cantata Hodie Christus Natus Est. According to his wife, Ursula, Vaughan Williams “drifted into a cheerful agnosticism” at some point in his life. Undeterred by his own beliefs or lack thereof, the then-octogenarian composer undertook this work in the early 1950s. There is a pagan-like swagger to the music for chorus and orchestra that reminds one that it was a pagan world into which Christ was born. The music alternates between raucous splendor and a childlike simplicity. Throughout, Hodie is charged with a profound joy that is sometimes touched by a kind of giddiness: Can this be true, this Light in the darkness? The answer comes in hushed wonder. If Vaughan Williams could write music like this as an agnostic, what might he have written as a believer? Ponder this question as you listen to the magnificent performance by the London Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, under Richard Hickox, on an EMI import CD (CDC 54128).
Like Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) seems to have been that special breed of believing agnostic who wrote sublime, religiously inspired music. In Dies Natalis, Finzi set the text of Thomas Traherne’s poem of that name for tenor and orchestra. The work depicts a newborn child’s first sensations of the world. Dies Natalis is suffused with such a sense of pure innocence, seemingly free of original sin, that it easily doubles as a Christmas Nativity. Who but Christ could exult, as in one of the composition’s climaxes, “How Divine am I!”
The composition was inspired by Botticelli’s painting Mystic Nativity. The unsullied joy, the sense of wonder at and the celebration of creation are conveyed with a spontaneity and rapture that are breathtaking. As Finzi recalled in 1939, “There is a great resemblance between the static and the ecstatic. I discovered this one day when I was standing in March Church looking up at the double hammer-beam roof and the row of carved angels—which gave the feeling of a Botticelli Nativity and were static from very ecstasy.” I suggest you find EMI’s 1964 recording of this work, performed by tenor Wilfred Brown and the English Chamber Orchestra and conducted by Finzi’s son, Christopher. It has something special.
If you are seeking an even more recent work on the Christmas theme, the very finest I can suggest is Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le Mystere de la Nativity, an hour-and-40-minute oratorio composed in 1959. In Le Mystere, Martin chose a lyrical, deliberately naive, and occasionally archaic style to capture the spirit of a medieval mystery play written by Arnoul Greban around 1450. Martin extracted twelve scenes from Greban’s play that neatly encapsulate salvation history from the Fall up to the Presentation in the Temple. The celestial music is radiant, while the devils fall into a hilarious, cacophonous parody of it whenever they attempt to sing. Gabriel and Mary’s songs are ineffably moving. If Mary sang to her Newborn, it must have been with music like this. And could the shepherds have heard anything more beautiful than what Gabriel sings to them here?
Several years ago the Swiss label Cascavelle released in the United States what was until recently the only recording of this masterpiece on a two-CD set that includes a shorter oratorio, Pilate (VEL 2006). The 1959 mono sound of the live premier performance, with star soloists and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, under Ernest Ansermet, is a little murky, but through it shines some of the sweetest, most touching, faith-filled music I have heard. The new Musikszene Schweiz recording (MGB CD 6173), also Swiss, is a major sound improvement and a fine performance, but the soloist with the crucial role of Mary cannot match the radiant Elly Ameling on the Cascavelle recording.
Remember, Emperor Theodoric’s secretary, Cassiodorus, wrote in the sixth century, “When we sin, we are without music.” So send music for Christmas and save someone.