The term “Christmas carol” has become a kind of catchall for a multifarious group of songs from many parts the world and about 500 years of history. These songs emerge from hiding once a year, saturate our brains like an aural snowstorm and then retreat to their lairs for another ten months.
Christmas music, much of it beautiful, serene and profound, is commonly used by stores of all types to attempt to move product and it’s not surprising that people’s frustration with the hard sell becomes anger at the music itself. I’m not blaming the businesses, who have their own bills to pay, but carols really ought to be for singing, not for shopping. This is where choirs have a crucial role, because as I’ve written in the past, carol concerts are one of the few areas left in modern life where audiences of non-musicians are invited to participate in music making.
Christmas saturation brings with it musical anachronism, as carol singers hired for the holidays often find themselves wandering through 21st century malls, dressed up in garb that is meant to evoke late 19th-century England, while warbling tunes written by an American composer from Pennsylvania in 1951. Here’s a quick guide to help you differentiate one Christmas song from another.
Carols. Rarer than you’d think, carols are thought to have originated from dances; the words were sometimes cadged from pre-Christian sources and retro-fitted to coincide with Christmas celebrations. There were carols for all seasonal and liturgical occasions of the year, and it is only in the last couple of centuries that carolling became solely associated with Christmas. Carols often tell stories, have lively rhythms and a directness of expression that has actually caused church authorities to ban them on occasion. “The Holly and the Ivy,” with its pagan imagery and dancelike tempo, might be considered a true carol.
Christmas Hymns. Often mistaken for carols, Christmas hymns tend to be grander, statelier, with more ornate and even stuffy language. The classic familiar ones were often written by professional priests and clerics, such as Wesley’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” At their best, such as in the work of John Goss (“See Amid the Winter’s Snow”), Christmas hymns combine brilliant lyrics with pellucid song composition.
Christmas Anthems. Compositions with a Christmas theme, often composed or arranged specifically for choral performance, and not meant for group singing. Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and much of the work of John Rutter fall into this category.
Christmas Songs. This is almost an entirely American,20th-century phenomenon that exploded with the rise of recording technology. Like hymns, Christmas songs tend to tell us what we ought to be feeling, albeit from a secular perspective: excitement, anticipation, togetherness, as opposed to religious fervour. It’s hard to contest the sentiment, but after weeks of it, you start to feel like you’re being beaten on the head with a soft pillow; it doesn’t really hurt, but you wish it would stop. I wonder if the depressed feelings that many experience around Christmas time has to do in part with the gap between the Christmas song paradigm and the reality of credit bills and feuding relatives? Nonetheless, at their best all four categories of Christmas song contain works of genius. As I pointed out in an earlier column, Christmas has become a big pan-cultural party that can reasonably be enjoyed by people of all backgrounds.
On to the concerts: I’m going to assume that the readers of this column need no urging from me to find a Messiah performance or a carol singalong this time of year, and so will instead focus on some concerts that take an unusual angle, as well as looking ahead at the post-Christmas concert scene in the new year.
Trinity Pageant: There are many pageants and Lessons and Carols services being held this year at churches and civic centres – please check the listings for events in your area. The Christmas pageant mounted by the downtown Church of the Holy Trinity (just behind Eaton Centre) is a cultural event that has proved so popular over the years that the pageant runs into repeat performances, taking place at various times between December 12 and 21.
Briggs’ Snowman: On December 7 the Bach Children’s Chorus joins Orchestra Toronto for a concert that features the animated film The Snowman , with live musical accompaniment by the orchestra and choir. The film is based on the celebrated book by English illustrator Raymond Briggs. Briggs’ trademark combination of gentle imagery and dark, disturbing themes is a welcome antidote to more sugary Christmas entertainments. The concert also features the premiere of Canadian Dean Burry’s A Hockey Cantata. Burry’s work for children is accessible without being pandering, and this concert is highly recommended.
Brother Heinrich: On a similar note, on Dec 20 the Toronto Children’s Chorus will perform A Chorus Christmas: Ceremonial Splendour. a concert that includes John Rutter’s enjoyable choral fable, Brother Heinrich’s Christmas, about the 14th-century Dominican mystic Heinrich Seuse, thought to be responsible for composing the famous macaronic carol In Dulci Jubilo. The piece is narrated by legendary actor/writer Gordon Pinsent.
Coro San Marco was founded in 1995 by Toronto residents who hail from Italy’s Veneto region (the area around Venice). On December 6 they perform their Advent/Christmas concert, with a selection of Christmas songs from around the world.
Victoria Scholars: On December 19 and 21 this chamber choir of men’s voices, perform Yuletide on the Cool Canadian Side, a concert of carols arranged by Canadian composers.
Echo Women’s Choir: The ancient concept of the Divine Feminine came to the fore in the last century, as a spiritual conjunct to the struggles for women’s rights that were carried out under the banner of modern feminism. Male-centered aspects of monotheistic worship in Christian and other religions have been challenged and reassessed, and the spiritual insights and strengths of female religious leaders, thinkers, mystics and composers have become part of our modern discussion. On December 7 the Echo Women’s Choir perform The Divine Feminine, a concert that includes music by the12th-century German composer Hildegard von Bingen.
This concert is also notable for a rare appearance by the co-founders of Stringband, Marie-Lynn Hammondand Bob Bossin. Toronto audiences born before the Beatles first album came out may remember Stringband well from a series of celebrated albums from the 1970s, as well as their many club, concert and folk festival appearances.
Bossin and Hammond are two of the most skilled songwriters to come out of the first wave of the Canadian modern folk music movement. Bossin writes in a deliberately political and historical manner, taking politics and cultural issues as subjects for his clever and amusing songs. Hammond’s work is more introspective, mining her family history, in particular her mixed French and English background, for truths found amidst the conflicts and encounters that are part of the Canadian experience. Hammond is based in Toronto, but Bossin now lives on the West Coast, and any chance to see these two folk legends perform together is not to be missed.
A Grand “Midsummer”: Looking ahead to the new year, on January 16 and 17 the Grand Philharmonic Choir Female Chorus joins the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony Orchestra for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a concert title which in January is going to seem either like wishful thinking or rubbing it in. But the music selection is excellent: Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music; Mendelssohn’s famous incidental music for the above play and selections from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. Purcell never set Shakespeare’s poetry, but The Fairy Queen has great moments of humour, pathos and the composer’s peerless text settings.
Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir present a Beethoven double bill from January 22 to 25. The orchestra plays Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and then are joined by the choir for his Mass in C. Guest conducting is the Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s Kent Nagano.
Both pieces were written in the first decade of the 19th century. The Mass in C was composed for the Austrian ruler Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II in 1807, and has the classical structure of liturgical works composed by Mozart and Haydn under similar conditions and royal patronage. At the premiere there was a scene – the prince was not sufficiently appreciative of the piece, perhaps -- and Beethoven left the concert venue in a fury, a breach of royal protocol that would have been unthinkable, and professionally fatal, to the older composers mentioned above. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony captures unforgettably the spirit that led the composer to assert his humanity and freedom against the patronage system to which most European composers had been forced to submit for centuries.
Benjamin Stein is a Toronto tenor and lutenist. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Visit his website at benjaminstein.ca.