Music, as Josh has written elsewhere on this blog, is solidly rooted in memory. (See under Music and Memory.) Holiday music combines social memory–that background music playing everywhere you shop, every time you turn on the radio–and personal memory–your associations with particular music that brings up past holiday celebrations, especially when you were young.
We are old enough to remember a time when Muzak didn’t exist. If we heard Christmas carols, they were being sung in church or in neighborhood caroling by live people. Hanukkah songs were part of family and synagogue life, along with latkes. Nothing was piped in anywhere.
Josh: Handel’s Messiah was, and is, the symbolic music of this season. But do you know how it actually came to be written? It turns out that this oratorio was premiered on April 12, 1742 in Dublin as a blockbuster fundraiser. Handel had been invited by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland on behalf of three local charitable organizations. As the announcement of the premiere put it:
For the relief of the prisoners in the several gaols, and for support of
Mercer’s Hospital in Stephens Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary
on the Inn’s Quay, on Monday the 12th of April will be performed at
the Musick Hall in Fishamble Street, Mr. Handel’s new Grand Oratorio,
called Messiah, in which the gentlemen of the choirs of both cathedrals
will assist, with some concertos on the organ by Mr. Handel.
How it came to be associated with Christmas is a whole other story!
Maoz tzur (“Rock of Ages”–not to be confused with the Christian gospel song of the same name) has a similarly complex history. Although traditionally sung at Hannukah, its roots actually lie in the German ghetto of Martin Luther’s day, if not earlier. In fact, its opening phrase is known to have been lifted, note for note, from a chorale melody with the unlikely title of “Rejoice now, you dear Christians.”
That is, these familiar melodies are not necessarily sacrosanct musical fixtures of the Christmas – Hanukkah season.
What’s our point? As you know, we are proponents of awareness, taking nothing for granted. Sometimes Holiday songs are comforting, a powerful link to early positive emotions. But sometimes they are just background sound and have lost their power to move or connect us to anything.
So…why not consider listening to new music this year? Some suggestions from Josh:
Billy Strayhorn, Nutcracker Suite ( a jazz adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s famous score, made for the Duke Ellington orchestra)
Albert Collins, “Snowed In” (an hilarious blues about a car stuck in the snow)
Arcangelo Corelli, “Christmas Concerto”
Vivaldi, “Winter” from The Four Seasons
(For fun, try listening to Chloe Agnew’s pop version, called “Rain,” which is the slow movement of “Winter.”)
J.S. Bach, “Badinerie” from Suite no. 2 in b minor
Beethoven, Larghetto from Symphony no. 2 ( a selection of deeply inspiring serenity dating from around the time that Beethoven was contemplating suicide because of the symptoms of deafness)
Debussy, “Fetes ” from Nocturnes
Juan Tizol, “Conga Brava.”
And…how about consciously selecting your own personal holiday music to start your own living tradition? If you have already developed your own special collection of uncommon holiday music, let us know about it so we can add your choices to our list for other readers to try out.
Happy Musical Holidays from us to you!