Here we are in the holiday season. Baking, gift-buying and receiving, cards mailed, gathering, performing, listening. All these activities pick up starting on the Friday after Thanksgiving and continue (at least in my house) until January 6th, Three King’s Day.
I have some favorite carols and songs I enjoy this time of year, and would like to share some background about them.
The movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” presented “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in 1944. Until now, I always thought this was a positive and personal song about Christmas spirit; but Judy Garland is singing it with a tinge of sorrow and melancholy as she considers the big changes coming to her life, a move to New York City and loss of a boyfriend. The first version of lyrics were rejected because they were too sad; they read gloomy to me.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past.
Songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine wrote the original for the movie; Martin was playing around with a melody, but couldn’t produce any results after a few days, so he tossed it. His partner, Blaine, thought it was too good to throw away and dug it out of the trash! Then the words came to them. Judy Garland was none too thrilled to sing it; she thought it was too sad, but the producers thought it was perfect; a melancholy moment in a time of festivity. Frank Sinatra edited the lyrics to a more upbeat feel, and this is the version recorded and performed most often today.
Good King Wenceslas is also a favorite. I had no idea who Wenceslas was, why he was good, and when St. Stephen’s day was, but I certainly liked the melody and the description of snow lying all about. Now I have learned he was a real person, a Duke of Bohemia in the 10th century, and remembered for his kindness to the poor. Originally sung in Latin, John Mason Neale in the 1800s wrote the English words that are sung today to the original 10th century melody. Music has a super-power as it transcends time.
Sleigh Ride is jolly, fun and a great Christmas song to play in band or orchestra. I love the woodblocks imitating horse’s hooves, the sleigh bells, the crack of the whip, and the horse’s neighing at the end. The percussion section is the star of this seasonal gem. One would think Leroy Anderson was inspired by a winter setting for this classic. Well, he was in Connecticut, but he composed this in the middle of a heat wave! Talk about imagination. And originally there were no lyrics. Maxwell Parrish added them and the Andrews Sisters recorded the song in 1950. It’s been said he was imagining a winter from the past when sleighs were common, but he manages to sneak in a few jazz licks in the versions I’ve heard.
Some Christmas hymns have an aura of mystery and somber tone that appeal to me. O Come O Come Emmanuel, like Good King Wenceslas, combines an old tune with new lyrics. The music comes from a 15th century manuscript, probably in France, along with other chants in use. The translation from Latin to English came from John Mason Neale, mentioned above. And while usually texts refer to the birth of the Christ child, this sings of the protection of God (Immanuel) for the Israelites, spoken of in the Book of Isaiah.
Once in Royal David’s City is the opening hymn of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols performed by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve. This has been a tradition since 1918 and features fourteen students enrolled in the college. The hymn originated as a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander, first published in 1848 in Hymns for Little Children. The English organist Henry John Gauntlett discovered the poem and set it to music. The magic of this hymn is the opening is always sung by a soloist, and the soloist is not aware they will be singing until the red light on the camera flashes and the choir director points to him. All the soloist candidates rehearse the solo, but it comes down to the wire and “show time” for this special program. Here is a link to a blog from the BBC recalling past experiences of some soloists.
Listed below are the titles and call numbers available from our collection and on BARD.
“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”,
Reader’s Digest Merry Christmas Songbook, (BRM 29980)
“Good King Wenceslas”
Piano solo (BRM28158)
Piano and vocal, easy organ (BRM29474)
Words and sop., alto and tenor recorders (BRM22799)
Line by line and bar-over-bar (BRM25800)
Organ, bar-over-bar (BRM25729)
Piano and guitar accompaniment (BRM29003)
“Sleigh Ride” for piano, bar-over-bar (BRM08306)
“O Come O Come Emmanuel”
Carols for Christmas, Vocal, line by line (BRM33061, vol. 2)
Favorite Christmas Carols, piano/guitar (LPM 00656)
“Once in Royal David’s City”
Carols for Christmas (BRM33061)
The Family and Friends Book of Christmas Carols,
Piano, vocal, easy organ (BRM29474)
Favorite Christmas Carols (BRM29003)
Celebrate this special season and enjoy the many gifts that music brings.
Please note that all materials listed above are also available to borrow by mail, not only through BARD. Please contact the Music Section to borrow talking books on digital cartridge or to borrow hard copies of braille music. Call us at 1-800-424-8567, ext. 2, or e-mail us at [email protected].