Christmas music

When you see the phrase ‘Christmas music’ you probably automatically think of a lone boy chorister intoning the first plaintive bars of ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, or the song from the Coca-Cola advert that goes ‘Holidays are coming, holidays are coming’ and makes you want to run into the street and kick someone to death.

The piano probably doesn’t get a look in. Why would it? Christmas is about choirs and bells and Noddy Holder shouting at you. But if you look hard enough, the music exists. What is there? Well, a couple of lovely wintry pieces by Debussy – ‘Des pas sur la neige’ from the first book of preludes, and ‘The snow is dancing’ from Children’s Corner. Messiaen’s monumental Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, of course. These Frenchies knew what they were doing. Mendelssohn wrote something or other. I’m almost certain he must have done. And that’s about it.

But here’s a thing: Richard Rodney Bennett’s Partridge Pie, a recent discovery of mine. A set, as you might expect, of twelve pieces, each based on one of the gifts from the song (though not the music of the song itself), all written in RRB’s idiomatically pithy harmonic language. It’s a delight from start to finish. This is one of the more serene movements, which I would like to offer in memory of Brian Jordan, the legendary Cambridge music seller, who died on 1st December. It was the last music he sold me personally.

Richard Rodney Bennett – Four calling birds

Then, of course, there exists a piano arrangement of ‘The Holy Boy’, the song Ireland adapted for every combination of musicians imaginable. It was originally a setting of words by one Herbert S. Brown:

Lowly, laid in a manger,
With oxen brooding nigh,
The Heav’nly Babe is lying
His Maiden Mother by.
Lo! The way-faring sages,
Who journey’d far through the wild,
Now worship, silent adoring,
The Boy, The Heav’nly Child –
The Heav’nly Child.

and so forth.

John Ireland – The Holy Boy

Last of all, here’s one I thought of late on, the last movement of Gabriel Grovlez’s beautiful suite L’Almanach aux Images, a set of eight pieces inspired by the poems of Tristan Klingsor, which are printed alongside the movements in the score. I reproduce the poignant poem in full here. The verse in square brackets is not printed in the score. Grovlez’s melody is not an exact metrical setting of the text, but you can sing along with it, at least for the first verse.

Ten years ago I had a practical exam for A-level Music which entailed my being given a piano piece and having 20 minutes to learn it before performing it for the visiting examiner. By sheer good fortune I was presented with the Grovlez, which I already knew, so all I had to do was fine-tune it. When the examiner asked me what I could tell him about the piece I did some creative lying so he wouldn’t know I was familiar with it already. ‘Well, it’s early twentieth century, and from the performance directions it’s clearly French, but I know Ravel and Debussy’s piano music well enough to rule them out. I’d say a minor composer of the time – Ibert, say, maybe even…Grovlez?’ I needn’t have bothered with the pretence, as he admitted afterwards he didn’t know what it was himself.

Jésus des anges et des Maries,
Petite image peinte de bois,
En robe d’étoiles fleurie,
Souriez-moi.

Jésus, ma pauvre âme s’effraie
Comme un agneau divin qui broute au bois
Les épines des roseraies:
Souriez-moi.

Jésus qui avez eu le doux malheur
De la couronne de ronces des bois
Après la couronne adorable de fleurs,
Souriez-moi.

[Jésus, mon cœur est misérable
Comme un meurtrier qui rôde au bois
Avec le couteau ou le bâton d’érable:
Souriez-moi.
]

Jésus des carrefours et des chemins,
Pendu comme un oiseau mort aux croix de bois,
Avec les roses des clous aux mains,
Jésus des gueux et des rois,
Souriez-moi.

Gabriel Grovlez – Petites Litanies de Jésus

I’m probably going quiet now until the New Year, so excuse the radio silence and please have a lovely and restful Christmas if that’s the kind of thing you observe and a lovely end of December and beginning of January if it’s not.

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9 Responses to “Christmas music”

  1. Mike A Says:

    For left-field(ish) seasonal music, I rather like John Tavener’s “God is with Us: Christmas Proclamation”.

  2. Gareth Says:

    Not one I know, Mike. Thanks, I’ll seek it out.

  3. Mike A Says:

    I have it on the same CD as “Song for Athene”, which was the Tavener piece they used for Princess Diana’s funeral.

  4. crosseyedpianist Says:

    Liszt wrote a suite of 12 pieces called Weinachtsbaum (The Christmas Tree)….. I do enjoy ‘proper’ Christmas music – not the schmaltzy songs (though I do admit to playing one at my concert) and general naffness, but carols and songs, like There Is No Rose, and Adam Lay Ybounden (the Peter Warlock version). The service from Kings College signals the start of Christmas for me.

    Enjoyed the excerpts. Is that you playing, Gareth?

    Have a good Christmas, and all that jazz.

    FRAN

  5. Christine Says:

    http://notesfromapianist.wordpress.com/2010/12/13/christmas-trees-particularly-liszts/

    Here are some of Liszt’s –

    http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=NXdXwUeJxkw

    Happy Christmas!

  6. Gareth Says:

    Thank you, both! I do know of Liszt’s Weihnachtsbaum, but my ignorance of Liszt’s piano music as a whole is considerable. A few small inroads, but not sure where to plunge in. One day… Fran – yes, all my own work, not that posting my own recordings will be a habit. But the music was too nice for me to resist on this occasion.

  7. MikeAlx Says:

    Finally got round to reading this thread on a PC with audio. Lovely playing, Gareth – wish I had your talent for piano! I particularly liked the RRB piece, which (superficially at least) seems to owe something to Satie’s Gymnopedies. I liked the Michelangeli performance of the Debussy too – I have a CD of Martino Tirimo playing the preludes, but I think from memory that he takes that one a little faster. At Michelangeli’s tempo I really enjoyed the harmonic colour (if that’s the right expression).

  8. Gareth Says:

    You’re too kind, Mike 🙂 Yes, definitely a nod to the Gymnopedies in the RRB, and a tenderness of harmony that recalls some of Ravel’s more gentle music in places (Mother Goose etc.). I do like Michelangeli in the Debussy. He plays it very slowly, but it works, and he may have some justification for the tempo – you do need to be careful if walking through snow, particularly if there is a slope.

  9. Gareth Says:

    Just realised someone else the Richard Rodney Bennett owes a lot to – Bill Evans. There are echoes of his solo recordings like Everybody Digs Bill Evans (recommended, btw). RRB is as much a jazz musician as a classical one.

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