You know what’s great about Christmas? It’s the one time of year that you can totally listen to classical music and it’s totally normal. Nobody looks at you funny, nobody complains that your favorite radio station is putting them to sleep, nobody claims you’re killing the party. We classical music lovers are fortunate that hits like Handel’s Messiah have stayed in the standard popular repertoire.
However, we are still subjected 90% of the time to this god-awful holiday pop drivel. You can’t shop or sip your coffee without being subjected to slimey renditions of “Baby it’s cold outside” or “Santa baby” or that whatever that crap Mariah Carey is singing is. Why, when we have centuries upon centuries of amazing works of music, do we subject ourselves to this sludge?
And the thing is, I’m not a classical music snob at all. Anyone who’s read this blog probably knows I’m in a rock band and have recorded an album. But I’m calling it like I see it. This adult contemporary Christmas stuff is awful, and we don’t have to take it. At least, not when we have control of the stereo.
From now until Christmas, I’m going to post Christmas music that does not suck. I’ll try to do it every day, ’cause I’ve been in absentia with blogging pretty much since I moved, and need to get caught up.
Most of it will be classical, and probably a lot that I’m singing in one of the many Christmas concerts and services I’ll be involved with this year, as well as previous years.
On with the show:
My first selection is Sweelinck’s “Hodie Christus natus est.” “Today Christ is born.”
This is late Renaissance music by a Dutch guy.
Why do I love this piece? It changes so fast. Tempo, meter, color, texture. It’s enough to make you seasick. I love that kind of stuff.
Let me know how you like it!
Last year I didn’t have a church gig, and I knew it was an anomaly. Despite the expected influx of offers of sub gigs for Christmas Eve services, I decided to go home for the holidays, because I didn’t know when I would have another chance to do so. So I went to visit my family in Chicago and booked a sub gig there- which, I might add, paid more than any of the gigs here would have. Nice.
I was right about one thing- this year I have a new church job (who knew it would take a whole year for someone to snap me up?), and was therefore hanging out around the city in order to grace Holy Apostles’ Christmas Eve service with my presence. I didn’t have anything booked for Christmas Day, though, and was passively looking. I thought I was saved when an email from a church literally two blocks from me- one I’ve subbed at on Christmas before- sent out an email looking for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day subs, and expressed my interest within moments of having received the email, but didn’t hear back. Then that night I saw a status update from a very good singer friend of mine mentioning having found church gigs for Christmas. I knew she also knew the same director, so I hoped she hadn’t got the gig out from under me- she sings at St. Bart’s, but as a sort of permanent sub/volunteer, depending on the day.
So I wrote the local church guy an email asking if we were on for Christmas Day, and he wrote back that he’d booked someone who was available for both services.
I texted my friend and asked if she was doing Christmas at the church in question, and she said yes. @&#^$*(#$&*@(#&$*(@&#$(&(@*&#(*$&@#*(&$*(@#&$@*(#$!!!!!!!!
The irony came full circle when I got an email requesting a Christmas Day sub at St. Bart’s- the church where my friend sings- and took it. So I was singing at her church and she was singing at my neighborhood church. Yes, I would have liked to reverse that, but better than nothing!
Everything was complicated by the fact that I was sick. I was at the height of a bad cold that I’d come down with that weekend, and all I wanted to do was sleep. We had a two hour rehearsal before the Holy Apostles service- 7:30 call, 9:30 carolling, and 10pm service. (It’s pretty normal to have a half hour of music before Midnight Mass, and for Midnight Mass to start at 10pm.) Normally, with my night-owl hours, this would have been an ideal schedule for me, but as it was, I’d felt the need to nap before church, and had to drag my cranky ass out of bed to make it to church in time. Luckily, they were out of grande cups at the nearest Starbucks, so I got upgraded to a HUGE ASS LATTE, and was in a much better mood by the time I got to Holy Apostles.
Once there, I was faced with an 8-piece orchestra, and choir gifts of a new anthem by the Kapellmeister and miniature bottles of Grand Marnier. I wish we’d sung through the anthem or something, because I don’t play any piano so I don’t know how it goes. It looks cool on the page, though!
Holy Apostles is such a huge time suck. I wasn’t out of there until almost midnight, bringing my church time for the evening to 4.5 hours. But it was great singing with the orchestra, which was joined at various times by organ, piano, and recorder. Our half hour music prequel was all hymns, unusually. And our main anthem was For Unto Us a Child is Born, which is one of the funnest things in the Messiah.
It was wonderful singing with the chamber orchestra, so it was a fun night. They had quite a feast for the post-service coffee hour, but as usual I rushed home- I wanted to get sleep before I had to wake up for St. Bart’s.
No go. Whether because I had napped before church, or because I was engrossed by Bible documentaries on the History Channel, I couldn’t fall asleep. I finally gave up at 7am, muttering, “That Starbucks by St. Bart’s better be open today…”
It was such a beautiful morning that I went for a little walk along Central Park before hitting the church- and yes, the Starbucks was open. “Thank God you’re open!” I exclaimed to the barista. “You’re the third person to say that,” she responded. I noted they’d been open for less than an hour.
St. Bart’s is so different from Holy Apostles. Their choir is twice the size of ours, and they sing in double-choir formation, like we did at the American Cathedral. It’s an enormous, gorgeous, ornate church- Holy Apostles is nice but it’s smaller and kind of plain. Anyways the choir is excellent, and it’s great to sing with them. I wouldn’t want it for my church job (doesn’t pay enough), but it’s nice to visit now and again. We sang an apparently famous Holst arrangement of hymns, which I’d never heard- it was weird. But cool. And a setting of In the Bleak Midwinter by Bob Chilcott, which I’d never done. It was very Rutter-ian, sounded really good done by this group in this setting. I really enjoyed it.
I went home, called my mom, ate Thai take-out, and slept for 17 hours. I was sick, and I’d pulled a Christmas all-nighter. Happy Holidays.
I was disappointed looking at my church schedule and not seeing any extra services for the holidays- Christmas Eve of course, but no Christmas Day, no evening Lessons and Carols services, no concerts. Doing extra Advent services are like the church singer’s version of getting a Christmas bonus. We did have a rehearsal, which I attended in my usual morning fog (WHY do church people insist I wake up in the morning?) but I assumed it was because we were going to be having some extra-long- I mean special- services for one reason or another.
I was half-right. I had been kind of wondering in my sleep-deprived funk why we seemed to have so much music for Sunday morning, but it wasn’t until I finally picked up my service leaflet that I figured it out- it had the title “Lessons and Carols” pasted all over it in huge bold letters.
I’d never heard of Lessons and Carols being done in place of a normal service. (Have I? Did we do it in Paris? I almost feel like I did it somewhere, sometime, once.) I always thought of L&C as being a sort of Advent version of Evensong- and thus, done in the Evening.
Perhaps I should backtrack for the heathens among us who don’t know what a Lessons and Carols is. Well, at least to my understanding, it’s a kind of service that focuses on alternating some particularly famous and narrative long passages from the Bible with singing- the kind of churches I tend to sing in will mostly feature anthems by the choir alone, but it can also be sing-a-long hymns. There is a tendancy towards very old English and Latin texts, for example anything from Britten’s Ceremony of Carols or other settings of the same lyrics. Oh, and for some reason, everyone likes to start with Palestrina’s Matin Responsory (which is really an adaptation of something else he wrote), often from somewhere weird like the back of the church. I guess that destroys my original thesis about Lessons and Carols being done in the evening, since Matin means morning. I guess that never occurred to me before.
So that’s the church lesson from me, I’m not an expert, just someone who’s sung in churches her whole life, mostly Episcopal and Catholic ones. The singer’s aren’t the experts, you gotta talk to the organists. They’re the real nerds.
So! turns out we had a Lessons and Carols service after all, except it was merged with our normal Sunday service. It worked out ok because we sang “Rejoice in the Lord Alway” ( you know the one, it’s like one of the greatest hits of English choral anthems) in place of the sermon. No, this did not help us get out of church early, but it did help us get out at the usual time, the painfully late 12:25 that I have yet to adjust to.
We also sang: this really neat Adam Lay YBounden setting by …Mosher… first name=? Dammit, and he was there, too! Now I feel so bad for forgetting his name. I should have struck up a conversation with him at coffee hour, but it didn’t occur to me- all I can think about on Sundays at 12:26 is getting home and ordering a pizza and going back to bed. Well, it was a really cool setting. With a bell tree. It looks really scarily modern on paper but it’s not as hard as it looks! We did Laetentur Coeli by Byrd, which was very tricky for Byrd. There was a three-voiced section in the middle that I think most directors would have made into solos (and apparently they had done so in previous years), but we did it tutti. Which is too bad because that’s the kind of solo I love to do. But anyways I haven’t been given any solos since I joined this choir, not even Gregorian chant, which I must say I do very nicely. This is OK because it keeps things low-pressure- at St. John’s in the Village I was always sight-reading my way through a page of chant, even frequently improvising my own tones for the Alleluia verse. (Actually I did that a lot of St. Clement’s too!). We also sang a Batten piece, but to be honest at this point I can’t remember it and I can’t find a sound clip online anywhere. I think I liked it?
We finally ended with Mendelssohn’s Im Advent, which was such a freak contrast to everything else (Anglican churches don’t do a lot of Mendelssohn anyways) that it was almost difficult to get the notes right, even though it would have been a really easy piece in any other setting.
And then I went home and had pizza and slept on and off for 24 hours. It was a looooonnnng weekend. If only I could sing in this choir without having to do mornings.
Here is where we were listed in the New York Times. Please bypass the second listing, featuring an event held at the church which fired me a year and a half ago. >:( >:( >:( For the record, it’s not the choir I belonged to in the listing, but a visiting choir. Wheras our Lessons and Carols features the actual choir of the actual church. And they are happy to have me, so :p to SJITV. Yeah I’m bitter, so?