Christmas Music

When Nafiza asked a few weeks ago for my favourite Christmasy books, I was taken aback to discover I couldn’t think of any. In my family, the art most entwined with Advent and Christmas is not books but music.* With that in mind, and begging for your patience because this post has nothing to do with children’s literature, here is some of my favourite Christmas music.

Celtic Christmas (A Windham Hill Sampler) 

For all that this cd is called A Celtic Christmas, some of the songs have nothing to do with Christmas whatsoever. That said, this is one of my very favourite Christmas music collections, a mix of instrumentals and melodies sung in English and/or Gaelic.

Canadian content: Loreena McKennitt, probably Canada’s most famous Celtic singer, sets to music the lamentably under-rated Canadian poet Archibald Lampman’s “Snow.”

Favourite track: On a Cold Winter’s Day/Christmas Eve by Kevin Burke and Micheal O Domhnaill, an instrumental piece of extraordinary beauty which reminds me of endurance; not plodding heaviness through continued suffering but a steady endurance with hope, with joy.

Christmas Classics (Oakridge Centre)

Again, a mix of instrumentals and songs with lyrics, this time performed by local groups – yes, the Oakridge does refer to Oakridge Centre, Vancouver, BC – to wit, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, the Vancouver Bach Choir, and the Vancouver Children’s Chorus. The cd starts out with Anderson’s Christmas Festival Overture and continues the mood with several dances from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which, seriously, is the music everyone thinks of when you think of (non-carol) Christmas music**, and concludes with carols.

Canadian content: All the singers and musicians! Yeah!

Christmas: A Fresh Aire (Mannheim Steamroller); also Christmas (Mannheim Steamroller); also Christmas in the Aire (Mannheim Steamroller)

I don’t know how to begin to describe Mannheim Steamroller. Is it techno? Mood music? This and the following two are upbeat, soothing arrangements of classical Christmas songs made into something completely different and wonderful with, despite manifold changes, recognizable roots: medieval and renaissance melodies, for example, retain their distinct feel even as they are transposed into the present. Chip Davis’ Christmas albums are the Christmas music of my childhood. Great music to dance to (bring disco back!) or, equally, to turn off all the lights but the coloured strings and lie back on the sofa in the illuminated darkness to.

Any performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite ever. 

And I might as well mention Handel’s Messiah while I’m at it. 

Praetorius Christmas Vespers (Toronto Consort)

A reconstruction of a Christmas Vespers service as it would have been under the direction of Michael Praetorius, “one of the most prolific and influential composers of the early German baroque” (source: inside flap of cd booklet, written by David Fallis, conductor of the Toronto Consort).

Wholly beautiful. The only struggle is as to whether to sing along, or whether to be silent and better hear their voices and instruments.

As ever, thank you, Yash, for taking me to hear the Toronto Consort perform this live! <3

Favourite track: All of them.

Canadian content: This is the Toronto Consort, and as far as I know Canada’s premier early music group.

Navidad: Christmas Music from Latin America and Spain (Toronto Consort)

Just when I thought things could not get better, the Toronto Consort proved me wrong with an album of renaissance Christmas music from Latin America and Spain. And as dancing played a big part in renaissance Christmas celebrations (and especially in Spanish and Latin American Christmas celebrations), a number of tracks are instrumentals: lilting, dancing, toe-tapping, body-swaying, spirit-soaring instrumentals strewn among the lively lyrical songs.

It’s not just that the music is beautiful, it’s the performance – the voices, the character conveyed in the voices, the arrangement of back-and-forth between different singers, the positioning of solo, duet, and full chorus sections.

Favourite tracks: How to choose? Of the instrumentals, Recercada segunda (composed by Diego Ortiz) is nearest to my heart; of the sung pieces (how to choose?), very possibly Xicochi (by Gaspar Fernandes), a lullaby in Spanish (I think) and Nahuatl. But why would you ask me to choose between so many perfect songs?

Side note: The Toronto Consort’s interpretation of Xicochi is very different from the others I’ve heard online, of which this version deserves mention. Isn’t it wonderful how the same song can be interpreted and performed in contrasting ways, yet both are pleasing to hear?

Honourable mentions go to Celtic Harp for Christmas (Lori Pappajohn) and A Noteworthy Christmas (various Canadian choirs). Canadian content for the win, yeah! (I didn’t realize until now how very Canadian my Christmas music was, in performance if not in origin.)

And, even though this is technically a movie soundtrack and not actually Christmasy, I’m a sucker for the music of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. 

Favourite tracks: Lucy Meets Mr. TumnusA Narnian Lullaby; and Only the Beginning of the Adventure… plus the four credits songs: Can’t Take It In (Imogen Heap); Wunderkind (Alanis Morisette); Winter Light (Tim Finn); andWhere (Lisbeth Scott).





Look for next week’s list of individual Christmas songs 🙂

Care to expand my horizons? What are your favourite albums?

*I mean, apart from the art of stringing as many coloured lights inside the house as can be precariously balanced in place with sewing pins.

**Apologies to Handel’s Messiah.