Appropriate to the season, and to my wistful angst, here are my five favorite Christmas carols.
1. Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming (“Es ist ein Ros entsprungen”) -Michael Praetorius, my preferred translation by Theodore Baker- This is definitely my favorite Christmas carol, and I’m not entirely sure why. There is something gloriously pure about it, and I think the poetry is beautiful, both in English and the original German. The four-part arrangement is especially warm and just heart-wrenching.
2. In the Bleak Midwinter -Harold Darke, Christina Rossetti- It is the Darke setting of this poem that I love best, though Gustav Holst also set it beautifully, and I love it nearly as much. Christina Rossetti is a favorite of mine, as some of you may know. In the bleak midwinter frosty wind made moan. Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone. The music is as delicate as the poem is gray, and then it warms up to melt me by the end. What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepard I would bring a lamb. If I were a wiseman I would do my part. What can I give him? Give my heart. I once tried to write a solo voice/guitar version of this for me to sing… it started off well, but it actually made me too emotional as I went on and I eventually abandoned the idea. That is how much this carol affects me.
3. Wexford Carol -Irish traditional- I think it was Nanci Griffith (singing with The Chieftans) who introduced me to this carol, and I’m amazed that I had missed it the years before. Sad, too, as I haven’t sung with a good quartet (or any quartet at all) since, and the somewhat difficult four-part arrangement has always been a train wreck at caroling parties where the foolish people who love me have agreed to attempt it. In any case, it is still lovely and I always have Nanci when things look bleak.
4. Christmas Hymn -traditional- I’m actually unsure of the arrangement, though I think it may have come from a Robert Shaw book. You may not recognize the title, but this is the song that begins “While by my sheep I watched at night” and has echoing choruses of “Joy joy joy”. It is a favorite of mine from my very young childhood, as it was always sung at my parents’ caroling parties. The copy I have of it has been xeroxed and mimeographed time upon time, and is barely readable. Fortunately I do not need to look at the words. I have heard a lot of arrangements of this song, many of them much fancier than the one my parents sang, but that will always be my favorite.
5. O come, O come, Emmanuel (“Veni, veni, Emanuel”) -13th century, translation by J.M. Neale- I am not sure how this became a favorite. It is a very old song, obviously, and I have enjoyed many arrangements of it, though the simple ones seem most appropriate. I suppose I like it for its dark, aching tone. I think I may recall my mother not liking this song a lot, though I could be wrong about that.
Wow, it was difficult to choose only five. I love so many… The Holly and the Ivy, My Dancing Day, Good King Wenceslas, I saw a Maiden, Away in a Manger (all three tunes that I know for it), I Wonder as I Wander… oh the list goes on and on… Also I did not allow myself any larger works, only carols, because it didn’t seem fair. I left out Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols and Arthur Honneger’s Une Cantate de Noël, among others, though they are some of my favorite pieces of all time.