Christmas Music

I knew by the time I was six years old that I was born to write. Not to write would be to invite damnation. Nevertheless, I tried various routes to escape my fate. One of them was music. I taught myself to play the piano and guitar, took a BA in music from the University of California, Berkeley, and ran and arranged music for church folk groups and choirs, and conducted choruses.

As a result, I became very familiar with Christmas music. It was soon apparent to me that music for the holiday fit neatly into the musical periods I had studied in school—medieval, renaissance, baroque, classic, romantic, and modern. One of my favorites was (and still is) “What Child is This,” set to the modal melody of “Greensleeves,” which originated during fifteen hundreds in England and is sometimes attributed to Henry VIII. That would make it the oldest of the Christmas songs I love, dating from the renaissance.

The Christmas pieces I cherish the most are from the baroque period, Händel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. The classic period yielded “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night), but most of the hymns and carols we know today originated during the romantic period (1830 to 1900). A few came from the modern period. They include “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “White Christmas.” Only two that I am familiar with came from the Negro Spiritual tradition— “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Mary Had a Baby.”

And then there’s classical music inspired by Christmas. Probably the best known (other than the Händel and Bach cited above) is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, followed closely by the settings of the Ave Maria (the original Latin of “Hail Mary”) by Schubert and Gounod. And I can’t forget Haydn’s Toy Symphony.  

Suffice it to say that Christmas inspired composers throughout the centuries. I have more than fifty CDs of Christmas hymns and carols, and in December, I listen to them non-stop. They bring back memories from all periods of my long life, but they remind me most of the time my children were growing up.

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