Happy Holidays!

Dec 22, 2017

I love choral music in large part because of its ability through text to tell great stories.  One such story that will be told throughout the world over the coming weeks is the story of Christmas, both the Biblical account of Christ’s birth but also the shared history we have as a people through our favorite holiday traditions and ceremonies.  These stories, told through music, remind me every year how much of a bond we all share through the observance of this winter holiday. 

Musical tradition during Christmas can be focused in large part to the Christian liturgy and its development over hundreds of years; my favorite explanation of the phenomenon of Advent and Christmastide musical heritage comes from Clement Miles who explains that the Fransiscan ideal of humanizing Christianity is the impetus behind the goal of the Church in the 13th century; Christmas sacred tradition “while not forgetting the divine side of the Nativity, yet delights in its simple humanity, the spirit that links the Incarnation to the common life of the people...”  This to me is the most magical aspect of the Christmas narrative, this feeling of the extraordinary, whether it is human kindness, deity, or a beautiful flurry of snow, intersecting with our normal day-to-day bustle.

Hymnody and music were always an important factor in Christmas celebration, but Protestantism, which championed the idea of humanizing theology, utilized music as a way to penetrate the culture during Christmas.  Each society has a rich tradition related to Advent music and to delve into each would require an anthology, not a blog post. 

Let’s focus on a recent (relatively speaking) method in which the Christmas story has been re-invigorated in England beginning in the early 20th century – this also might be my favorite musical tradition surrounding this season.  On Christmas Eve in 1918 in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, readings from the Bible complemented hymns and carols, weaving the tale of humanity from the Genesis account of the fall of humanity, through the prophecies of the messiah in the book of Isaiah, to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.  Amid the throes of the First World War it was probably difficult at the time to realize that they had developed a stalwart institution of Christmas choral music from thereafter, with the service being broadcast live on BBC every year from King’s College and with numerous cathedrals and parishes in England and abroad presenting their own “Lessons and Carols” service every year without fail.  Baltimore is not excluded – there are a number of “Lessons and Carols” services throughout the city and the influence of the “Readings and Carols” style touches Baltimore Choral Arts as well, as we have readings dotted throughout our own “Christmas with Choral Arts” performance.

Since the initial presentation of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s , the repertoire of Christmas carols has been expanded even further.  This is thanks in large part to the work of ethnomusicologists and composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst who collected British folksongs (including carols), both to use in their compositions and to collect for posterity.  Christmas choral music continues to be a playground for composers – Bob Chilcott, John Rutter, Carl Rutti, and others have many new Advent themed pieces that are commissioned by institutions across the globe.  In fact, King’s College commissions one new carol each year for their annual BBC broadcast.

The “Lessons and Carols” format is just a microcosm of the Christmas musical traditions, but it is perhaps the most compelling format for storytelling.  Through the combination of spoken word and choral music the action unfolds to the congregants with stark beauty and poise.  Lessons and Carols is my favorite musical experience in this special time of the year and I hope you can find somewhere locally (or at King’s College, Cambridge!) to experience this.

At Baltimore Choral Arts we are excited to share the story of the season with you through our music.   There are several opportunities to relax and enjoy the holiday season with festive music: Tune in to WMAR TV, ABC 2 on Christmas Eve at 11:35pm and Christmas Day at 6:00 am and again at 12:00pm to watch our annual “Christmas with Choral Arts” production from the beautiful Baltimore Basilica. 

We hope you have a warm, safe, and fun holiday season!  From Choral Arts, we wish you a Happy Hanukah, Merry Christmas, and very happy holiday season.

- Anthony Blake Clark