18 December 2012

The Holy City, O Holy Night

For a good 35 years, most of my life, the Christmas celebrations included a big, raucous Christmas Eve party. Everyone came - kids, neighbors, boyfriends, grandparents, friends from here, friends from there. We'd make lots of Christmas cookies, and buy lots of cheese. My mother would make chicken liver pate, the kind that's so not kosher because it's got two sticks of butter in it, and pack it into a small brown crock with a lid, a crock that wasn't ever used for anything else. [That crock now lives in my kitchen; I'd better lay in some chicken livers.]

Eddie, the Joyce scholar from down the street, banged out Christmas carols on the piano, never stopping even when he'd miss a note (a blessing, that ability to keep going, the sign of a good accompanist). And everyone sang, at least everyone who wasn't in the kitchen with the red wine and the pistachios. Jingle Bells, Angels We Have Heard On High, Adeste Fidelis, O Little Town of Bethlehem. Sometimes people would get fancy and sing harmony or descants; I've always been partial to a descant in the second verse of Stille Nacht, even though I'm really not a soprano by any stretch of the imagination. Eventually, Eddie would get around to playing O Holy Night, out of a book called "Sing For Christmas" where it was inexplicably in something like G flat major, or maybe it was C flat major. In any case, it had way too many flats in the key signature, but Eddie courageously soldiered on. We'd belt it out, and move on to The Holy City, not really a Christmas carol, but full of great thumping Jerusalems.

Christmas was also a time for iconic records: The Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Britten's Ceremony of Carols. The Messiah. Luciano Pavarotti. The Nutcracker. Jessye Norman. Kathleen Battle. A Music Box Christmas. The Robert Shaw Chorale.

Two of those iconic records included those two oft-belted carols from our Christmas Eves. Pavarotti does a thoroughly charming and idiosyncratic O Holy Night, sung in English, with a heavy Italian accent and prodigiously rolled Rs, it is the night of the dear Savior's bert. Jessye Norman sings The Holy City tenderly, not bombastically, a lovely rendition.

Funnily enough, I have but two copies of The Holy City in my full-to-bursting list of songs tagged "holiday" in iTunes: the afore-mentioned Jessye Norman, and Herbert L. Clarke (the cornet soloist of the Sousa band). But I have 29 versions of O Holy Night - ranging from Pavarotti and Anne Sofie Von Otter, to Dave McKenna, Aaron Neville, Ella Fitzgerald and Sufjan Stevens. Presumably that's because The Holy City isn't really a Christmas song at all; it's just a bit of religious Victoriana. But it feels like Christmas to me, because Jessye Norman's Sacred Songs had been absorbed into our family's Christmas music collection, and because Eddie almost always played it on Christmas Eve, the thundering triplets shaking the very floorboards of the house I grew up in.

This post is part of a blog chain about holiday music. You can read more about the chain here, or just check out all of these links:


Joybells said...

"Great thumping Jerusalems!" is a great exclamation. Or band name.

I love how you convey the festive raucousness of your holiday celebrations. I think my cubicle walls are shaking even now.

Jeanne said...

Does it seem to you that people gather around the piano less now than when we were children? I have a keyboard, but my parents had a grand piano in their living room. My aunt loved to play at the drop of a hat, and she was a terrifically gifted pianist and a mediocre singer, so it encouraged everyone to add their voices. (And as children, our violin, trumpet, and flute).

edj3 said...

Jeanne, I think there are fewer people able to play pianos these days.

Magpie, I want to come to your parties. The way you describe them always sounds so fun.

De said...

Christmas Canon is my favorite this year.

Anonymous said...

Your Joyce scholar sounds like a great addition to Christmas. I'm sure that he'll be terribly missed.

theidealdave said...

Your Christmas parties sound great, although I'm sure my family is just as happy when I'm NOT singing. I sound like a wounded yak. A tonedeaf wounded yak.