At a recent performance by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, Chief Conductor Alex Prior mentioned how surprised he was to learn that the old Tudor song “Greensleeves” had been adapted into a Christmas carol, “What Child is This?” Shocked, was the word he’d used.
The seasonal words to the ancient tune were written in 1865, by Prior’s fellow Briton William Chatterton Dix. But to be fair, the carol has become much more popular on this side of the Atlantic than the other, which may explain Mr. Prior’s gob-smackedness. But it raises an interesting question: What makes a piece of music “Christmas music?”
I thought about this in the same way that, when groups of friends talk about their favourite Christmas movie, somebody always mentions Die Hard. Sure, it takes place at Christmas, and even includes Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” in the soundtrack, but Miracle on 34th Street it ain’t.
But in the same way, neither is Handel’s Messiah. It is performed as a Christmas staple around the world, and yet the work was not intended as such. Its first performances, in fact, took place during Lent, and its overall message does seem more suited to that part of the church calendar. Yet, Part One of Messiah can certainly be read in a more Christmasy vein, and even includes the famous telling of the first Christmas as recounted in Luke’s gospel.
The Christmas season is a time for music, of course, and Messiah has provided many an orchestra, choir, and/or early music society a great excuse to get people to come to a concert. The ESO is no different. We’ve presented Messiah pretty much every year we’ve been in existence, and we are preparing to do so again – a shortened version of Handel’s beloved oratorio on December 3 & 4, presented with our good friends, the Richard Eaton Singers. After all, theatre companies have A Christmas Carol, ballet companies have The Nutcracker. We want a taste of the seasonal pie, too!
But in for a penny, in for a pound. Messiah, while an incredibly beautiful and moving work of faith and redemption, is not everyone’s cup of nog. Orchestras are fortunate in having a bounty of other incredible musical selections to fill a whole season’s worth of concerts. So we do.
From December 17 to 23, we’re presenting a program called A Traditional Christmas – a rich blend of traditional carols and songs that are, in fact, very much music of the season. There’s a decidedly “classical music” bent to this show, with excerpts of music by Bach, Corelli, Tchaikovsky, and that great creator of favourite carols, Anonymous.
Alternating with A Traditional Christmas, we’re also presenting a decidedly more Pops-oriented program. December 18 to 22, Holiday Magic will be a lighthearted eggnog-infused program with everything to accompany sleigh rides, holiday shopping, and nights by the fire.
And no post-Christmas letdown for us! After the last of the figgy pudding has been dealt with, come back to the Winspear for Hollywood for the Holidays, December 29 & 30. This will get the diehard movie fans (see what I did there?) excited, with excerpts from Star Wars, The Sound of Music, some Disney favourites, and even The Nightmare Before Christmas (to be played after Christmas – we appreciate the irony).
And just to tie all this into a neat little bow, it’s worth pointing out that a key scene in Die Hard features music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy.” And that’s not Christmas music either. Or is it? It is a favourite seasonal work in Japan, where orchestras present it, rather than Messiah, as their holiday offering.
Christmas means something different for everyone. But whoever you are, your music will be at the Winspear Centre this December.