I have a sad sort of confession to make. I really am not fond of most Christmas music. In years past, when I played in large music ensembles, the rehearsals of music for Christmas started several weeks before the scheduled concert. My ears got their fill of yuletide melodies long before December ever came around. With the growing commercialization of the Christmas season, the malls and radio stations are starting to play seasonal music earlier every year. There may be a special ring in Dante’s Inferno for me where they play Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride” on a never ending loop. I apologize if “Sleigh Ride” is one of your favorites. I’m sure I liked it the first 1500 times I heard it. I’ve just had my fill.
As you can imagine, it takes something really special in the vein of Christmas music for my ears to perk up. I think I have found that something special to share with you. It is an orchestra piece that was written by one of my all time favorite composers, Samuel Barber. It was a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation completed in 1960. Die Natali, Chorale Preludes for Christmas is a masterful work built using themes of familiar Christmas carols. I was reading, looking for information to provide an accurate description, but I couldn’t do better than this quote from Barber’s biography by Barbara Heyman:
Die Natali is scored for full orchestra, with a percussion section that includes antique cymbals, celesta, and bells. It was first performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Charles Munch on 22 and 23 December 1960 in Symphony Hall. Using Christmas carols for thematic material, Barber composed an ingenious fabric of harmonically colored contrapuntal variations, employing such devices as canon, double canon, augmentation, and diminution. The work opens with strings and brasses sounding the melody “O come, O come Emmanuel.” Next, antiphonal choirs- flutes, piccolos, and strings grouped against brasses- play the melody and three variations of “Lo, how a rose e’er blooming.” “We three kings of Orient are” (with separate preludes for each of the Magi) is followed by rhythmic variations on “God rest you merry, gentlemen,” interrupted by “Good King Wenceslas.” “Silent night” is heard over a figuration in ⅞ meter. A return of “O come, O come, Emmanuel” is followed by two variations, pizzicato and lyrical. An ostinato based on two phrases of “ Adeste fideles” crescendos to the climax with “Joy to the world.” “Silent night” brings the work to a quiet close.
Barber is one of those brilliant composers who found his musical voice early in life. Even on first listen, I could recognize a piece of music he composed. At this point in my life, I have listened to every recording of Barber’s music I could get my hands on. He is often described as a “neo-romantic”, using melodic and tuneful music to great effect. All of his works display great craft, construction and deep emotional content. He is one of America’s greatest composers, but he always sounds like Samuel Barber no matter what he is doing.
If you are so inclined, you can preview the entire score online here:
I hope you find, as I do, that this music sure beats the pants off of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”. May you and your family have a safe and joyous holiday season.