Classical Christmas music

25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 25

Various Artists – Great Songs of Christmas by Great Artists of Our Time (Album Six) [Columbia Special Products CSS 388, 12″ LP, 1966.]

Great Songs of Christmas frontMerry Christmas! And thanks for following along during these 25 Days of Christmas Records. I hope you enjoyed listening and reading as much I enjoyed putting together this very personal exploration of my eclectic Christmas record collection.

It was no easy task coming up with a record to feature for Christmas Day, but it didn’t take much thought to realize that I had to find something of musical significance, something that’s been with us for a long time and will surely be with us for a long time to come. I knew it had to be something that could convey the joy and majesty and spirit of Christmas Day. And it had to be something in my record collection. So I looked to the great classical composers and found a piece from Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps my favorite composer of them all, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.”

This recording comes from an album I have in my collection that is part of the multi-volume “Great Songs of Christmas” series produced by Columbia Special Products for the Goodyear company. The Firestone company also produced a similar series of Christmas albums during the 60s and 70s. Here’s a brief rundown of how these albums came to be found everywhere: “When Shopping for Tires Meant Buying a Christmas Album.” If you ever go to a garage sale or estate sale that has Christmas records, you’re likely to seen many volumes of these albums sitting there in the stacks.

Great Songs of Christmas backFor the most part, these albums featured recordings by various pop singers of the day along with some popular orchestras. These are by no means definitive recordings of the classical works that might be included on the albums. But I think this recording of “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” by famed cellist Pablo Casals with chorus and orchestra is quite nice. If you can read the liner notes from the back of the album, it states that the then 89-year old Casals traveled to New York specifically to record this for the album. Casals’ recordings of Bach’s cello suites are legendary. And this is an incredibly beautiful tune. Bach really was a genius.

(Since we’re talking about classical Christmas music here, I’ll include this NPR piece from 2012 as an aside: “Whatever Happened to the Classical Christmas Album?” Thanks to my friend Scott Gregory for sharing this.)

Here is Pablo Casals performing “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” as found on this Great Songs of Christmas album.

And I couldn’t resist including one last song to leave you with as my celebration of Christmas records concludes. I had also wanted to feature a recording of “Joy to the World” from my collection, but they were really all rather lackluster and none of them was satisfactory enough to post here.  So, I fudged a little. Here is a wonderful performance of “Joy to the World” by the Cambridge Singers with the City of London Sinfonia conducted by John Rutter.

Let heaven and nature sing!


25 Days of Christmas Records – Day 14

The Deller Consort (Choir and Instrumental Ensemble) – From Heaven Above [RCA Victrola VICS-1376, 12″ LP, 1968.]

Deller Consort frontIt’s time for some quiet again. There’s something comforting about listening to quiet music on a cold winter’s day. It helps warm the soul. Most of the music on today’s record is quiet, but not all of it. There are some bright bursts of sound that ring out as well. And there’s an unusual vocal style you’ll hear on the recording which may not be familiar to some: that of the countertenor, as sung here by Alfred Deller. As the cover says, From Heaven Above by the Deller Consort is an album of old English, German and French Christmas carols and Baroque Christmas music. Seven of the carols are performed using arrangements by 20th-century composer Carl Orff, but they all still have the feel of much earlier times. You can view the whole track listing by clicking on the image of the back cover. (The link to where you can listen to this entire album is found at the bottom of the post.)

Deller Consort back

I am an admirer of classical music, but by no means any kind of expert. Read the very informative liner notes by Lincoln Stoddard, which I have included here (below right,) for insight into these wonderful works. I have always been a fan of Early Music, and this album is a beautiful example of some very old styles of Christmas music. The almost haunting sound of the countertenor vocal style is something to behold. If you haven’t heard this unusual style of singing by an adult male with a high, clear voice before, you might be somewhat taken aback. I’ve always enjoyed hearing it in some of the works of Medieval and Renaissance composers. My classical record collection is small, but I’ve just noticed that a disproportionate amount of it consists of Early Music recordings by composers such as Josquin, Dufay, Desprez, Monteverdi, Purcell and Hildegard von Bingen or compilations featuring that type of music. Deller’s countertenor part is not heard until the fourth song on Side 1, “There Is No Rose.” The pieces before that feature a girls choir that performed on seven tracks on the album. Deller’s voice is also very prominent in “The Coventry Carol.” Here are some video examples of Alfred Deller singing that can be found at the NPR Music website. It’s fascinating to watch him sing. All the things I’ve read about him say he was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the countertenor part back into existence after it had faded from popularity.

Liner notes to the album by Stoddard Lincoln.

Liner notes to the album by Stoddard Lincoln. (Click on an image to enlarge it.)

I’m not sure where or when I bought this album, but I think I found it in California before I made my move to Oklahoma in the early 90s. I haven’t listened to it in a very long time and I’ve really enjoyed revisiting this wonderful music. I was somewhat familiar with the work of The Deller Consort, so when I saw that name on the album I knew it would be something good. Some of my favorite carols, such as “Good King Wenceslas” and “Ding Dong, Merrily on High,” are heard in nice versions on this record. The rendition of “Silent Night” that ends Side 1 is truly beautiful in its hushed simplicity.

And once again, some kind soul has taken the time to upload this whole album to YouTube where others can enjoy it. The audio was created directly from an LP and it’s a mostly very clean recording. The album has long been out of print and never appeared on CD as far as I can tell, so it’s nice that people have access to this beautiful recording.


The Deller Consort – From Heaven Above (Side 1)

The Deller Consort – From Heaven Above (Side 2)

I hope you enjoy this little slice of classical Christmas music history.