Yule Tune: Stille Nacht (St. Thomas Boys Choir of Leipzig)
A few weeks ago, I opened the Christmas music tour with Mahalia Jackson’s very moving rendition of “Silent Night.” Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of not only daily posts of Christmas carols, but also of working and shopping and baking and wrapping.
Tonight, though, I’d like to give all of you a gift. After the guests are gone and the presents are under the tree and the stockings are hung, I’d like you to take a few minutes for yourself. Here are the instructions.
1. Turn off all of the lights, save for those on your Christmas tree.
2. Pour yourself the beverage of your choice — anything from hot chocolate to a martini will work. I’m going with merlot.
3. Find the proper place to view your Christmas tree. This could be a favorite sofa or even the floor. I like to get as low to the floor as possible and look up at the tree.
5. Click play and enjoy “Stille Nacht,” the way it must have sounded long ago (1818), when the young priest who wrote the lyrics performed it in the quiet of his small church in an Austrian village.
Special thanks to Modern Mia Gardening for linking her blog to my Yule Tune posts. Much appreciated.
Yule Tune: Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (Dean Martin)
When I first heard Dean Martin’s very lounge-like version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” I had to do a double-take. Did he just refer to Santa’s superhero as “Rudy”?
Yes, he did — and that has raised Rudolph to a whole new level of coolness in my eyes. Now, I can’t get the image of Rudy cruising down the Las Vegas Strip in a convertible with Dino, Frankie, Sammy, and other assorted Rat Packers. Never mind joining any reindeer games — if Rudy is running around with this crew of heavy hitters, I have a feeling his nose is red because of one too many martinis.
Enjoy this Christmas classic, which someone cleverly linked with clips from the Rankin/Bass TV special, originally broadcast in 1964.
Yule Tune: Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her (Leontyne Price/Cantus Thuringia & Capella)
Of all the carols I’ve shared over the past few weeks, none have excited me as much as this one. This is a carol that I keep close, one of my secret favorites.
I first heard “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her” (or “From Heaven Above To Earth I Come”) decades and decades and even more decades ago while watching a Christmas special on PBS. Leontyne Price, the opera singer, took the stage — and the most majestic, most moving sound came forth. Ever since, I’ve included it on homemade Christmas mix tapes and CDs and now on an iPod playlist. It’s the carol I play late at night while looking at the Christmas tree or while driving.
The history of the carol begins long before the PBS special and Leontyne Price. The carol was written by Martin Luther — yes, the Martin Luther of Protestant Reformation fame — somewhere between 1534 and 1539 as a hymn to entertain his children during his family’s Christmas Eve gathering.
Some time during the evening, a man dressed as an angel arrived to sing the first five verses, an address to the shepherds. The children, in turn, would sing the next nine verses as the shepherds’ response, a welcoming of the birth of Jesus. The last verse was sung by the angel and the children together.
Enter Johann Sebastian Bach, who happened to have been born in the same German city where Luther translated the Bible so it could be accessible by all. The composer wrote music for the hymn — and this is the version heard here.
1. “From heaven above to earth I come
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing:
2. “To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen virgin mild;
This little child, of lowly birth
Shall be the joy of all the earth.
3. “This is the Christ, our God and Lord,
Who in all need shall aid afford;
He will Himself your Savior be
From all your sins to set you free.
4. “He will on you the gifts bestow
Prepared by God for all below,
That in His kingdom, bright and fair,
You may with us His glory share.
5. “These are the tokens ye shall mark:
The swaddling-clothes and manger dark;
There ye shall find the Infant laid
By whom the heavens and earth were made.”
6. Now let us all with gladsome cheer
Go with the shepherds and draw near
To see the precious gift of God,
Who hath His own dear Son bestowed.
7. Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!
What is it in yon manger lies?
Who is this child, so young and fair?
The blessed Christ-child lieth there.
8. Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,
Through whom the sinful world is blest!
Thou com’st to share my misery;
What thanks shall I return to Thee?
9. Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How weak art Thou, how poor and small,
That Thou dost choose Thine infant bed
Where humble cattle lately fed!
10. Were earth a thousand times as fair,
Beset with gold and jewels rare,
It yet were far too poor to be
A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee.
11. For velvets soft and silken stuff
Thou hast but hay and straw so rough,
Whereon Thou, King, so rich and great,
As ’twere Thy heaven, art throned in state.
12. And thus, dear Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To make this truth quite plain to me,
That all the world’s wealth, honor, might,
Are naught and worthless in Thy sight.
13. Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.
14. My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep;
I, too, must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradle-song:
15. Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto us His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad new year to all the earth.
For those of you who would like a more pared down version, please enjoy this performance by Cantus Thuringia & Capella.
Yule Tune: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (Various Artists)
When it comes to Christmas carols, I tend to be a traditionalist. I like them the old-fashioned way — with choirs and organs. When today’s performers sing them, I become Simon Cowell, bristling at their renditions, at their making the carol their own. I mean, why mess with perfection?
It is the rare occasion, however, when I appreciate — no, make that love — a newer version.
Take, for example, “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” I think I enjoy the carol so much because it’s intertwined with one of my favorite Christmas stories and films, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. When I hear the tune, I’m bundled up and walking down the snowy streets of Dickensian London. (For the record, my favorite film version is from 1951 and stars Alastair Sim.)
Here is a traditional performance, by the choirs of Bath and Winchester cathedrals.
And now for a more modern take, the finger-snapping, foot-tapping version by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlin.
Yule Tune: Merry Christmas, Baby (Natalie Cole)
It’s Friday night, and you’re remembering last week’s walk home. It was a cold, blustery night when you discovered a small gem of a jazz club.
Tonight is different. It’s warm for December — practically balmy. And your overdressed for it because this morning it was cold and you thought it wise to participate in the company’s ugly Christmas sweater day.
Now that you’re on your walk home in the December humidity, you’ve had to remove your overcoat. Your hat fell out of the coat pocket a few blocks back. And you’re mind is drifting to that jazz club, wondering who will be taking the stage tonight.
As if conjured up from your mind, the jazz club is in front of you. You walk in and are greeted by the same tatted coat check girl who’s wearing the same short red dress with faux white fur trim. This time, though, her platinum hair is pulled back and gathered in a ponytail — but her lips are still painted red to match the dress. She winks at you, the same way she winks at all of the regulars.
The orchestra is already on stage and the singer, dressed all in white, sits on a stool near the piano. The first notes play and you’re struck because you never knew a Christmas carol could be so soulful and sexy.
Yule Tune: Sussex Carol (Worcester Cathedral Chamber Choir)
I’m going to keep my carol comment short and sweet. The human voice may be the most beautiful sounding instrument in the world. Listen.
Yule Tune: Christmas Alphabet (The McGuire Sisters)
This very sweet Christmas carol is sweeter than a Christmas cookie — so sweet, in fact, that you’ll need an ice cold glass of milk to wash it down. The McGuire Sisters — the same sister act that sang “Sincerely” — are the voices behind “Christmas Alphabet.”
Oh, and after listening, remember to brush your teeth.
Yule Tune: Here We Come A-wassailing (Orla, David, Meav, & Mark)
At a recent Christmas dinner — an annual tradition for Joe and me to get together with friends Cathey and Robert and Judy and Michael — there was a brief discussion about the Christmas carols that never get airplay on those Christmas 24/7 radio stations.
There are, in fact, lots of carols that never see the light of day, much less a turntable. Among them is “Here We Come A-wassailing.” Perhaps the carol fell out of popularity because, sadly, people really don’t go a-wassailing — or a-caroling — anymore.
A few centuries ago, in England, locals would go door-to-door singing Christmas carols, hoping for some food, a penny, or a drink from the homeowner’s wassail bowl, which usually held a brew of hot ale, apples, mead, and spices — just enough alcohol to warm up the wassailers.
During my own childhood, I have memories of neighborhood teenagers knocking on the front door and singing Christmas carols — and my parents would give them some money and Christmas cookies. Today, though, caroling seems to be relegated to indoor locations and radio stations. Door-to-door caroling is a thing of Christmas past — perhaps because of lack of time, lack of energy, or an abundance of fear.
And that’s really a shame — because “Here We Come A-wassailing” is catchy and bouncy and rousing. It’s a carol that’s built for radio play. Don’t believe me? Click play and listen to Orla and Meav of Celtic Woman, “American Idol” alumna David Archuleta, country singer Mark Wills, some fiddles, and the bodhran, or Irish drum.
Yule Tune: Adeste Fideles (Luciano Pavarotti)
Long before trios of tenors toured the globe, there was Luciano Pavarotti. There was also this 1978 performance at Montreal’s Notre Dame Cathedral. I was a young teenager when this Christmas special aired on television, and it was my first exposure to opera. From the opening note, I was mesmerized and moved by the passion and richness of Pavarotti’s voice, and of the cathedral itself. Somehow, the combination of the two makes “Adeste Fideles” seem even more holy.