We all have our likes and dislikes, our passions and hatreds. I like jazz but two highly intelligent people I know dislike it. I hate organ music, probably because it reminds me of my upbringing in the Lutheran Church.
But I learned long ago at garage sales that one man’s trash is another’s treasure. With that caveat, I present my favorite Yuletide recordings.
They are: “The Nutcracker” by Tchaikovsky; “Christmas in France” by the Little Singers of Versailles; and the “Messiah” by Handel.
Yes, I know. “The Nutcracker” has become a horrible musical cliché at Christmas. But to me it is still magical, either listening to recordings or seeing the ballet.
Little Clara and her brother Fritz peer through a keyhole to watch a fairy tale unfold. The wizard Drosselmeyer produces three enormous boxes to begin the magic show.
The storyline is familiar: Clara adores the nutcracker but is terrified by the seven-headed Mouse King. The nutcracker turns into a handsome prince. Clara and the nutcracker sail away and live happily ever after.
Throughout we hear the wonderful Tchaikovsky music with its succession of dances: “The Sugar Plum Fairies,” the “Snowflake Waltz,” the “Waltz of the Flowers,” “Arabian,” “Polonaise” and “Galop.”
There is no mystery why it has become such a Christmas staple. Children love its fantasy, its expression of the wonder and joy of Christmas.
I can still see in my mind’s eye Valerie, my 6-year-old daughter, awakening me too early one Christmas morning. She was trembling with excitement and anticipation before opening her presents.
And I can still see another daughter, Vicki, nearly 2, looking over a balcony, staring with open-mouthed surprise at a Christmas tree.
But we love children at any season.
Longfellow expressed that love in a poem, “The Children’s Hour.” An “old mustache” of a father is in his study when he is assaulted with love by his three daughters, “blue-eyed banditti.”
They devour him with kisses. But he is a match for them, holding them fast in his “fortress” and putting them down “into the dungeon in the round-tower of his heart.”
Purity of children
The traditional Christmas carols have long since left me indifferent, sung by dreary rote after dreary rote each December. But the child singers of “Christmas in France” offer a remedy, singing 12 wonderful Yule songs in French.
Their voices ring out with the purity of childhood innocence. It is as if I am hearing them sing in a centuries-old cloister somewhere in France.
I find the singing moving, the essence of Christmas: “Il est né le divine enfant” (the divine child is born). And Bizet’s “L’Arlésienne Suite” with its majestic opening: “Ce matin j’ai rencontré … (This morning I met …).
A Reno Unitarian friend, knowing I was the village atheist, once asked me incredulously how I could stomach church music such as the oratorio “Messiah.”
“Because it is great music,” I replied. “It is simply magnificent.”
And so it is. I love its ringing joy, its driving score, its power, its affirmation. And, at the risk of sacrilege, its sometimes toe-tapping rhythms.
One of the greatest musical moments in my life occurred in London in 1985: a performance of “Messiah” in the 5,300-seat Royal Albert Hall.
The chorus: an incredible 400. The singing emotional and powerful. I was glowing for days afterward.
But I can see why my Unitarian friend was put off by the work: The words are straight out of the Bible.
“And the Glory of the Lord” … “For unto us a child is born” … “Glory to God in the highest” … “All we, like sheep, have gone astray” … “Why do the nations so furiously rage?” … “Lead my sheep” … “The trumpet shall sound” … “O death, where is thy sting?” … “Worthy is the Lamb” … “Blessing and honor” … “Amen.”
And the incomparable “Hallelujah.”
No matter how many times “Messiah” has been sung and how many ages hence it will be sung, it will never be a chestnut. It had its première in Dublin in 1742. It will be sung at Christmas until Doomsday.
Like the great music of Beethoven, “Messiah” can never be tiresome if is performed well, if it is sung with the zest and loftiness worthy of the grand music it is.
Anyone who cannot appreciate “Messiah” cannot have a soul.
Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno.