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The British, for some odd reason, are unusually good at choral singing. All over the country are choirs of astonishing quality, and almost all the great cathedrals and churches have very good music. In some cases, superb. King’s College, Cambridge is one that is world famous, but others — Salisbury, for instance — produce super-fine music that travels far and wide.
The Christmas season is, of course, the best time to hear what they create. Putting religion and creed aside, everyone should look for concert-standard offerings nearby. My own favourite, as a Londoner, is the stunning Romanesque church of St Bartholomew the Great (you will recognise it from films including Four Weddings and a Funeral). Its music programme for the next few weeks is truly world-class. The best services and performances get very full, though — booking is advised.
Seasonal music is not all about churches, or the classical western tradition. From soul and pop to blues, there are riches galore to discover and to relish.
My first idea for this article was to offer up my all-time top 10 seasonal pieces, and invite readers to contradict me, pour scorn on my choices, and send in their own. It’s the moment in the year, after all, when we can be completely unapologetic about sentimentality and nostalgia, and sheer beauty — a complicated concept in the arts since the advent of modernism — is let off its leash for the season.
Even so, a top 10 proved an impossible task. So I have decided to submit nominations for various categories, and invite readers to participate by means of the comment stream below. Add to the categories I suggest, or propose new ones of your own. Before Christmas arrives, we’ll collate the results.
First, a few rules. We will leave aside Handel’s Messiah: it is in a class of its own. Ditto Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. There will be absolutely no mention of the Von Trapp family. The best-known carols — Silent Night, What Child is This, O Little Town — need not appear.
And I was about to say that any versions of White Christmas were also hors de concours. But then I remembered what an interesting history that song has — partly to do with racial politics in the US.
In 1957, when Elvis released his first Christmas album, Irving Berlin (the creator of White Christmas) was enraged by the King’s version and did his mighty best to stop its airplay on radio stations across America, even to have the whole album banned. But in fact Elvis’s rocked-up version was a paler take on The Drifters’ full boogie-woogie White Christmas, released the previous year, which hadn’t attracted Berlin’s wrath because it was only played on black radio stations.
Roll on a few decades, and the Drifters’ version of the song took on new life, known to millions through the film Home Alone. So that gets my vote for Most Interesting Version — enduringly fascinating, creative, brave, and just sheer good fun.
The next category has to be Favourite Classic. Anyone could spend several years thinking about this, but mine probably has to be Berlioz’s The Shepherds’ Farewell to the Holy Family, sublimely beautiful and highly emotional in almost any performance.
I almost gave the nomination to There is No Rose of Such Virtue, a 14th century lyric set with eerie beauty by — oops — Benjamin Britten. So it isn’t eligible, by my own rules. To get around that, I’ll create a Bizarre Mash-Up category, and suggest Sting’s version of There is no Rose. Accompanied by oud and other eastern instruments, its basic rock rhythm with a vaguely raga-like drone means we don’t even know which continent we’re in — but I sort of like it.
Next, I’ll propose a Discovery category. Confession time: I’ve never liked Elgar. Far too much pomp and circumstance. So it was a fine surprise to come across his song A Christmas Greeting, which is delicate, almost tentative, making light of the clichés to produce a hauntingly lovely piece. Hear it sung by his hometown cathedral choir in Hereford.
I’ve already said that nostalgia and soppiness are unashamedly allowed here. So my nomination for the Tearjerker category has to go to a song that evokes an early childhood memory. I’m about four, and I’ve crept downstairs to see how Father Christmas is getting on (his possible lack of productivity is cause for concern). Through the half-open kitchen door I can see my normally brisk and cynical mother, alone, lost in a reverie of her own, crooning along to Harry Belafonte singing Mary’s Boy Child, his voice pouring out of the record player like honey. It has been a guilty pleasure ever since.
Something powerful often happens when musicians of apparently different realms get together. Crossover is all the rage now, and considered normal — it wasn’t always so. And especially not with traditional music. So my Synergies nomination goes to country singer Alison Krauss and the towering classical cellist Yo Yo Ma performing the Wexford Carol. There’s something in the way they each listen to the other, feeling their path through unfamiliar territory, that gives it a brilliant freshness.
If there’s something about the seasonal message that gets a bit cloying, we might look for Christmas music that can squirt a bit of lemon juice into the sweet mixture. There turned out to be quite a few candidates for my Alternative Message award, including the ineffable Stevie Wonder singing Someday at Christmas with Andra Day.
The lyrics — “Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys, playing with bombs like kids play with toys” — speak for themselves. Yet I think I may award this one to Bob Marley for Christmas Reggae. It’s far from being one of his great songs, but its power lies in a gentle send-up that combines a sampling of Santa Claus is Coming to Town and all sorts of good-cheer Yuletide messages with his line: “I’ll try to be happy, I’ll try to be glad” . . . I fear many people know that feeling all too well.
I am still trying to find my favourite New Traditional Carol. I want to love Sally Beamish’s In the Stillness, especially the version by the Quintessential Singers, which evokes a haunting sense of midnight quiet and suspense. But I can’t quite deal with the lyrics. Even in traditional song, we don’t really still want “candle glow/deep white snow” stuff. New traditions have to reflect new realities, surely.
So please send me your own nominations for that category. Finally (even though I’ve had to leave out literally dozens of important favourites) I’ll leave you with a Totally Bonkers category. And it has to go, surely, to Bob Dylan’s Must be Santa, with a video that shows the Prophet of Gloom in a fright-wig and a Santa hat backed by a band that is half-lederhosen, half-klezmer, ho-ho-ho-ing with the best (or worst).
Bob Dylan with a sense of humour? Truly a Christmas miracle.
Jan Dalley is the FT’s Arts Editor
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