Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Sounds of the Season

There is a line in "A Christmas Carol" in which Marley's ghost laments that his spirit "never left the narrow limits of [his] counting house." The point for Marley, and for Dickens, is that one's spirit is meant to wander far and wide, not to be shut up in one little routine, and certainly not to neglect company with one's fellow human beings.

There are, in this century particularly, various ways to accomplish this, and though none can truly substitute for being in the room and experiencing togetherness together, humankind has cooked up some pretty ingenious ways to share ideas and experiences through vast amounts of time and space. During the Christmas season I find it particularly rewarding to mingle my spirit with many humans, some long dead, or living, or having lived, in far away countries, with very different approaches to the holiday season. This, to me, is a vital part of the season itself.

There are at least two holidays that bear the name Christmas. One is, of course, a secular holiday, and the other religious. But they have very different characters in addition to the reasoning at their core. Much of the popular secular music this time of year has to do with how the person singing it feels at Christmas, or how wonderful and exciting everything is. Like desert, it seems fine in moderation, but not particularly substantial as a main course. But, beside the lyrics, or the pedestrian musical stylings of some of them, there seems to be a parochialism of focus as well.

Non-secular Christmas goes back two millenia, and has seen great minds from many cultures contribute to the celebration, in all kinds of ways. Each year, I try to delve into a little bit more of that. It also helps give the holiday its own unique character every year.

For several years I've been leaving a trail of my explorations behind me, and you can hear many of these pieces this week at pianonoise radio.

But today on the blog I'm going to share something more recently recorded. It's a piece of music from a tradition in 18th century France where organists would create flashy arrangements of various carols. The carols themselves may not be familiar; some of them are becoming so to me, the longer I deal with this tradition.

On Saturday I had the privilege of playing at the candlelight worship concert that the First Methodist Church in Pittsburgh holds each year. At the dress rehearsal, as the choir began an unaccompanied carol, I knew what I would play for a prelude. I recognized the tune they were singing as one that those French organists of so long ago treated as the basis for their fascinating variations.

I'm happy to report that I was able to (re)learn the piece in one day, which is all the time I had between the rehearsal and the concert! Actually, I played the piece about four years ago so I had a little bit of a head start (and probably only spent a few days on it then, too.). The recording you will hear was made on Saturday morning at my own church before playing it that evening for the Methodists. It helped to firm up my interpretation, too, going before the microphone. Those things always make me nervous.

I hope you enjoy it. There are plenty more pieces in that tradition, a few of which I've recorded for my holiday program (and the forthcoming Christmas Day program also at Pianonoise Radio) and more which I will likely learn. It is a wonderful feeling to be conversant with so many different traditions and types of music and to be able to share them at Christmas, which is a much bigger thing than we are, or our cultural preferences. To be able to wander through the wide world, and learn from and engage with so many people from so many times and places, all with their fascinating takes on this massive midwinter festival, is incredibly rewarding.

And, somehow, at Christmas I don't feel that they are that far away.

Daquin: Noel 1

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