Tuesday, December 23, 2014

And Glory Shone Around

Here it is, December 23rd.  As the adult cliché goes, Christmas sure came fast.  I can't believe the day has come when I think Christmas comes too soon.  I remember the days of my childhood when I thought it would never get here.  The days after Thanksgiving and before Christmas took FOREVER.  The links on the paper chain, the days on the advent calendar, and the weeks of school crawled along.  Of course the reason is because kids don't have any responsibilities and just get to do all the fun stuff. 

I actually think a lot of the responsibilities are fun.  I love shopping and wrapping and decorating.  When you have no free time those things are hard to get done though.  And of course, there is always Christmas music!  Ah, yes, the often maligned Christmas music.  I remember at my old job we had little portable radios to listen to because we couldn't bring our own devices into the room and I asked which station played the Christmas music and all the men in the room groaned in disgust like I wanted to watch "The Bridges of Madison County" or something.  My favorites this year span a wide continuum of artists and styles.  Here are my recommendations:

Songs for Christmas by Sufjan Stevens:  If you like show tune-y Christmas music you might not really like this.  If you listen to this guy sing you will think you are listening to some sort of folky, hippyish beatnik with dreadlocks down to his shoulder blades.  He is actually a clean cut guy who happens to be a talented folk singer but listening to his rendition of traditional Christmas songs will make you feel like you are attending a Christmassy version of the older sister's wedding on the show "The Wonder Years".  I couldn't find a good still image but imagine long flowey dresses, some sort of Indian guru as the officiant and lots of dancing and singing while standing in a circle and all of the women wearing flowers in their hair.  "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" is one of my favorites even though it's a general interest hymn and not specifically a Christmas song.  I couldn't really specify why I like this so much but when I thought about just now I think it is because it is so simple and spare and it makes the listener relate to Mary and Joseph and the common conditions of Jesus's birth.

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra CD that I got from the Dollar Store: 

 This music is the opposite of Sufjan.  It is loud, triumphant and full of trumpet fanfares.  I guess it is just what it says:  royal.  The full choir sings in a heavenly manner.  The songs are sung the way I remember from church at our traditional Lutheran small town church I grew up attending in that each verse is given a different arrangement.   That organist (she is still there) can make each verse sound completely different with the middle verses hushed and last verse full of joy (imagine "Silent night, holy night, SON OF GOD, LOVES PURE LIGHT!") 

Church pipe organs have fallen out of favor these last few years, and they have been replaced in church services with modern snare drums and guitars and electric pianos and organs.  I kind of felt the same, but I have grown to appreciate them more.  My friend from law school studied classical organ and at an auction I purchased organ lessons from him and I learned a big about the stops and how to play with foot pedals. I also tried out the foot pedals in high school a few times.  A pipe organ is quite a fascinating instrument when you think about, with all those different sized pipes.  And, although you don't often hear their full power at church, it is the LOUDEST instrument you can play.  You can play four octaves at the same time.  It's crazy. You could rattle windows with one of those things without even reaching half of the full volume.  And this makes sense that they would be placed in churches traditionally since they are a very valuable instrument and they were offering their most joyful and rare music to god.

Ok, back to the music.

The song "Sherburne" from "The Sacred Harp":  I became interested in Sacred Harp music a few years ago when Bruce Springsteen used a sampling of an old 1950's recording of a Sacred Harp song on his track "Death to my Hometown".  It was strange and sounded like chanting so I looked it up and discovered that Sacred Harp singing is a traditional American form of music that originated in the South.  It is also known as "shape note singing" and the songs are all included in the book "The Sacred Harp" which is a historically important music book that has been around since 1844 when someone published the collection of songs that had been sung by common American protestants(probably members of churches that couldn't afford pipe organs!) since the 1700s.  The songs are sung, not for the purpose of entertaining an audience or congregation, but for the joy of singing and music and praising god.  For that reason, the singers sit in four parts arranged in a square facing the middle and they take turns leading. The leader keeps the tempo and the singers first sing the tune in "fa so la" syllables so everyone gets it and then sing the lyrics.  It is still done today.  There are lots of videos on Youtube.  It is very interesting and if you care you should look it up because I could talk about it for a long time.  It awakens the former music student in me.  Yes, I forget it myself sometimes but I still have a researchers brain.  Sherburne has simple lyrics: 

While shepherds watched their flocks by night,
All seated on the ground,
The angel of the Lord came down,
And glory shone around.
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace,
Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.

If you listen to it being sung it sounds much deeper than these simple lyrics because it is a "fuguing tune" which is like a round that starts in unison and splits into four parts.  This song is really obscure but I have listened to it constantly lately.  I know, it's weird.  If you want to try some Sacred Harp for yourself, I recommend "The United Sacred Harp Musical Assocation" CD (are they still called CDS?) on iTunes.  It is a recording from the 1950s.  The songs "The Last Words of Copernicus", "The Better Land", "Redemption" and "Saints Bound for Heaven" are a few of my faves.  Just FYI, this music is strange and people will think you are weird but once you get used to it and give it a chance it is very beautiful and you can hear how modern music was influenced by it.

The actors from the Broadway show "Jersey Boys" singing Christmas songs: 

Here are the showtunes!  This is the most mainstream and socially acceptable thing I have been listening to as far as Christmas music goes.  Wait, I take that back.  I have listened to some Amy Grant as well.  It's not Christmas without her!

OK, I have to go.  Tessa is awake and demanding my attention and I have to pack for Christmas!  We leave for "home" tomorrow!  I was worried about finishing all the preparations because last week my sewing machine broke as I was sewing a present.  Remember those projects I said were going smoothly in the last post?  Yeah, after that my sewing machine broke to the extent that repairs cost the value of the machine.  Ugh.  But I finished with my old machine, Justin and I wrapped all the gifts, and I even baked this afternoon!  Speaking of that, I better package the cookies before Ben wakes up and sees them.  Now we just have to pack and straighten up the house in preparation for the gifts that will be showing up in a few days.



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