Tag Archives: Christmas music

Christmas is time to celebrate arranger’s art

Adoration of the Shepherds (1485), by Domenico Ghirlandaio.

(Apologia: This has been by far the longest time I’ve gone without posting. It’s been an exceptionally busy past four weeks, and not in a particularly good way.)

Now that the Christmas music season is upon us, I wanted to say something, as occasionally I do, about the art of the arranger. I admire great arrangers for some of the same reasons I admire great editors: unsung heroes who don’t get the credit they deserve, but who are passionate enough about what they do to go ahead anyway and help get the message out.

Although, now that I think a little more about it, arranging often is less about editing than it is about repurposing, taking extant material and giving it a brand-new identity. Either way, arranging is one of the most interesting and least appreciated crafts in the whole musical workshop.

And when it comes to Christmas, one of the most important arrangers is Sir David Willcocks, who turns 90 at the very end of this year. Almost every time I hear The First Nowell, for instance, in a church setting, it’s Willcocks’ arrangement, and on one of my favorite holiday recordings, Chanticleer’s Sing We Christmas, it’s the Willcocks arrangement of the old French carol Quelle est cette odeur agréable that lays me out every time. (Here’s a link to a 99-cent download of this performance.)

It should be noted at this point that Christmas carols are hard to arrange for the same reason that pop songs are often tougher than they appear: the actual musical material is quite limited, with the song simply consisting of several verses to the exact same tune and harmonies.

In Quelle est cette odeur, which has four verses, the first is a fully harmonized version of the song, the second is lower voices in unison under a nice descant figure. The third is a solo over “oohs” mostly, and the fourth is another full treatment, this one as close to ecstatic as you’ll ever hear; every time I hear that minor chord on the first syllable of eternelle, in the verse beginning Dieu tout-puissant, gloire eternelle (God all-powerful, eternal glory ….)  I’m inconsolable.

One of the reasons it works so well is that in the second and third verses Willcocks almost completely avoids the minor. Verse two’s chord structure is quite simple, with the barest of Les Adieux-style harmonies in the lower part. In verse three, the harmonies are more complex, but stay basically in the major. That allows him to unleash the minor, though with delicate touches, in verse four, and the effect is magnificent.

That’s the work of someone who knows what he’s doing, and it’s a joy to hear it every time. It’s also a measure of how important the art of the arranger is to our sense of this great season.

Missing ‘It Came Upon the Midnight Clear’


Even though the Christmas season is a time when we sing the old songs, it’s a body of work that also is mutable. Like any other form of music cherished by the public, tastes change, and what once was near and dear to us, even at a time when traditional modes of celebration are paramount,  is that way no more.

Christmas music is unusual in one popular regard in that it has a substantial body of centuries-old art music as part of a canon that includes on its other end I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. New songs are added to the Christmas hopeful slush pile every year, and this year I even took part, writing a carol for a competition in Minnesota, a contest that, of course, I lost.

But it was still a great challenge to write a Christmas carol: There are more angles to this old subject than at first might appear (and I had one I liked), but as with any other art form, why the public embraces one and not the other comes down to intangibles that can’t be quantified (at least, that’s what I tell my wounded pride).

Over the past 30 years or so, I’ve noticed some shifts in the Christmas canon. Judging from a completely unscientific review of songs from new holiday discs, Christmas TV shows, and all-Christmas Clear Channel radio tooling down the sunny, snowless streets of South Florida, a couple Great American Songbook selections seem to have established themselves with far greater frequency than I can remember when I was a kid.

Specifically, I’m referring to Irving Berlin’s I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, which is a winter, not a Christmas song, and the other is Frank Loesser’s Baby, It’s Cold Outside, which has everything to do with hot sex and nothing to do with Christmas. The pop singers of bygone years stuck these on their Christmas compilations, but I never heard them much until about 10 years ago, when they suddenly seemed to be everywhere. Now they appear to be unshakeable Christmas standards, again, judging just by what I’ve been hearing these past few Christmases.

It could be that technology is at the root of this; if you have 24-hour entertainment video and audio channels pumping it out all day and night, you need something to fill it with, and marry that with the passion for the retro culture of the 1950s and 1960s, and you have the return of a crooner doing I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm on top of a nice cushion of Nelson Riddle strings and brass.

In addition to the standardization of the lighter songs of the season, such as Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, which appears to be even more popular than ever, there are the pieces such as Oh, Holy Night, a French art song from the 1850s, penned by Adolphe Adam (he of Giselle fame), and which was once reserved for the holiday albums of classical singers. Now there are any number of pop singers (Josh Groban, Celine Dion) melodramatically belting their way through the song, and what was once a rare treat of operatic fare for the Christmas season is now inescapable.

But there is one song that seems to have vanished from Christmas programs, though I’m sure it’s still done frequently in church at this time. I mentioned this in a blog a couple years back, and thought I might be just not listening in the right places. And yet I haven’t heard it once this season aside from one 1970s Christmas disc in my collection, and I’ve been drowning in holiday music.

That song is It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, an American carol written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister (words) and Richard S. Willis (music), a journalist who had studied with worthies such as Moritz Hauptmann in the days when all American musicians went to Germany to learn the art.

Willis (1819-1900) was a friend of Felix Mendelssohn, and his hymn tune is a lovely one. It’s thoroughly in keeping with the music of his time, quite Germanic, and with a gentle touch of dark sweetness in the middle, when it moves into the relative minor (usually G minor; I don’t think I’ve ever seen a score of the tune that wasn’t in B-flat).

The lyrics are very much of their time as well, and they are not so much about Christmas, either, except for the first stanza’s reference to the Book of Luke. They are about the angelic message of hope, they recognize the sad state of the world (Yet with the woes of sin and strife/The world has suffered long/Beneath the angel strain have rolled/Two thousand years of wrong…), and they promise to the weary and burdened a release in a future age of gold. All commonplace themes of Sears’s day, well in keeping with American preaching generally, and married to a smartly crafted, sophisticated piece of hymn writing.

That it’s also one of the few 19th-century American carols (along with O Little Town of Bethlehem and We Three Kings of Orient Are) to have established a place in the repertory makes its continued absence even more regrettable. And come to think of it, I don’t hear We Three Kings much anymore, and you’re just as likely to hear O Little Town with an English melody adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who liked the text but not Lewis Redner’s tune.

If anyone else has a Christmas song they miss, post it below. I wonder whether everyone is noticing the same thing, or it’s just me.
Just for fun, here’s a video from YouTube of a German school choir singing the song in a 2006 concert. The arrangement is a little tacky, the tempo is quite fast, but with Willis’ German connections, it seems appropriate.