Early Music at Christmas by Curtis Rittenhouse

By on November 27, 2012

We are reaching that time of year when Bing Crosby and Gene Autry and Nat King Cole and Burl Ives return to us to warble Yuletide Classics on the radio and in the malls. If Irving Berlin’s estate still gets paid a royalty every time White Christmas is sung, the Berlin family must be one of the wealthiest on the planet. Add to that all the modern Christmas songs that have come along since, and the average American is deluged with schmaltz and goodwill at this time of year every time you venture out of the house.

Over the years, perhaps as an antidote, I found a slew of early pieces from the Baroque period that really put me in the holiday mood. Heading the list is the Messiah, not strictly a Christmas piece, but a sure-fire success whenever it is revived. There are period instrument Messiahs, sing-along Messiahs, Messiahs scored for Wagnerian orchestra by Sirs Eugene Goossens and Thomas Beecham, amateur Messiahs with piano and organ, Messiahs with countertenors…… the list goes on. The piece is practically indestructible. I’m sure there is probably an arrangement for Hawaiian steel guitars that would be to some liking. That Handel was the Irving Berlin of his day! Too bad he lived before ASCAP.

Bach too wrote his Christmas Oratorio which gets fewer outings, at least in the US, but is very popular for good reason in Germany, where early seasonal works by Schutz and Telemann also get an airing.

My personal favorites however are the concerti grossi written for the season by the handful of Italian composers Sir Neville Marriner once dubbed the ‘ice cream composers.”  This includes Tortelli, Manfredini, Locatelli, Vivaldi and the finest (Op.6 No. 8) by Archangelo Corelli.

Why do these satisfy so much at year’s end? Likely because each of these composers included in these works for small ensemble a quiet, pastoral movement meant to honor the Mother and Child at village religious services. Some of these works are quite inventive, imitating bagpipes and other sounds the composer associated  with celebrations of Christmas in 17th Century Italy.

If there is music that gives more comfort and peace than these concerti di natale, I can’t think of it. I recall taking my oldest son as a small boy to a live performance of these masterpieces by the Philharmonic Baroque Orchestra many years ago, and he fell asleep across the pew with his head in my lap very happily. If you find yourself strung out on repeated listenings to “Rocking Around the Christmas Tree” or “Run, Rudolf, Run,” come mid-December, I would commend this wonderful soothing sound to you. It’s good for the soul and seasonal stresses.

Curtis Rittenhouse

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