Sunday, December 4, 2011

Conductor's Corner - Christmas Music

- contributed by Gordon Bowie

Every Christmas and holiday season reminds us of how important our musical traditions are in marking the passage of the year. For me, the songs that mark the holiday season are among the most enduring musical memories, precisely because they come back at the same time year after year.

Anthropologists often describe a culture in terms of its “annual round.”  Plant in the spring, go off raiding in the summer, harvest in the fall, hunt meat in the late fall, have a big fire celebration to welcome the sun back at new year’s, etc. Whatever it is or was.....

Band members in our culture have an “annual round” too.  Veteran’s Day Patriotic music, Christmas and Hanukkah music, New Years and “Should Auld Acquaintance be Forgot”  exploration of some serious works in the Winter and Spring, then patriotic music for the Fourth of July, and we do it all over again. 

We have only one or two tunes for Thanksgiving, just a couple of popular or secular tunes for Eastertide, a rich and ever evolving patriotic tradition for the 4th and Veterans Day.  A good Irish selection for Saint Patrick’s Day, and of course the strong seasonal tradition of Oktoberfest songs should not be forgotten either.

Thanks to the combination of English and German carol-singing, the acceptance of sacred music into the  popular realm at this time of year, and the many songs from around the world, plus the popular music that has entered the standard repertoire, the Christmas season is in my opinion the richest.  So rather than “Is it time for those same old Christmas songs again?” I always thrill to “Sleighbells ring, are you listening?”   

Just think, when you start off on ear-playing, Christmas tunes are among the best for getting that mind-to instrument coordination without the interface of the printed note.  They are memorable because we hear them every year, they have singable melodies and for the most part predictable chord sequences.  What could be more memorable than “Silent Night” or “Jingle Bells”?

Of course in addition to tradition, people also need novelty, and that is why the repertoire keeps growing.  It is only once in a while that a new entry into the Christmas and Holiday song tradition makes it as a “keeper” and assumes the status of a standard.  We still keep on playing “Jingle Bells” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”  as well as “Let it Snow” and “Rudolf,” “Frosty” and “Jingle Bell Rock.” 

Sometimes I wish that our Holiday concert could go on for hours, just so we could fit it all in. But as things are, we rotate among the traditional favorites, and every once in a while get to add something new, or a new arrangement.  So enjoy this year’s program and delight in the traditional sacred and popular selections.  Next year we’ll get back to “Sleighride.”