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Volume 19 | Issue 32 | December 22 - 28, 2006

The great African-American contralto Marian Anderson

A few cures for Christmas musical kitsch

By Michael Clive

Colds, flu and Seasonal Affective Disorder have nothing on a pandemic that overruns us every year, contaminating public spaces and defying attempts at control. Yes, like a tide of toxic treacle, the commercial glut of Christmas pop music is back, giving rise to symptoms including nausea, rage and violent antisocial urges. Studies have shown that overexposure to the Alvin and the Chipmunks, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the Jingle Bell Rock can make the most ardent pacifist want to kill someone.

Classical music can counteract these effects. But as time goes on, you may find yourself developing immunity to yet another dose of the Nutcracker or Handel’s “Messiah” — an oratorio that, incidentally, was written for the Easter season, not Christmas. Even the admirable Renée Fleming may provide only limited relief on a PBS “Great Performances” rebroadcast this week. Coiffed and gowned like a glittering tree ornament and backed by a full orchestra, Fleming delivers pluperfect renditions of favorites like Schubert’s Ave Maria that glisten like brightly colored, flavorless desserts at a diner.

Fortunately, there’s an abundance of other remedies that never lose their potency. The examples I list here are not a prescription; instead, they are offered as possibilities and as proof of the inexhaustible beauty and inspiration that are still to be found beyond the holidays’ musical kitsch.

It is only fitting to begin with Johann Sebastian Bach, the towering genius whose every composition, whether sacred or secular, is suffused with Christian piety. Try any recording of his Christmas Oratorio, which is actually a sequence of six cantatas — suites with alternating chorales, vocal solos and instrumental interludes. Its opening fanfare of baroque trumpets and drums, immediately joined by a chorus heralding the good news of humankind’s redemption, seems like the ultimate musical expression of joy — until the ecstatic closing section, when Bach surpasses the seemingly unsurpassable.

Brahms’s exquisite Geistliches Wiegenlied is no less intense, but opposite in mood. Written in the German art song tradition for soprano, viola and piano, it is so hushed and intimate that it seems to stop time — not to mention one’s breath. You’ll recognize the familiar Christmas carol in the viola obbligato; its gently rocking melody becomes the movement of a cradle as Mary addresses the heavens in a German adaptation of a poem by Lope de Vega, enjoining the winds to be calm because her baby is sleeping.

There are many fine recordings of this beloved work, but one with special meaning for Americans is by the great African-American contralto Marian Anderson with violist William Primrose. Arturo Toscanini famously said that a voice like Anderson’s comes just once in a century; it endows Brahms’s cradle-song with incomparable depth of feeling as well as endless tonal richness, evoking both the mother the Christian savior and every mother of a newborn. With Primrose matching her eloquence, we remember how Anderson herself suffered to break racial barriers in classical music, opening opportunities and bringing a great artistic legacy to later generations.

Well, not everyone admires Brahms, and Benjamin Britten’s distaste for his compositions is one of the most surprising oddities of 20th-century musical lore. Which takes nothing away from Britten’s pristinely moving Ceremony of Carols, a choral suite originally scored for women or women and boys, though often re-scored for men and women. Tender and bold by turns, the songs are sophisticated recastings of medieval English folk carols that can break your heart with the naïve directness of their devotion. And midway through the cycle, a transcendent interlude for solo harp wordlessly conveys the mystery of divine grace and the Christmas miracle.

Finally, if you haven’t yet finalized Christmas Eve plans, consider starting the day with one of the greatest choral traditions in the world: the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast live from King’s College Cambridge in England. Inspiring, austerely beautiful and bracingly authentic, the service of readings and songs is an ideal antidote to the mallification of Christmas. The broadcast will be carried in New York on Sunday, December 24 at 10 a.m. on WNYC, fm 93.9.

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