by John Green
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Messiah-Comfort Ye…Ev’ry Valley
“To him I bend the knee. For Handel is the greatest, ablest composer that ever lived.”
Weighty praise indeed, especially when the author is none other than Beethoven. But success usually comes at a price and Handel’s circumstance was no exception. By 1715 he was undoubtedly the greatest composer alive; yet fate, with its indiscriminate way of doing things, was to see his impregnable position in music swept into complete ruin. During his 50s, Handel came to realize that his past triumphs as an opera composer were finished. Overcome with debt, he was headed for disgrace and possible imprisonment. He was faced with finding a new sphere, a new success in order to achieve even greater productivity. It emerged in the form of the oratorio of which he completed no less than 32.
The titanic Messiah, unquestionably the greatest oratorio ever written, was completed in 1742. Brilliant in concept, unfaltering in expression and eloquence, it stands as one of mankind’s most grandiose conceptions. In a mere 25 days, most of them without sleep or food, Handel produced a creation that could only have come to fruition under the direction of divine inspiration. Not known necessarily as a man of high religious principles—certainly not to the same extent as Bach or Haydn—Handel nevertheless said of himself, “I did think I did see all of heaven before me, and the Great God Himself!” Perhaps what is more telling than anything are the words he confided to his physician years later: “I think God has visited me.”
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
La Bohème, Act I Che gelida manina
It is a cold and snowy Christmas Eve in Paris’s Latin Quarter. Rodolfo, a starving poet, answers a knock at his door to reveal Mimi, a neighbouring seamstress whose candle has burned out. Mimi faints, dropping her door key to the floor. Both begin searching for the key in the dark. When Rodolfo finds it he accidently touches her hand, and realizing how cold it is, begins to sing: Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscalder (What a frozen little hand, let me warm it for you).
La Bohème is the tale of struggling young Bohemian lovers set to some of the most beloved music in all of opera. The sensitive tenor aria comes early in the first act and is the opera’s most popular, revealing Puccini’s innovative theatrical genius, a musical story teller without peer. The aria has often been borrowed in modern culture—for the Cher and Nicolas Cage movie Moonstruck and in the Tony-Award winning musical Rent.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
La Traviata: ActII-Alfredo, Lunge da lei…De’ miei bollenti spiriti
La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) by Giuseppe Verdi is one of the most frequently performed operas in all of musical theatre. It is based on a play by Alexandre Dumas fils, the son of the great French novelist Alexandre Dumas père. In February, 1851, Verdi attended a production of Dumas fil’s The Lady of Camelias in Paris after which he immediately began work on La Traviata. British opera scholar Julian Budden noted that shortly after Verdi’s return to Italy "he was already setting up an ideal operatic cast for the opera in his mind."
The first scene of the opera’s second act takes place in the country house of Violetta, a courtesan. It is here that Alfredo, a young bourgeois, sings of their happy life together: De' mieibollenti spiriti.
Leroy Anderson (1908-1975)
This light orchestral bonbon was conceived, oddly enough, during a July heatwave in 1946. It has since become a Christmas standard and the signature piece of Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops where it was first recorded. The lyrics were written by Mitchell Parish in 1950, the same year it was recorded by the Andrew Sisters. Immediately recognizable in the piece are the sounds of clip-clopping and whinnying horses.
According to ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) “Sleigh Ride consistently ranks in the top ten list of most-performed songs written by ASCAP members during the Christmas season worldwide.” Anderson’s own Decca recording remains the most popular orchestral version with Johnny Mathis’ recording being the most popular vocal rendition.
J.S. Bach (1685-1750); Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Ave Maria (Meditation)
This ever-popular fixture at weddings and funerals has a long and inspired history. The melody, written in 1722, is actually the Prelude No. 1 in C major taken from J. S. Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier. 137 years later, the French Romantic composer Charles Gounod rearranged Bach’s melody publishing it as Meditation on the First Prelude for Piano by J. S. Bach. Its common setting is a Latin prayer simply referred to as Ave Maria.
Beside Schubert’s Ave Maria it has enjoyed an uncountable number of arrangements for every conceivable instrument including the human voice. Such notables as Pavarotti, Renee Fleming, Enrico Caruso, and Mario Lanza have all made Gounod’s arrangement an audience-pleasing recital piece.
Ernesto de Curtis (1875-1937)
Torna a Surriento
Torna a Surriento is a Neapolitan song that was not legally copyrighted until several years after its composition. Musician Ernesto de Curtis wrote the music to accompany a poem written by his brother Giambattista de Curtis. Although historical evidence points to its composition date as 1894, more recent research indicates the song dates to 1902, eight years after the brothers claimed to have written it. Despite the confusion this readily recognizable song has become one of the most popular of the traditional genre. It has been recorded an incredible 30 times; among the recording artists are such bright lights as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Pavarotti, Anna Calvi, and Elvis Presley.
Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863)
Silent night, holy night!
Allis calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace,
Sleep in heavenly peace
Perhaps the most recognizable Christmas carol of all time Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht was composed by a humble Austrian school teacher and composer in 1818. The poem Still Night, had been written previously by a Father Joseph Mohr who took it to Franz Gruber asking him to set it to music. It was performed for the first time that same year on Christmas Eve in the small St. Nicholas Parish Church in Oberdorf near Salzburg where Gruber had taken up extra duties as organist. Unfortunately, the church organ had broken down which necessitated that both men sing the carol for the first time accompanied by guitar and choir.
Although Gruber’s original score has been lost, in 1995 the handwritten manuscript of Mohr’s poem was discovered. It displays 1816 as the date the lyrics were written and 1818 as Gruber’s composition date.
The carol has had a long and illustrious journey through the years including a television special Silent Mouse narrated by Lynn Redgrave; a film documentary The First Silent Night; and a version sung by Bing Crosby which became the third best-selling single of all time.
Bob Krogstad, Arranger (1951-2015)
The Bells of Christmas
Bob Krogstad has long been recognized for his rich orchestral and choral arrangements including music for the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular; productions for Disney-MGM studios; and the London Symphony. He has been the recipient of several awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.
The Bells of Christmas is one of Mr. Krogstad’s inspiring orchestral showcases. The distinctive and creative style of his arranging is apparent in this delightful and heartwarming holiday piece. With the clever weaving of several classic carols and holiday songs, this medley sparkles from beginning to end. Songs are: Carol of the Bells; Ding Dong Merrily on High; Jingle Bells; I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day; and Silver Bells.
Irving Berlin (1888-1989)
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills L.A.
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I’m longing to be up north…
This verse, rarely sung, is the introduction to a song that eventually became the world’s biggest single hit of all time, selling 100 million copies—Irving Berlin’s White Christmas. Bing Crosby’s 1949 edition alone was responsible for over half of these.
There are varying accounts regarding where and when White Christmas was written. The one that seems to hold the most veracity is that Berlin wrote the song in a La Quinta, California hotel, where he stayed up all night during a heat wave. He had ordered his secretary to “grab a pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song ever written—heck, it’s the best song anybody’s ever written!”
The Guinness World Book of Records estimates that Berlin wrote over 1500 songs during his 60 year career. These included music for 20 Broadway shows, 15 motion pictures—eight of which received Academy Award nominations—and a large part of the Great American Songbook.
Perhaps the most fitting tribute for Irving Berlin came from composer George Gershwin: “His music has that rich, colorful melodic flow which is ever the wonder of all those who compose songs; his ideas are endless.”
John Frances Wade (1711-1786)
O Come, All Ye Faithful
The music for this popular and robust Christmas carol is most often attributed to John Wade in that the earliest copies of the hymn all carry his signature; however, depending on the history you read, it has also been credited to several other musicians, among them John Reading, Thomas Arne, Christoph Gluck, and no less than George Frederic Handel himself. The original four-verse text, written in Latin as Adeste Fideles was probably authored by Cistercian monks some time during the13th Century, followed in 1744 by John Wade’s score. Certainly, its infectious melody attests to its longevity despite its rather fragmented and questionable authorship.
Innumerable translations through the years have altered both the carol’s length and meaning of the text. Its present form as O Come, All Ye Faithful, was published in Murray’s Hymnal in 1852.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Music from The Nutcracker
This great Russian composer needs little introduction. There is not a music lover alive that does not recognize most, if not all, of his famous melodies. They have been revised and modified for everything from movie backgrounds to television commercials and cartoons, even as product endorsements. Perhaps the most recognizable of all his enormous outpouring is the music of the ever-popular Christmas ballet The Nutcracker with its sugar plum fairies and waltzing flowers. Volumes have been written about this wonderful score performed literally thousands of times each year around he world.
An adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale, Tchaikovsky completed the score in 1882, the year it was first presented in St Petersburg. The suite does not have much music in it that actually carries the story’s plot; however, this shortfall remains insignificant in light of its wonderful melodies. An interesting side note in relation to the composer’s attention to tone colour was his insistence on using the celestia—a new instrument of his day constructed from a steel bar and played from a keyboard.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Nessun Dorma from Turandot
“None Shall Sleep” from the last act of Puccini’s Turandot is likely the most popular and recognizable aria in all of opera. Calaf sings this romantically melodic piece with the assurance he will win the affections of the beautiful but callous princess Turandot. First, however, he must solve three riddles; failure to do so means death.
Nessun dorma achieved unequaled pop status following Luciano Pavarotti’s recording of it in 1972; the recording subsequently reached the number two position on UK’s singles chart. So, how has this one aria, hiding in the back corner of the last act of Puccini’s Turandot, had such an impact? The answer is simple: no one could write a melody like Puccini. He music washes over the listener in waves, growing in passion with the orchestra sweeping poignantly as accompaniment. William Berger, American radio music host once commented, “Without Puccini, there is no opera; without opera, the world is an even drearier place than the evening news would have us think.”
Adolphe Adam (1803-1856)
O Holy Night (Cantique de Noël – Minuit Chrétien)
French composer Adolphe Adam, now best remembered for his frequently-performed ballet Giselle, showed his first interest in music as a child—but only for amusement, as an improviser rather than a serious student of music. At age 17, despite his father’s strong advice to the contrary, he entered the Paris Conservatoire where he took up organ studies. Dissatisfied with his decision, he soon turned to writing songs for the numerous vaudeville houses that populated Paris in the 1820s. By 1830 he had produced 28 complete works for vaudeville and opera, none of which ever enjoyed much recognition.
But recognition was to come from an entirely unexpected source. In 1847, the mayor of a small French town wrote a poem for Christmas Eve titled Cantique de Noël based on a Gospel story. The mayor, desiring to have the poem set to music, approached the vaudevillian composer Adolphe Adam who quickly provided the music. Shortly thereafter it gained enormous popularity, so popular, in fact, that an American Abolitionist minister translated the text into English and titled it O Holy Night. It has remained a Christmas music staple to this day with likely the most famous and often heard rendition recorded by Mahalia Jackson.