David Hasselhumbug - "The Night Before Christmas"

Christmas time is here, and with it the bescrooged revelation that people will use the festive season as an excuse to listen to some of the most torturous music to have been conjured in the human brain.  We should all, of course, be free to listen to whatever we feel pleases us most, and I have no trouble watching people listen to music – whatever the kind – on headphones.  But there’s a marked difference between the plotted murder in a private study and the circus of a public execution in town square, and one problem is that prefab holiday schmaltz greets you in the most public of spaces.  Picture Christmas music extending its net over the crowds in a shopping mall food court.  Merry humbug!

Someone was kind enough to put together this humorous pictorial run-through of the “Fifty Worst Christmas Albums of All Time.”  There’s something wowingly warped about so many of the albums pictured there – in the twilight zone manner, say, of North Korean propaganda posters.  So it has become my seasonal obligation to remember that two of the more otherworldly artists on that list – Hasselhoff and Heino – are not the only words that begin with the letter H.

Humbug!  

Happily, like Jacob Marley, Hasselhoff’s career as a pop artist is as “dead as a door-nail” – “a coffin-nail” – and future generations will chiefly remember the ghostly Heino for his memorable album art.

(Allow me here to link parenthetically to one of the most remarkable and utterly confounding holiday moments, Christmas with Heino, which is seemingly without parallel and possibly the stuff of pure transcendence.)

Jest aside, Christmas in Germany has not always been all Heino and Hasselhoff.  It was after all a German (and another “H”), Georg Friedrich Handel, who with the Messiah in 1742 gave the English-speaking world its most famous choral Christmas work.

Since Handel’s Messiah continues to fill concert houses the world-over, I want to point casually to three other masterworks (of German origin) that could be as mandatory a part of one’s holiday season as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” album, and the act of routinely spiking the eggnog.

I. Michael Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning (~1620)

Praetorius (1571–1621), possibly the first historically significant composer of Lutheran church music, put together his Christmas mass at some point towards the end of his life.  In a recording by Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort we have one of the more remarkable performances of Christmas music on the market.  The album is one in a line of many McCreesh projects that attempt to reconstruct the experience of being in the particular time and place of a work’s genesis.

Listen here for a taste of what it might have been like to attend a Lutheran mass on Christmas morning in 1620 Dresden.  It’s an ambitious recording that breathes history, and as a musical experience, it’s incredible.

II. Heinrich Schütz: Weinachtshistorie (1664)

Schütz (1585–1672) was nearly 80 years of age when he published his Christmas Story in 1664.  As a young man, Schütz had studied under Gabrieli (and later Monteverdi) in Venice, the then-centre of European music.  In an attempt to write music fit for the ostentatious interior of St. Mark’s basilica, Gabrieli had taken to writing music on a grand scale: Dividing his choir and instrumentalists among the upper galleries on all sides of the room, he inaugurated the so-called polychoral style.  Schütz returned to Germany, heavily influenced by the musical life of Catholic Venice, and he took up work principally in Dresden, where he devoted his remaining decades to the composition of sacred music.  Like Luther, Schütz freed up the German language, and his Christmas Story of 1664 – which you can listen to here – is a fine and festive example of his art.

III. Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio (1734)

And where else to end this quick jaunt through Luther-land than with Bach (1685-1750), to whom all roads seem to lead?  You can listen to the opening movement of his Christmas Oratorio here.  Anyone who’s visited Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche) won’t have difficulty picturing the periwiged Bach leading his musicians on a Christmas afternoon in 1734:  Sunlight warms the stained-glass windows; a seasonal, communal calm meets the crisp air.  And then a thought – the thought of Heino, of Hasselhoff, creeps in.  Humbug!

Johann Sebastian Humbug (stained-glass window of Bach in the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

Bach Humbug!  Merry, merry Humbug!
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Suggested Classical Recordings:
  • Praetorius: Mass for Christmas Morning (Paul McCreesh & the Gabrieli Consort; Archiv, 1994).
  • Heinrich Schütz: Weihnachts-Historie (Rene Jacobs & the Concerto Vocale; Hamonia Mundi, 2011).
  • J.S. Bach: Weihnachtsoratorium / Christmas Oratorio (Nikolaus Hanoncourt & the Concentus Musicus Wien (Teldec, 1993).
Very Special Mention:
  • Vince Guaraldi Trio: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy, 1965).
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