The Well-Tempered Ear

Pseudo-classical holiday music is an insult. Play the real thing.

December 21, 2009
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

OK, that’s it, I muttered Sunday just before noon to the radio, feeling a bit like Scrooge yelling “Bah, Humbug” to music that deserved my disdain.

I had tuned to Wisconsin Public Radio and was waiting for a broadcast form Pittsburgh of Handel’s “Messiah” – a tried-and-true holiday classic that is moving and beautiful, no matter how often I hear it.

But leading up to that I heard a piano trio playing a pseudo-Bach version of “Noel.” It played with the carol’s theme, throwing in some counterpoint and Baroque harmonies and rhythms.

It seems to me I’ve heard an awful lot of that kind of stuff in recent days, and I only expect it to intensify as we approach Christmas, after which it will then drop off towards New Year’s.

I mean, why spend time airing these pseudo-classical music versions of holiday carols and songs?

Use the real carols and songs if you want holiday music – there’s nothing wrong with them. There are some quite acceptable and lovely arrangements by serious composers, including the contemporary John Rutter.

Or else use real classical music for the holidays – everything from the brass choirs of Gabrieli, the string concertos of Vivaldi and the Concerti Grossi of Corelli, Locatelli and Tartini to the cantatas of J.S. Bach, the oratorios of Handel and Mendelssohn, the masses of Marc-Antoine Carpentier,  the concertos of Torelli and Sammartini and Telemann, the ballet music by Tchaikovsky.

But please don’t use the ersatz substitutes. They only cheapen the holiday and serious music.

It isn’t as if there doesn’t exist a ton of outstanding holiday-related classical music to listen to without resorting to the nauseatingly cute arrangements. A search I did at amazon.com turned up more than 9,000 listings.

If fact, I think it is an excellent challenge – and the mark of an outstanding radio host and programmer – to expose listeners to some of the less explored works of holiday music from medieval times right through contemporary composers.

As long as it isn’t what “Silent Night” or “Little Drummer Boy” would sound like in the hands of Bach or Mozart or Beethoven or Chopin or Wagner or Brahms.

But maybe they can use some help, some “presents.”

How do you feel about hearing pseudo-classical holiday music?

Can you recommend a favorite holiday-related piece of classical music that is not very well-known?

The Ear wants to hear – and so do countless listeners.


Posted in Classical music

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