The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear likes very old Christmas music more than newer music. What do you prefer? | December 22, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Each year in the Madison area there are so many wonderful concerts with holiday themes performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, the Madison Choral Project, the Madison Bach Musicians, Edgewood College and by many, many others  that you just can’t get to all of them.

And it doesn’t help if you have a winter cold or aren’t feeling well, as happened this year to The Ear.

But I did get to two memorable performances.

The first was the terrific annual Choral Prism holiday concert (below) put on at Luther Memorial Church by various choirs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music. They performed under several conductors, including Beverly Taylor, Bruce Gladstone, Anna Volodarskaya and Sara Guttenberg.

UW Prism 2014 singers 1

UW Prism 2014 crowd

The second was the satisfying “Welcome Yule” concert at Grace Episcopal Church by the Wisconsin Chamber Choir under conductor Robert Gehrenbeck, who also teaches at the UW-Whitewater.

WCC Welcome Yule 2014

Both events were excellent, and drew full and enthusiastic houses.

A lot of beautiful music in a wide variety of styles was offered by each of the two groups. That included homages to the St. Paul, Minnesota composer Stephen Paulus (below), who died at 64 this past year and who had close ties to Madison’s vocal groups that commissioned and performed his music. And because programs strive for ethnic diversity today, spirituals and jazz arrangements were also included. (I often cringe when I see something has been “arranged.”)

stephen paulus

But when all was said and done, the “winners” so to speak –- for The Ear at least -– were the old ones. I mean the very old ones, generally those works dating from the Medieval period and Renaissance period over the Classical, Romantic, Modern and Contemporary eras with the Baroque falling somewhere in between.

Why did I like the old music so much?

One reason was the performances. The straight-ahead singing, mostly a cappella or unaccompanied but sometimes with a bit of percussive drum or lyrical harp added, was much more convincing than when I saw modern largely white singers stiffly swaying and awkwardly stomping their feet and clapping the hands to get into the swing of things and show some unconvincing imitation of gospel singing.

But I started thinking.

Maybe it goes back to the Bible and that old verse about “The Word made Flesh.”

That seems a much more successful formula for effective Christmas music than the modern approach, which I am starting to think of as “The Flesh made Word.”

That means that what gets to me is the very simplicity, the strength of the rhythms and melodies as well as the simpler harmonies and compositional techniques.

Simpler is simply better. No better proof was offered that a souped-up jazz arrangement of “Silent Night.” That venerable and quietly emotional carol cannot be improved upon by complicating it. Keep it simple. That seems to be the way to go. Another case of inferior “arranging,” I am afraid.

I think of the old Medieval hymns about a mother simply rocking her baby Jesus to sleep as she sings to him. Can there be anything more touching or poignant, more to the point or direct, especially at a historical period when there was no nighttime lighting and so many babies died.

More than nostalgia, such music offers the art of reducing things to the essential. And the essential, as the old composers seemed to know, is often the path to the universal.

Of course, the plain song or chant-like harmonies also add to the appeal.

But it still goes back to simplicity of the act and the simplicity of the metaphor.

That is why the great 20th-century modern English composer Benjamin Britten (below) used so many older carols in his “Ceremony of Carols” to such great effect.

Benjamin Britten

That is also why 100 times out of 100 I will prefer the simple 16th-century German tune “Lo how a Rose Ere Blooming” (at bottom in a YouTube video) over, say, the long and tedious “Magnificat” No. 20 with its overworked harmonies and complexities for chorus and organ by another 20th-century English composer Herbert Howells (below).

herbert howells autograph

What do you make of the old music versus new music debate when it comes to holiday music?

Do you agree or disagree with The Ear?

And what is your favorite local holiday concert  to recommend for next year?

The Ear wants to hear.



  1. Agree? Yes and no. Indeed, nothing can equal the timeless beauty of the “ancient carols”, although there is nothing simple about Renaissance polyphony! I would go even further and say that modal settings (ancient or modern), with a hint of melancholy, convey the most meaningful expression of quiet joy, even with texts that sometimes acknowledge earthly suffering. I fully understand that you are (appropriately) stating your preferences, rather than specifically criticizing the (Wisconsin Chamber Choir) programming. However, such a concert as “Welcome Yule” should, almost by definition, include music of various periods and styles (in this case skillfully chosen by the Artistic Director). Yes, Howells might not be everyone’s “cup of tea”, just as the arrangement of “Silent Night” may be too jazzy for some, but to have sampled such a range of marvelous music in just ninety minutes was a marvel in itself.

    Comment by Mark Brampton Smith — December 22, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

  2. Jacob, I really agree with you. While more recent Christmas Music can be enjoyable if performed well, I love the energy and simplicity of the medieval carols. There seems to me to be more of a human element that is inherent in them plus many of them are very approachable for amateur singers. I think the fact that many of these carols were probably akin to period dance tunes, many were used as processionals to the church, and many were used for teaching the lessons of Christianity make them more personal to the performer and the listener. My medieval CDs get a lot of playtime during the Christmas season.

    Comment by John Beutel — December 22, 2014 @ 11:27 am

  3. I agree. Some years ago we heard the Waverly Consort do “The Story of Christmas” at the Union Theatre; it was spellbinding. Not only to us: In front of us, in the first row of the balcony, were two young couples with three little girls who were also spellbound, hanging over the balcony totally engrossed. There’s something about music of that early period that speaks to us in deep places.

    As for the University Choirs Christmas concerts, a happy atheist, I sang in them at Luther Memorlal. You can’t study music without getting a heavy dose of the Western tradition of great sacred music, and my ideology wasn’t threatened, nor was I resentful. Live and let live.

    Comment by Susan Fiore — December 22, 2014 @ 9:16 am

  4. I just find older music better in general, not just the Christmas music.

    Comment by Rebecca — December 22, 2014 @ 9:03 am

  5. I agree with you on most counts. I like the late Medieval and early Renaissance Christmas music.But there are a few classic carols whose melodies were written in the 19th Century. And I am a big fan of John Rutter and his carols,even if some people think they all sound alike. You could say that about Schubert songs. There’s a recognizable style. So for me there’s room for some contemporary Christmas music in the canon. And also room for some traditional Spanish and French carols of indeterminate age.

    Comment by Ann Boyer — December 22, 2014 @ 7:45 am

    • You make good points, and I agree with most of what you say.
      John Rutter is indeed an exception, a very listenable and likable contemporary composer of holiday music.
      But too much of contemporary holiday music is overdone — especially those arrangements that overlay multiple layers of modern harmonies.
      It is like having too much icing on a cake or too much sauce on a dish.
      And yes, the 19th century did contribute some memorable additions and carols to the holiday repertoire.

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 22, 2014 @ 8:06 am

  6. Could we ask if it’s really appropriate for the music department of a public university to put on these Christmas programs at a church, complete with caroling and a generally church-like programing (processional, carols, etc.)? It seems odd to me and I know it has made some of the students uncomfortable (and their grade requires that they do it). I was in it and I don’t like it. For non-Christians it’s sort of an excursion into another culture, but not one we haven’t seen already.

    Comment by musician — December 22, 2014 @ 12:39 am

    • Thanks for reading and writing.
      You make an excellent point and ask an excellent question.
      Maybe we can hear from other readers and especially students about heir comfort level with these performances?
      That could be both helpful and enlightening.

      Comment by welltemperedear — December 22, 2014 @ 6:19 am

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