Another holiday season is upon us, and with that comes a wealth of season-appropriate music. (Some good and some not so good. Here’s looking at you, Bob Dylan, and your Christmas album. Yikes.) The sacred realm, in particular, contains an absolute treasure trove of works that honor and celebrate the birth of Jesus. So much of this music has played an indispensable role in my life, and the season is not complete until I’ve given at least one listen to John Adams’s El Niño and Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, to name just two pieces.
To celebrate this time of year, me and my good friend/fellow music nerd, Geoff Nelson, have culled together a playlist that journeys through the story of Christmas, beginning with the longings of Advent and ending with hope for the new year. As with our Holy Week playlist this past March, our selections encompass a broad spectrum of styles and sounds, often wandering between them in unique and surprising ways. (Who knew that Palestrina and The Oh Hellos actually work really well together?) The playlist can also be approached in different ways. Since it is 31 tracks long, it can either be used as a sort of musical “Advent calendar” (i.e., listening to one track each day throughout the 31 days of December), or it can be consumed in a single sitting.
No matter how you approach it—and no matter your faith background—we sincerely hope that our musical selections will inspire reflection, hope, and joy as the world celebrates this holiday season.
This is the fourth and final installment of my multiple-part series. You can read the previous parts here, here, and here.
On December 20, 1973, Aaron Copland made a guest appearance on the public television series Day at Night. Within this wide-ranging and lively discussion, one particularly fascinating exchange occurs when the interviewer, James Day, inquires about Copland’s contemporary musical language:
James Day: Why can’t you write in the language of the past?
Aaron Copland: It wouldn’t be natural! Why should we limit ourselves? We have rhythms that Chopin never thought of…. We have a more complex language in one way, a more dissonant language which can express harsh feelings in a more effective way, I think. The language of music is really, you know, advanced with the times and our listeners have to lend their ears in that way.
Day at Night – James Day and Aaron Copland, 1973 (4:57)
While this sentiment sounds great on paper, getting listeners to successfully “lend their ears” to a new piece of music is often easier said than done. As the classical canon began to take hold of Western thinking in the mid-to-late 19th century, a large swath of listeners, critics, and performers grew to prefer music that they already knew and loved—that is, older music instead of newer music. Of course, new pieces continued to be written and performed, but audiences by and large clamored for the familiar, not the new. Plus, anything new had to either fit in with the canonic “mold” or risk derision for being too “out there.”
This fixation on the past continued to dominate concert hall programming throughout the 20th century and persists even to this day. Why is that? On the one hand, we need to keep in mind that, for better or for worse, orchestras, opera houses, and chamber groups are businesses. They have to program works that will spur interest and demand (i.e., draw a sizable audience) and help recoup production and labor costs. What do you think would sell more tickets: a program of big names like Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff, or a program entirely of works by Kaija Saariaho? If you guessed the former, you’re probably correct. Simply put, Beethoven sells tickets. Anything outside this, not as much.
But it’s not just musical organizations and their business acumen that are driving this almost obsessive reliance on “masterworks” and “classics” of the past. Many classical audiences tend to be apprehensive, or even scared, of anything that’s new or unfamiliar. Some claim to have had terrible experiences with “contemporary” music in the past and make sweeping generalizations that anything written within the last 100 years is garbage. (OK, that’s a really dumb hyperbole, but you get the picture.) Other listeners are willing to “suffer” through a concert that features a new work, so long as they get their Brahms on the other side. (More on this in a sec.) These attitudes can also crop up with pieces composed in the 20th century. Several years ago, I heard some concert attendees speak disparagingly about Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which is pretty strange considering the work was composed in 1943 and is neither “new” nor “difficult.”
It’s absolutely no question that 2017 was a heck of a year. Political tensions, violence, scandals – no year in recent memory has seemed as fraught with discord and turmoil as this one. Yet, despite all of the bleakness, there were many good things that occurred. In the realm of music for instance, a wonderfully copious amount of it was created, recorded, and released for all to enjoy, reminding us of both the goodness of humanity and the vitality of the art form.
Below, I have compiled ten of my favorite albums of this past year, which includes classical as well as non-classical releases. Along with a short blurb on each album, I have included one sample track (when available). If a particular album piques your interest, I encourage you to support the artists by purchasing their work.
So, in no particular order, here are my ten favorite albums of 2017:
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Awesome Mix Vol. 2 (Hollywood Records)
Although not quite as satisfying as its predecessor (both the original Guardians of the Galaxy film and its accompanying Awesome Mix Vol. 1), this compilation of 60s and 70s pop tunes added a delightful variety of sounds to the quirky summer blockbuster. From well-known songs (George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord”) to lesser known gems (Sweet’s “Fox on the Run”), this nostalgia-fulled mix was the perfect soundtrack to those long summer road trips.