Christmas music: Hallelujah or horror?

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Published: 30th November, 2011

Everyone has a view on Christmas music, even if they keep it under wraps. You can’t escape it in the supermarket, with crackling speakers – interrupted by price checks – yearning for a white Christmas all too soon after the Mother’s Day run on toasters. Unfortunately, in the misguided view that the consumer will be softened by sentimentality the peddlers of tinsel and treacly treats don’t confine themselves to American “Yuletide” fare but also get their hands on music that’s best appreciated in its simplest, purest form: Christmas carols and seasonal songs like Deck the Halls. The apex (or rock-bottom, depending on your view) of this combination is found in the likes of Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight and the regrettably-titled Woolworths Carols in the Domain in Sydney, complete with the likes of Humphrey Bear or the Wiggles. The mix is also found – perhaps more appropriately – in hundreds of more low-key celebrations across the country, often hosted by local government Councils and attended by excited PJ-clad kids. The inevitable visit from Santa Claus simply adds to the cultural confusion – and general enjoyment. If you prefer your carols unadulterated, local churches usually have a service of readings and carols close to the actual date. And cathedrals put on a show well worth attending, with blazing candles and a choir that knows how to sing in harmony. The diversity of Christmas music is illustrated by even a few examples from cities across Australia: • Adelaide: Carols under the Candlebarks at Sinclair Gully Wines • Sydney: Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and choir takes its Noel Noel beyond Angel Place to Newcastle, Paddington, Parramatta, Wollongong, Cremorne and Newtown! • Brisbane is also in it for the long haul, as its Christmas Music Showcase including Street Corner Carollers fills Queen Street Mall with live Christmas music and performances from 3 December until Christmas Eve. As for “classical” music of the season the big winner is, of course, Messiah, the English-language oratorio composed in 1741 by George Frederic Handel, with text from the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. Although the work was first performed as an anthem around Easter the stirring music and words tempt choirs of all sizes and abilities to make it their big production number for the end of the year. Some, such as the Canberra Choral Society, craftily boost the numbers needed for the big choruses by combining a “sing-your-own” Messiah (an increasingly popular variation on the theme) with a ticket to rehearse and sing with them on the night. Soloists are of course in demand, with popular artists such as mezzo Sally-Anne Russell easily clocking up dozens of Messiah performances in their career. But this year it’s pleasing to see Russell’s recording and stage partner Sara Macliver joining Perth’s St George’s Cathedral Consort in her home state of Western Australia for a performance of J S Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. This massive six-part work is, in my view, the more obvious choice for the season, although its relative unfamiliarity and extraordinary length work against it. Some European churches solve the problem by scheduling the work over two nights, with rugging up and crunching over snow in the streets to the cathedral an atmospheric prelude to the performance. (Perhaps I too am dreaming of a white Christmas.) As for the question of whether to stand for the Hallelujah Chorus in Messiah, I take it as a great opportunity to give a standing ovation (if somewhat orchestrated) to the musicians who have put their heart into fine performances throughout the year. I doubt that anyone seriously observes the tradition because King George ll started it – especially as history does not record why he chose to stand at that point! Another reason to be grateful for Christmas music of good quality is that audiences are staring down the barrel of a long, dry January with very little to look forward to in terms of fine classical music for at least a month.