Tradition: Why? Why not? Do we really have to choose?
Tradition. Do we observe it? Some of us do. Do we disdain it? Others do. Are we enslaved by it? I hope not. Must we abolish it? I say no. Why do we need it? I’m not sure what the answer is, but based on the evidence, it seems we do. The fact is we needn’t choose between the two, we can have it all!
Mahler called tradition “schlamperei” (laziness, sloppiness). Toscanini called it “the last bad performance.” Just as the best prerequisite to become a celebrity is to already be famous, the precondition for observing a tradition is that it has always been observed. Seemingly, there is a there there.
Let’s look at some of the "classical classics" of traditional holiday music. I am going to skip over Christmas carols and the volumes of popular music. After all, we are an opera company, and our bread and butter is classical music.
The Winter Solstice (Yuletide) was celebrated as the reawakening of the sun and its light long before Christianity conquered the European continent. The Twelve Days of Christmas have Judaic and Teutonic roots, and our notions (for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, at least) of wintery, snowy forests, extend far backwards in time. Singing carols has its roots in pre-Christian Europe. The word itself, meaning “a dance with joyful singing,” seems to have Celtic roots. Let’s start with three famous and uncontestably great seasonal works, all closely associated with seasonal expectations: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, George Frederic Händel’s Messiah, and Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
Bach sets his music to a fusion of paraphrased psalms. Its text and tone suggest joy and celebration even as its form and counterpoint imply the distance of a third-person narrative as well as the vast immensity between God and mankind.
Bach: Christmas Oratorio BWV 248. Conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Performed by the Monteverdi Choir.
Jauchzet, frohlocket! auf, preiset die Tage
Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day,
praise what today the highest has done!
Abandon hesitation, banish lamentation,
begin to sing with rejoicing and exaltation!
the highest with glorious choirs,
let us honor the name of our ruler!
That joyful opening incorporates singing, in a decidedly Teutonic mode.
Probably the two most popular seasonal pieces of classical music in American life, which in combination capture the essence of the pre-Christian meaning of “carol,” are Händel’s oratorio Messiah (the singing) and Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker (the dancing).
The magnificence of Tchaikovsky’s music speaks, through a clearly secular voice, of the beauty and the distilled light of culture. The Nutcracker, based on a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and revised by Alexandre Dumas père, takes place on Christmas Eve in a well-to-do 19th-century European home. It is a long way from Hoffmann’s macabre original story to the warm and charming ballet we know from Tchaikovsky. Christmas is a backdrop to The Nutcracker, not essence. The substance is to be found in the wonderment of Clara’s childlike fantasy and the rich dream world that it reveals. Candyland is derived from Hoffmann’s penultimate chapter and Tchaikovsky develops it until it is almost half of the ballet.
Whereas Tchaikovsky creates a fantasy nestled into a Christmas Eve celebration of the story of Christ’s birth, Messiah actually recounts that story. Christmas and its religious associations are the essence of Händel’s Messiah. Or at least the first of its three parts.
Messiah is an oratorio, a word derived from Latin meaning “place of worship.” The term denotes, with very few exceptions, a work that is religious in nature. Messiah is specific to the story of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, recounted through texts freely adapted from scriptures. One note of clarification: in any discussion of classical music, the word religion is virtually synonymous with Christianity. This simply due to the virtual monopoly that Christian churches held on institutional spirituality throughout Europe.
Handel: Messiah - A Sacred Oratorio. Conducted by Sir Colin Davis. Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.
And that domination deeply impacted the development of both oratorio and opera. Both are large musical forms with soloists, chorus and orchestra. Both genres are built with dramatic narrative, recounted or acted out by singers. Narration, in the form of recitatives, alternate with reflective solo arias. Below the surface, they are two branches of the same tree.
An oratorio can be sung in a church or concert hall, whereas an opera is conceived for the theater. Religion and theater, however, made for very uncomfortable bedfellows.
Because powerful church authorities prohibited the depiction of religious, biblical or scriptural stories on the stage, oratorio developed primarily of necessity, serving as a haven for any biblical, scriptural or religious works. For that reason, opera and oratorio diverged relatively early.
The apportionment was quite simple: oratorio for sacred stories, and opera for secular stories drawn from Greek and Roman antiquity (thus, pre-Christian), pastorales or comedies. Händel excelled in both arenas, to my mind, because he saw the commonality of musical drama in both genres.
From Messiah’s beginning, the listener is drawn into the drama of Christ’s arrival in history. The introduction, written in a minor key, suggests the momentous and solemn event that is about to take place. The panorama is expanded first through scriptural references and second, more decisively, through the power of music, which opens up a universe of time and place.
Opera plays only a secondary role in Christmas music. The vestigial effects of long past ecclesiastical censorship have kept Christmas and opera largely apart. That is not to say no Christmas operas were written, but they have not imposed themselves on tradition. (Wikipedia lists some 30 of these, including zarzuelas, operettas, and works by Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky.)
Romantic opera has two well-known Christmas scenes, but they serve, as in The Nutcracker, to provide backgrounds to the central drama. Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème offers us Christmas Eve in Paris’ Latin Quarter, but it is essentially scene painting, spectacle and entertainment. The final scene of Jules Massenet’s Werther by contrast, utilizes a children’s Christmas song as a stark counterpoint to the protagonist’s suicide.
In the twentieth century, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, which premiered in 1951, attained great popularity as a children’s opera for several decades. Now considered dated by some, it has fallen into neglect. That judgment is perhaps too severe. In any case, it made its mark as a popular and successful Christmas opera.
I particularly like John Adams’ El Niño. It has been described as a “Nativity Oratorio” and lives in that wonderful zone between opera, oratorio, poetry and drama. Its multi-leveled, bilingual pluralism juxtaposes biblical narrative with the realities of contemporary life. It is very much a work for our time.
But in between the baroque oratorio and the present day stands the imposing 19th century. Two of my favorite works are Franz Liszt’s massive oratorio Christus and Hector Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ). The U.S. rarely hears Berlioz’s Christmas work and it virtually never hears Liszt’s. For those whose curiosity leads them beyond the traditional, hearing these works would be another rich musical experience at Christmas.
There is a story (apocryphal perhaps) that Richard Wagner and Liszt were conversing. Wagner, ever modest, remarked that they together were the two greatest creative geniuses of the 19th century. He then added “we could consider Berlioz as well, but let’s not tell him...it might go to his head.” The ironic humor of the comment aside, it was not far from the truth, and in drawing attention to Liszt and Berlioz, we have an opportunity to appreciate them better.
Christus, like Messiah, is in three parts. The first, devoted to the Nativity story, is entitled “Christmas Oratorio,” just like Bach’s work. (Part Two is “After the Epiphany” and Part Three “The Passion and Resurrection.”) I have conducted and recorded this work, love it and admire it. I recognize that its three-hour length is a problem for modern audiences, but I see no reason why it can’t be divided into its component parts and performed that way.
The Christmas section has five movements. An “Introduction” starts from earth and then hovers in the celestial spheres. It then descends to intone a tender lullaby, representative of the traditional nativity scene. “Pastorale and Angel’s Annunciation” features the soprano soloist and an angelic choir. The unaccompanied hymn “Stabat Mater Speciosa” describes Maria’s joy. (Although written in 1495, the religious poem was neglected until being published in 1852 and Liszt took advantage to set it to music. It is a counterpart to the more famous “Stabat Mater Dolorosa” which will be the pièce de resistance of Part Three.) “Shepherds’ Song at the Manger” combines the proverbial shepherds’ pipes and another pastorale theme. Finally, “The Three Kings” begins with a Beethovenesque march as the Magi approach and the star appears, stopping over the place where the child to be found. The depiction of the Adoration of the Magi and the offering of gold, frankincense and myrrh anticipates Parsifal. An animated coda collects all of these themes together in triumph.
Johann Sebastian Bach: Christmas Oratorio
Christmas Oratorio - John Eliot Gardiner, conductor; English Baroque Soloists (part 1)
Christmas Oratorio - John Eliot Gardiner, conductor; English Baroque Soloists (part 2)
George Frideric Handel: Messiah
Messiah - Sir Colin Davis, conductor; London Symphony Orchestra
Hector Berlioz: L’Enfance du Christ (the Childhood of Christ)
L’Enfance du Christ - James Conlon, conductor; Orchestre National de France
Franz Liszt: Christus
Christus - Antal Doráti, conductor; Hungarian State Orchestra
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker
The Nutcracker - Evgeny Svetlanov, conductor; USSR Symphony Orchestra
Gian Carlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors
Amahl and the Night Visitors – Thomas Schippers, conductor; original NBC telecast cast
John Adams: El Niño
El Niño - Kent Nagano, conductor; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin