The Christmas Playlist

Since I like to doodle at the piano and believe this to be the most wonderful time of the year, I break out the Christmas sheet music the day after Thanksgiving so I can enjoy a whole month of playing yuletide hymns. Of course the retailers start earlier and earlier, but decorations and music are just annoying until Thanksgiving is over with.

I’ve shared some Christmas music here before, but this year I wondered if I could whittle down my holiday favorites to a top-10 list. It actually wasn’t that hard, so here they are. With one exception, they’re all songs from my childhood.

We begin in the year 1963 in the midst of the Ivy heyday. Jack Jones released what I still consider the best Christmas album ever, though clearly I’m biased as I grew up on it. My parents had it and I was born just three weeks before Christmas, so I was probably hearing this from my first days. There are three lesser-known songs from the album that made my list. Above is “The Village Of St. Bernadette.”  A beautiful and fairly rare tune; I know Andy Williams also recorded it around the same time.

Next we have Jones doing the simple ballad “Lullybye Of Christmas Eve.” This one packs extra potency when it comes to stirring up memories. The ability of music to randomly conjure up memories is fascinating, even more so when a melody brings up things not otherwise connected to it, because the feeling of the melody seems to express the feeling of the memory. Schopenhauer, who called music the queen of the arts, writes about this at length.

In contrast to these poignant tunes, we need a little fanfare. Cue Jones and “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with its great use of major and minor chords.

The other pop vocalist I most associate with Christmas is Joan Baez and the album “Noel.” Her voice is an odd one, but that just serves to emphasize the association with Christmas, since I never heard her anywhere else. Here’s her version of one of my favorite traditional carols, “O Come Immanuel”:

My father was in the Air Force and was stationed in Berlin when I was born. My parents picked up an album there, which they tranferred to reel-to-reel tape (the latest technology!) and the original vinyl album was lost. We have no idea what it looked like or even what it was called. My parents refefrred to it as “Heilige Nacht,” and it consisted of quatrains of poetry recited by a man with a beautiful deep voice, and traditional carols sung by a choir. Would have been released in the ’60s, but have never been able to track it down. So the next four of my favorite Christmas tunes are traditional carols sung in German.

First up is Bach’s “Von Himmel da komm Ich her.” I couldn’t find a good choral version on YouTube, so here’s Leontyne Price:

Next we have Michael Praetorius’ “Es Ist Ein Ros Entsprungen”:

You’ll note in these old pieces a certain rise and fall phrasing that resonates with me, along with dramatic harmony at the climax (a tune in C, for example, going to A major or E major). Here’s “In Dulce Jubilo”:

 Next, “O Du Froliche” from the Vienna Boys Choir in 1964:

I had to pick one jazz tune. This is my favorite for both the melody and harmonies (the descending 7th chords, for example), and the melody ending on the 9th tone in the scale. A friend introduced me to Vince Guaraldi’s “Charlie Brown Christmas” album to me at age 20 and I’ve enjoyed it every year since:

And finally something light and silly. Growing up in the ’70s I loved those stop-animation Christmas specials. One was absolutely hilarious: the little dancing guys in the chorus of “Snow Miser.” It’s from the show “The Year Without A Santa Claus,” which wasn’t broadcast as often as the others. For years I forgot about it entirely, until the Internet reintroduced me to it. The little dancing guys still crack me up.

 I hope you found at least one new tune here to check out, and wish you good tidings throughout this Christmas season. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD

14 Comments on "The Christmas Playlist"

  1. Great post! Holidays wouldn’t be the same without music, would they? I personally love Mykola Leontovych’s Carol of the Bells, Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and I have the same Vince Guaraldi CD. Thank you for sharing these songs!

  2. Thank you for sharing this beautiful, and personal, selection of songs. In addition to the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts TV special, the family & I always watch White Christmas (love Der Bingle!) and a collection of Andy Williams’ Christmas specials. We also have the Guaraldi CD. I used to have a wonderful variety of Christmas songs on my iPod, but it died. Now I go to YouTube.

    Two of my favorite Christmas songs are “Carol of the Bells” and “Silver Bells.” I also have a soft spot for the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album. Among my favorite hymns are “Adeste Fidelis,” “Silent Night,” and “Sankta Lucia” (Swedish, not Italian).

    If you want a good laugh, search for “Bjällerklang” on YouTube. It’s the Swedish version of “Jingle Bells.” Just the title alone is funny enough, but wait ’til you play it!

  3. Some great selections there. Just as Jack Jones’ holiday album conjures up memories for you, a holiday album that is a must in our family is Dean Martin’s “A Winter Romance”. Cool yule doesn’t get any better than that.

  4. Was listening to Dean Martin tonight while trimming the tree. Unfortunately sat down at the piano and tried to imitate him. Have a few weeks to decide if you guy will get a vocal rendition for Christmas this year.

  5. Wally "Biff" Scott | November 30, 2014 at 9:35 pm |

    As a former chorister, I must confess a particular fondness for pieces like “E’en so, Lrd Jesus, Quickly Come,” a 20th century tune.

  6. “In The Bleak Midwinter” is one of my favorites.
    @Biff: as a current chorister I agree, good stuff. Beibl’s “Ave Maria” is another good 20th century one.

  7. Bags' Groove | December 1, 2014 at 2:00 am |

    frank, tony and andy our yuletide backdrop, with james taylor a later addition. but i’m now off to check JJ’s christmas (his legrand album a true great) and good ol charlie brown.

  8. Wally "Biff" Scott | December 1, 2014 at 10:20 pm |

    DCG, great choices. At our house, we add the Brandenburg Concertos, and yes, BG, James Taylor nailed it a few years back.

  9. I love this post! Such a wonderful collection of songs for the holiday. My father was also an Air Force kid who spent his childhood in Germany. He always sings me German songs around the holidays.

    You’ve also convinced me that I need Jack Jones’s White Christmas album in my possession.

  10. Poulenc’s “O Magnum Mysterium” can be added to the list as well

  11. Wally "Biff" Scott | December 1, 2014 at 11:08 pm |

    Did anyone mention “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming?”

  12. Oddly random happy Christmasy comments. Are you guys trolling?

    Yes Wally, I first heard that tune auf Deutsch and it’s up there as #6.

    And DCG offers Poulenc? Mon dieu, tres sophistiqué. French music is my main interest, but from Saint-Saens to Ravel, or about 1860-1910. Poulenc is a tad later and I don’t know him well.

  13. Trolling, schmolling! We’re getting in the spirit of the season (and some of us are ignoring what’s going on in the UVA thread, too).

    I do hope you’ll share another home video this year.

    Thank you for reminding me of “The Year Without a Santa Claus”; that’s another one I’ll have to watch with the children, along with “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” which features Fred Astaire.

  14. I had no trouble finding a lovely choral version of “Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her”

    Maybe we should engage a record collector to find the “Heilige Nacht” album. Between the two of us, we’d probably pay her quite handsomely.

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