A musical memory


How can I be nudging Graham Rice to stray from the stated topic and write about music, and not join him in
solidarity by doing it myself?  So here goes.  Susan

I have a seasonal lament: Christmas music everywhere, and not a note I want to hear.  Christmas Carols have finally lost all charm for me after decades of overkill.   Same goes for the "classics" on public television, which to me are truly wondrous in their blandness.Folger

But I do have one memory of a Christmas musical event not long ago that was wondrous in a good way, starting with the setting.  It took place at DC’s Folger Shakespeare Library, all decked out in authentic decorations and lit solely by candles.  The magic of candlelight let me forget how hard the wooden pews were and be transported by it all.

Ah, but the music – the Folger Consort performing an evening of early French Christmas music that was totally fresh to me.  It was almost shocking to discover Christmas music that hadn’t been ruined and I wondered at the time why we don’t hear more of these unfamiliar seasonal gems.  But of course part of the seasonal gesthalt is returning to the familiar, to family tradition.  Fine, but this year I don’t have to sit back while even my favorite radio stations join the chorus of the familiar.  This year I’m armed with my favorite new toy – a lovely green Nano.  More on gardening with the awesome iPod next seaScottson, I’m sure.

Sadly, a second memory always follows that first one – of the memorial concert for the founder of the Folger Consort, Scott Reiss.  He died two years ago this week, and the musical community he was so central to put on a remarkable celebration of his musical life shortly thereafter, another wondrous event.  He’ll long be missed by people who love early music, folk music and the humble recorder, of which he was the master and I was an earnest bumbler. 


  1. I know… those carols… Even Phil Spector’s Christmas Gift for You begins to pall when you’ve been hearing it in the supermarket since Thanksgiving. (Though perhaps that’s not quite your thing, anyway.)

    But there is some wonderful recent Christmas music. Amongst quieter pieces:
    25th December by Everything But the Girl
    Christmas Wrapping by The Waitresses

    And this year’s surprise holiday hit in England:
    We’re All Going to Die by Malcolm Middleton
    (I kid you not…)

    Hear them all on my radio show, The BritMix – in just over two hours time (3pm EST)! http://www.wjffradio.org (click Listen Now – top right).

    Suggestions for next year’s seasonal frolics more than welcome.

  2. My husband has been playing Aimee Mann’s Christmas music obsessively this year. I think she’s sublime–and so depressing that my kids are going to forever warped by it. Where’s Bing Crosby when you need him?

  3. I love the holiday classics. But maybe it’s because we break it up with the Alligator Records blues Christmas album, one by Leon Redbone, a bunch of Windham Hill new-age-y holiday CDs and others. Just like my parents back in the day listened to an improbably Christmas album by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

    But if you want the greatest holiday song ever, you’ll have to visit: http://www.remarc.com/craig/?p=306

  4. I certainly can’t tolerate anything about Rudolf or Santa. I like the old fashioned Christian carols, although I am not a very religious person. My favorite songs are “Joy to the World” and “Hark, the Herald Angel Sings!”

    A little bit of Ella Fitzgerald or Nat King Cole is fine, but in general I can’t stand listening to holiday music unless I’m watching it be performed live by a chorus. Which I haven’t done in years.

  5. Lovely post, Susan. Thanks, Graham and Ellis. Scott Reiss was a treasure, and inspired many of us.

    What magical power in music!

    The winter holidays are a very good season for gigs and busking. I’m a recorderist, too, Susan, and my consort always does the annual Christmas/holiday renaissance concert with Es ist ein rose (Lo how a rose) by Praetorius and, in this part of the world, shaped note hymns like Wondrous Love and Appalachian songs like Brightest and Best. (There’s some good garden material, the rose, and “The Holly and the Ivy”, and the “Cherry Tree Carol” and lots about Tannenbaums…)

    Equally enjoyable is being part of a ‘caroling coop’ where we form a cappella quartets from a pool of 20 singers to go caroling in malls. (That’s the folks who came over to sing at the Center last week during lunch, for free of course – but in malls and banks, we actually get paid for this!) Last gig for me was yesterday, and we found a sweet spot in a corridor between a Target store and a supermarket, where we huddled in a circle to sing “Lo, how a rose” and a nice jazz arrangement of “White Christmas” as people bustled by and cars inched through the parking lot.

    I always have a bittersweet letdown after the last gig, it is like harvesting the last tomato.

    Can’t beat those links from Graham and, but here’s my contributions:

    The Roches singing the Hallelujah Chorus:


    Lo How A Rose by the Thomanerchor in Leipzig:


    Blessed holidays!

    ps: Hope my links go through – yesterday, I tried to send some links about rain harvesting, and got a “this is spam, we’re going to have get someone to approve it…” note from the site. If it doesn’t get through, let me know and I’ll send the links – it is mostly getting word out about Daniel Winterbottom’s excellent work on rain harvesting at U. of Washington.

  6. I may be in the minority, but nothing beats the local classical music station for me at Christmas (here in D.C., WETA). Although I no longer attend church, the choral music, especially the choir at King’s College in Cambridge, never fails to instill a sense of peace and contentment. I recommend it!

  7. I could listen to the Vince Guaraldi Trio Charlie Brown CD over and over and over.

    Having said that, I TOTALLY want to get my hands on this early French stuff.

  8. Thanks to all of you for your contributions – damn if you haven’t gotten me into the Christmas music spirit! I’m an old fan of the Roches (wow!) and I’ll be exploring the others as needed this week.

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