Caroling towards Christmas

It’s the busy time of the year. A lot of freelance singers make a substantial portion of their annual income during the month of December, singing the Messiah and other holiday concerts. It’s a fun season, but it can get overwhelming and stressful to have your busiest professional time coincide with the limited weeks to run around buying gifts, visiting loved ones, baking cookies, and juggling holiday parties. That confluence of events isn’t unique to singers or even musicians. Retail workers have it a lot worse, because they’re extra-busy and they have to deal with grumpy, beleaguered shoppers. At least we get to sing for happy audiences who tell us we’ve made their holiday season more special.

And the music is great too. Singers love to complain about the 15 Messiahs they have to sing this year, but really they love it. And though there are plenty of terrible Christmas carol arrangements filling the stores all month, some of those carols are dear to our hearts, and are woven into old and cherished memories.

Christmas carols are some of the earliest songs I can remember singing. The past two weeks I was in Miami singing Seraphic Fire’s Candlelight Christmas concerts. One of the pieces we sang — and recorded for our new Christmas album — was a new arrangement of “Angels We Have Heard on High” by the group’s director, Patrick Dupré Quigley.

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I was reminded that this was my Number 1 Favorite Carol when I was a very little girl. I don’t think I knew most of the lyrics or even the carol’s name, but I loved singing that long, melismatic line on the word “gloria.” To a girl of 4 or 5 that “gloria” seemed to cascade up and down forever, and it was just so beautiful. I think I called the carol “Gloria.”

My very favorite carol now, as a grownup, is Gustav Holst’s “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Christina Rossetti’s evocative poem and Holst’s spare and loving musical setting create a magical moment in time. It’s almost like a mini-movie, capturing the wonder of the nativity scene. Seraphic Fire also recorded a new arrangement of “In the Bleak Midwinter” by the young Minnesota composer Abbie Betinis.

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Her setting is for choir, harp, mezzo-soprano solo, and soprano/mezzo-soprano duet. It’s really lovely — in one section you can hear the snow falling in a gentle repetitive pattern in the alto line — and I was lucky to sing the duet with the incomparable Amanda Crider. I can’t wait for the disc to come out so I can share the piece with you all.

Until then, enjoy the season and all the carols, old and new. What’s your favorite?

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