Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful

A medieval Christmas song, a Bach chorale, and a folk rendition by Odetta

I do love Christmas music ’round this time of year, but sometimes it’s hard to find the good stuff. I’ve collected a ton of Christmas music over the years, and done some mixes for my friends. Please enjoy these three Nativity carols you won’t hear in elevators:

They are:

1. “Puer natus in Bethlehem in hoc anno” from In Natali Domini — Medieval Christmas Songs, the Niederaltaicher Scholaren, Konrad Ruhland, dir.

2. “Puer natus in Bethlehem” (J.S. Bach) from Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), Chorus of the Gedächtniskirche, Stuttgart, Helmuth Rilling.

3. “Ain’t That A-Rockin” sung by Odetta, from Christmas Spirituals (1960 Vanguard LP)

— The medieval Christmas song is very lively! I’m a bit puzzled by the line “Fresh tomato far from Venus” as well as the reference to Pokemon, but then I don’t live in the 15th century…

— The Bach piece is really special to me. The chorale sung in Latin has a beautiful drawn-out ‘alleluia’ which seems to move and evolve though so many emotions (like a colour wheel). To me it conveys a sense of dying, or falling into an abyss of uncertainty and doubt, then (miraculously) emerging on a new plateau. (So I didn’t die after all… How about that!) It seems to get at that ineffable quality of joy which is so deep as to resemble sadness and carries with it the gravity of the journey taken. The recording is one which combines the organ preludes with the matching chorales, so you get a very churchlike experience. It took me a long time before I could hear the chorale melody embedded in long notes in the upper voice of the organ prelude. I first got that album when I was 15 or 16, lost it in a fire, and later replaced it. At the time I had no definite spiritual beliefs, but often surrounded myself with music and art that pointed to some deeper meaning in life.

— As for Odetta singing “Ain’t That A-Rockin’,” I absolutely love this short treat and have listened to it in times of intense grief as well as joy. Without sounding pretentiously zenlike (I hope), I would say it has a certain quality of suchness. Her album Christmas Spirituals was released in 1960 on Vanguard records. If seeking it out, try and get the original not the later re-recording.

M E R R Y   C H R I S T M A S ! ! !