Christmas can also be a welcome opportunity to explore a rich body of music that we encounter for a brief period of time each year. Christmas is a seasonal celebration, and like all such celebrations the music associated with it is performed almost incessantly during the season and then discarded and forgotten, only to be taken up again with the same intensity and passion the following year. During the four-week period preceding December 25, Christmas music is ubiquitous, performed on radio, television, movies, shopping malls or any venue where music can be heard. By December 26, we are all more than ready to bid a fond farewell to the pieces that have overrun our listening sensibilities, and spend the following eleven months in complete neglect of anything Christmas. In truth, this is one of the advantages of seasonal music, for its prolonged absence gives us fresh ears for it once it returns.
The carols and hymns of Christmas, for me, are wondrous, and not just during this four-week period. Many of these staple pieces have a fascinating and unique history, particularly those pieces that in some way observe the Nativity (versus those that only celebrate the holiday season, which are generally more recent compositions). Many of these tunes are centuries old, whose music and words often have been updated to accommodate changing styles and tastes. Some originated during forgotten times by forgotten composers and authors, who nevertheless captured and preserved their faith and spiritual sentiments in works that remain popular today. In a sense, this body of music is a significant and vital document of a bygone era.
For a church musician, such as I am, Christmas is one of the busiest times of the year, and in many ways the most rewarding. Church services are filled with music (vocal and instrumental), and the musician is obliged each year to find pieces that reflect the festiveness of the season, yet have a sense of freshness for the listener. When I began this type of work, I searched in earnest each season for music that was appropriate for the Christmas service: music that would be as pleasing for the musicians to perform as for the congregation to hear. At first I relied on arrangements prepared by others, but in time my personality took over, and I prepared my own arrangements.
Part of my work in this capacity has been recently published by Carl Fischer Music in a collection entitled Twenty Christmas Hymns for Piano. This is a collection of piano arrangements of twenty Christmas hymns that are intended to accompany a Christmas liturgical service (although they would be appropriate for any Christmas occasion). What is unique to this collection, I believe, is that each hymn is presented in three versions based on difficulty: Easy, Intermediate and Advanced. My intent was to suit the tastes and abilities of a wide diversity of church musicians by providing arrangements of varying levels of difficulty and diverse musical styles. Easy versions are restricted in length to one to two minutes, composed according to fundamental keyboard techniques and are intended to be relatively uncomplicated to prepare for performance. Intermediate versions are somewhat longer in length and incorporate more advanced keyboard techniques; additionally, they may deviate from the character of the original hymn. Advanced versions, lastly, may be considered true concert pieces that demand a greater amount of time for preparation; they are technically and musically more demanding than the other versions and often explore musical styles and techniques not related to the original hymn.
As an example, I have attached the three versions of God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen, a widely familiar hymn whose words offer hope and reassurance, though, curiously, with music of a plaintive character (click on any image for a larger view). The Easy version clearly poses no problems for the experienced musician. The Intermediate and Advanced versions take a different approach by incorporating keyboard styles of two early piano preludes of Alexander Scriabin. The hymn is thus integrated into a fin de siècle musical context, one quite foreign to the hymn, yet it is still readily identifiable by anyone familiar with this popular tune. Each version becomes progressively more demanding, musically and technically, and thus the musician wishing to perform this hymn may choose among the three versions based on his or her abilities and tastes.
If anything, this collection should substantiate how astonishingly flexible these hymns are; they can preserve their identities in virtually any musical context. I have also provided written commentaries on each hymn, in which the hymn’s origins and usage over time are addressed. Please visit http://carlfischer.com for information about purchasing this arrangement (cat. no. PL1039).
Note: My special thanks to Subtilior Music Engraving for typesetting the arrangements in this collection.