It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like…

It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like…

In addition to what Belinda wrote about this being the month of myriad requests for recommendation letters, it is indeed that time of the year once again: the holiday season. For me, this usually means lots of holiday parties at various musical organizations, but all too little music actually related to the holidays. Honestly, when you think about the holidays, do you ever think about new music?

By and large, it seems like precious little contemporary music is holiday themed. Mind you, I’m a devout secular humanist, but as a proponent of the “by any means necessary” method of new music promotion, the end of the year holidays seem like a golden opportunity to get some new music into circulation. So why aren’t more contemporary composers jumping on the bandwagon (or should I say sleigh) here?

I don’t mean to imply that it would be the easiest thing in the world to get recognition for a new holiday-themed concert work. It’s even difficult to break a new holiday song in the pop world. Most of 25 entrees on a list of the most widely performed holiday songs recently posted on the ASCAP website were written before I was born. And in the world of so-called classical music, we all know how difficult it is to cut through the standard repertoire at any time of the year, but hasn’t everyone had enough of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah at this point? Sure, I know, both are wonderful, transformative works. But must we hear them every single year, sometimes multiple times within each week of every December?

It’s great to see that John Adams’s El Niño is finding a place on the concert calendar of some cities this season, and I recently discovered a couple of Christmas hymn settings by George Perle that are included on Bridge’s just-released 2-CD retrospective of his works. But this should only be the tip of the iceberg. How about the “Twelve Tones of Christmas”? Or the Octatonic Hanukkah Variations? Isn’t Kwanzaa still in need of a great oratorio?

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16 thoughts on “It’s Beginning To Look a Lot Like…

  1. danielgilliam

    Well…. Brave New World on 90.5 FM WUOL (hosted and produced by yours truly) is playing a myriad of seasonal selections from living composers.

    This past week’s program featured Winter Pages of Ned Rorem, a work by Forrest Covington, and selections from Daniel Kellogg’s Divinum Mysterium. I can tell you that on Christmas Eve I will play selections by Daron Hagen, George Crumb, Rodney Lister and more. Check for updates on the other programs between now and Christmas.

    You can here Brave New World through streaming audio at, Sundays at 7:00pm (EST).

    For all you Hanukkah fans, I’m not intentionally leaving you out, but I just don’t have anything here at the station. If you have some music for Hanukkah, send it my way (visit to find out how).

    Sundays at 7:00pm (EST) – Brave New World.

  2. danielclark

    Ring In the New Music
    I doubt that Brian Eno intended Bell Studies for the Clock of The Long Now to be holiday season fare. But when I play the CD in December, his new music gives me that ol’ Xmas feeling.

  3. lawrence

    hallowed eves
    I have a set of pieces called Perilous Carols, including The Last Nowell and Oh Hellish Night, recorded by the New Century Saxophone Quartet. They don’t seem to get performed much this time of year for some reason.

  4. frindley

    Messiah at Christmas?
    What’s so deliciously ironic is that Handel’s Messiah isn’t really a Christmas piece at all. That particular tradition began in Boston in the 19th century. Messiah was composed for Lent.

  5. JKG

    The season to be jolly…
    So much angst has been collectively brooding via much contemporary music that it must be difficult at times to express anything but the music itself. I suppose some are into that during the holidays, but most folks are into things that mean something external to themselves, like family, closeness, togetherness – all the things that break a good winter chill. Things that actually mean Christmas must somehow hearken to traditional means if any hope of success with the general public, but that has always been the case. This must be a music critic’s worst time of year, as normally anything the public likes, he or she must deign to loathe (for pretty much any silly excuse, much less an actual reason). Critics have been out of touch with popular appeal for so long that its obvious one must at the very least suffer from oppositional disorder just to get the job. But hey, they LIKE most contemporary music now, don’t they? Who pays their salaries and why?

  6. Colin Holter

    Ladies and gentlemen. . . JKG.

    I think we should have more performances of the St. Matthew Passion this time of year in America. It’s not new, but compared to the Messiah (which I also like, albeit in a different way), it has a vitality and complexity that I think concertgoers who steer clear of the Handelabra might appreciate.

  7. danielgilliam

    I don’t hear many complete performances of the Messiah, just part one, which is Christmas. Of course they always through in the Hallelujah Chorus which is part of the Lent/Easter portion.

  8. Frank J. Oteri

    Of course, as one of my AMC cohorts has just reminded me, one of the most exciting new music events of the holiday season is Phil Kline’s transformative Unsilent Night which began in NYC 15 years ago. I’ve had the pleasure of joining the musical pilgrimage at least 5 of those years and this year Unsilent Night is making its way to 15 other cities around the world. For a complete schedule visit his website, and if you’re not living in one of the lucky cities, you can at least still buy the CD.

    Happy holidays!

  9. amc654

    I don’t hear many complete performances of the Messiah, just part one, which is Christmas.

    Technically, “Part the First,” not “part one.”

    And, for the record, there are quite a lot of Advent/Christmas texts that involve direct reference to the cruxificion and Easter. My favorite is the Willcocks arr. of “The Infant King” (aka Basque Noel) … Lovely stuff. Anyhow, doing the full Messiah in Advent is entirely appropriate. There’s quite a long liturgical tradition of incorporating Easter imagery into Advent services.

  10. danielgilliam

    well pardon me
    I wasn’t trying to write a dissertation, just get a point across….while you were at it, you should have also pointed out that I used “through” instead of “throw.” We Kentucky folks tend to get are wurdz mixed up sometimes.

  11. amc654

    I wasn’t meaning to be at all snippy. If anything, I was being silly — the Part the First, Part the Second thing has always seemed amusing to me. There are all sorts of slightly persnickety issues surrounding that piece (like, for example, the title is “Messiah,” not “The Messiah,” but even publishers get that wrong …)

    I wasn’t making fun. And for the record, I spelled crucifixion wrong.

  12. danielgilliam

    The season for cheer
    I see. All smiles to you then. So much subtelty is lost through online conversation. Happy Holidays!

  13. Abylon

    Thanks, Darren, for the link to my website. It’s true — I do write a carol every year in the tradition of my great-grandfather, though not exactly in his compositional style (sometimes to the dismay of my grandparents!).

    But I’m happy to provide a new music report from Minnesota, where choruses in particular seem to be commissioning much new music for the holiday season:

    The Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester, MN is currently commissioning its seventh annual Mary Joyce Frantz Christmas piece. This seems to be a high profile gig — at least in Minnesota. This semi-professional chorus has its own commissioning club and has commissioned nearly 30 pieces in the last ten years from the likes of Rene Clausen, Kenneth Jennings, and Stephen Paulus.

    Also, The Singers — Minnesota Choral Artists, which was founded after the disbanding of the Dale Warland Singers, has premiered 15 new Christmas pieces in the three short years it has been in existence. (Granted, 14 of those have been arrangements of well-known Christmas carols, but I think their hearts are in the right place.) Check out Jocelyn Hagen’s arrangement — more like a fantasy — on “O Come O Come Emmanuel” on their “Shout the Glad Tidings” CD. Incredibly facile writing for the voice, with layering techniques that challenge the average holiday concert-goer’s ear without making them demand a refund in front of the grandkids, you know?

    Of course, The American Composers Forum and VocalEssence team up to sponsor an annual contest called “Welcome Christmas!” which calls for original carols composed for chorus and one additional instrument. The concerts are recorded by Minnesota Public Radio and get a lot of wonderful publicity around the state, as well as a huge live audience!

    Also — and this may be a surprise considering their focus on early music — the Rose Ensemble is becoming an increasingly strong presence in the new music scene here in Minnesota, and usually premieres an original commissioned work during the Christmas season. Last year, Minnesota composer J. David Moore wrote a beautiful piece for them, entitled Á Belen.

    So that’s what I know… just that the holiday season has been very kind for us Minnesota composers in the choral field. I mean, once the snow comes what else are we going to do… shovel?

    Abbie Betinis


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