Christmas music

The painting "Anbetung der Hirten" by Giorgione, Fifteenth century

By Elizabeth Doyle

Handel’s Messiah – In honor of Christmas, here are three musical tributes to the many ways people celebrate and feel about this Christian holiday.  The first is Handel’s Messiah. A sweeping oratorio, written in the 1700s, it opens with whispering instrumentation, representing rumors that a Messiah is on the way.  It builds into a story about the life, teachings, and death of Jesus. And ends with the famous Hallelujah Chorus, proclaiming the holiness of what has just transpired.  This oratorio has only gained in popularity since Handel (A German who enjoyed living in England) wrote in the early 1700s. People still love it, and it seems to remind them of the power of the divine, in sort of an awe-struck-at-the-magnificence-of-it-all kind of a way.  Here is the ending climax of The Messiah, being sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  (It’s traditional for the audience to stand in reverence as soon as they hear the first note of this piece.)  Click here.

Mahalia Jackson

What Can I Give? — But there’s also a more intimate side to Christmas.  While choral music often expresses feelings of power and reverence, Gospel is often more about the feelings and struggles of having a relationship with Christ.  Where songs like Hallelujah Chorus of the Messiah sparkle and stretch to the heavens, songs like this one reach within, instead.  In this Christmas song, Mahalia Jackson ponders what she can give to Jesus, on this the day of his birth, and reaches the dramatic conclusion, “I’ll give my love – Lord, it’s all that I have.”  For many people, Christmas is a time for very personal reflection, in addition to reverence and praise.  (And Mahalia Jackson is the greatest gospel singer in the world, ever  – so I played with the idea of using someone different, since I’ve featured her before, but couldn’t bring myself to it!) Here’s Mahalia:



Christmas Revels– And for some people, Christmas is really just a winter celebration … like the

Christmas lights

ones people have been celebrating at the Solstice for thousands of years.  When I was a kid, we always went to the Christmas Revels at Christmastime. It’s a play, and it’s a Celtic celebration of the Solstice, which weaves together dancing, songs and mythology from Ireland and parts of Britain.  At the end of Act 1 in the play, the cast sings this song, Lord of the Dance, which brings the story of Christmas into the celebration for just one moment.  This is the singer who sang it during the play when I was growing up. I can’t find a clip of him singing it live on stage anymore (They have new singers now!), but this is the man I always saw on stage, so for sentimental reasons, I went with this clip, even though it doesn’t show him performing.  It does give you a feel! :  Click here.

Top photo: “Anbetung der Hirten”, Giorgione (1477-1510) / public domain world wide / Wikimedia Commons

Second photo: Carl Van Vechten, 1962 / public domain/ Wikimedia Commons / Mahalia Jackson

Third photo: © Iandreed11 / / Christmas lights

Musical Treasures: Gospel and more

By Elizabeth Doyle

Mahalia Jackson —

My mother used to say, “Other Gospel singers sing to an audience. Mahalia Jackson sings to God. It makes all the difference.”  My grandmother was a Mahalia fan as well. She used to talk about watching her perform, and how badly Mahalia Jackson would need a glass of water afterward, because she was so passionate in her song that she would break into powerful sweats. I always vaguely imagined that everyone grew up with Mahalia singing through the stereo in their homes. Yet, now that I’m grown up, I’ve discovered that not everybody even knows who Mahalia Jackson is! In fact, I would say that the vast majority of my neighbors, friends and colleagues don’t have the faintest idea. She died quite a while ago. Is it possible that her legacy hasn’t been well-preserved?  Well, anyway, here she is – possibly the greatest American Christian Gospel singer of all time: Click here.

(Turn your volume way up – it’s an old, scratchy recording – but the more closely you listen, the more you’ll be able to feel.)

It’s also worth watching this video of her interrupting Martin Luther King, Jr. by breaking into song: Click here.

Yungchen Llamo –

Yungchen was given her name by a lama when she was just a baby. It means “Goddess of Melody and Song.” Born in a Tibetan labor camp, Yungchen was put to work in a carpet-weaving factory at the age of five. Tibetan singing was illegal, yet her grandmother taught her some devotional songs on the sly, careful that they weren’t overheard.  Later, the family made a 1,000 mile escape from Tibet over the Himalayans, entirely on foot.  They landed in India, where they were welcomed into a Tibetan refugee camp.  Of course, they had no possessions. But Yungchen was free to sing.  One day, His Holiness the Dalai Lama heard her sing!  And it’s said that it was he who first suggested that she should share the beauty of her classical Tibetan singing with the rest of the world. Since then, Yungchen has become an international sensation. She sings a capella (rarely any instruments in the background), and she sings very traditionally.  She’s a huge success. She’s put out many albums, she’s a well-known activist for a free Tibet, she’s given concerts all across the world, and sung with superstars like Sheryl Crow and Annie Lennox. I bet her grandmother’s glad she taught her those devotional songs! Click here.

Ofra Haza

She was Israel’s first pop star. And interestingly, she had a huge fan base throughout the Middle East (still does, although she’s now passed away), and that has surprised a lot of analysts who might have thought an Israeli singer would not fare well in the charts of neighboring countries. Although she’s considered a pop star, her music was very traditional, even when she took it up-tempo for young people.  Her songs were based in the Jewish tradition of Yemen, where her family lived before there was an Israel.  In them, she celebrates her Jewish religion and heritage, as well as her heartfelt connection to the musical traditions of Yemen.  She grew up the youngest of nine children in a very poor Tel Aviv neighborhood. But she died a celebrity, thanks to a beautiful voice and the celebrative nature of her songs, which made so many people happy and proud. Click here.

Top photo: Wikipedia / Public Domain / Carl Van Vechten / Mahalia Jackson

Second photo: Sharon St Joan / western Sichuan province, an ethnically-Tibetan part of China / prayer flags

Third photo: Jack Malipan / / Sanaa Old Town, Yemen