A Christmas-repertoire question

December 27, 2021, 12:55 PM · I am afraid this is not a violinistic problem, just a question that has been on my mind for quite some time, re-awakened by today's blog post about Messiah:

Why are Messiah and the Nutcracker so closely linked to Christmas in the US? Where I grew up neither of these works are considered "Christmasy". They are more or less all-season repertoire with a lean toward the week from Palm Sunday to Easter for Messiah (where it fits better than with Christmas from a theological point of view).

There are works that are actually intended for Christmas, Bach's Christmas oratorio for example. Why not use those pieces for Christmas--maybe not every year but once in a while?

Nutcracker has no more than a feeble connection to Christmas; in fact it has no strong connection to any religious happening.

Replies (25)

December 27, 2021, 1:31 PM · The Nutcracker is specifically set at Christmas. But for the tale of how it became Christmas-associated specifically, see this BBC article: LINK

Handel wrote the Messiah for Easter, but for whatever reason, people prefer the Christmas portion of the (very long) work, but it's traditional to top it off with the Hallelujah Chorus because, well, people like that a lot.

December 27, 2021, 4:01 PM · What Lydia said. I know that in many parts of Europe, Bach's Christmas Oratorio is the standard for Christmas. However, in the UK, at least, there was some performing of the Messiah at X-mas because in a review dated January 1891, George Bernard Shaw, who started his career as a music critic, wrote of "the regulation Christmas performance of the Messiah." Perhaps, the Messiah at Christmas tradition is Anglo-Saxon?
December 27, 2021, 4:12 PM · As Lydia said, that it is often customary in the US to perform Part I only, plus Hallelujah (which, after all, celebrates the crucifixion!). I was reminded of why when I heard AAM do it this year in Oxford-- as fabulous as the whole oratorio is, it's really long! And if you're getting an amateur choir and barely professional orchestra -- or pre-high-school cohorts of various types -- to put it together at the last minute, there often isn't much point in insisting on 3 hours of music.

That said, when pro groups do it, they will usually do the whole thing and will still center it around Christmas in the US. In Boston, for example, H&H and Boston Baroque both do it annually, etc.

December 27, 2021, 4:26 PM · As is implicit in Stephen's post, the good thing about doing Part 1 and the Hallelujah Chorus at X-mas is that this wonderful piece becomes feasible for amateur groups like my community orch and chorus. That makes it more accessible to average concert goers, who do not have to sit through the whole Oratorio.
Edited: December 27, 2021, 8:41 PM · I played in "Messiah orchestras" every opportunity I had since my first in 1949 when our community orchestra and the required soloists performed with the combined choirs of Hood College (at the time an all female college in Frederick, MD and the Naval Academy men's chorus (exclusively in those years) from Annapolis, Md - always around the Christmas Holiday, 2 performances (in each school's home city) that year - and only at Hood for the next year or two. Those were the only times I played it as a cellist.

Last 5 or more times I played it were a different thing - it was a completely unrehearsed community "sing along" at our local community college (in northern California) with the singers filling the hall's audience seats and the full orchestra and conductor on the stage - those times I played violin (1st or 2nd, depending one what was needed). It's probably been 15 years since that "community sing along" effort ceased.

When it is well sung and played the music and text can really get to me as an emotionally moving statement of faith. Handel clearly wrote that into the piece and it does come through the performers, even when the faith is not one's own. (It always helps to have fine solo singers and a great trumpeter!)

I think we always did only Part I with the Hallelujah Chorus, of course.

December 27, 2021, 6:05 PM · I think I pretty much played all of it a few years ago. But in Oxford, for a church that was celebrating some sort of capital campaign in the spring. Not an amazingly rewarding enterprise, but very much a UK thing and not at all like what US groups have become used to.
December 27, 2021, 6:43 PM · My community orch was reestablished in 1996 (its fourth iteration since the 1960s) because some folks at NIH were concerned that there wasn't a singalong Messiah to be found anywhere in DC. We performed it every year until about six or seven years ago. At that point, the music director concluded that since there were now a few singalong Messiahs in DC, it was no longer necessary for us to do it. I miss doing it a lot. Of course, during the past two years, it has not been possible for us to perform a holiday concert at all.
December 27, 2021, 7:01 PM · Clara, what I mean is: It is not connected with the core message (for the faithful) of Christmas. It is connected with Christmas only because we have the habit of giving gifts to children on Christmas. The story would work just as well starting form the girl's birthday, wouldn't it? This to me is a pretty loose connection. Where I grew up it was performed regularly (either Nutcracker or Swan Lake was performed in the opera house almost every season--with no connection to any holiday).

The BBC article describes the phenomenon quite nicely though it does not really explore why and how the ballet came to be the go-to Christmas performance. It seems as though commercial aspects played a role--as always in America.

Edited: December 28, 2021, 10:44 AM · Albrecht, it's obviously the Sugar Plums. Nobody in America has any idea what a Sugar Plum is, but we know there are Sugar Plum Fairies in the Nutcracker, and we know that the Sugar Plum is mentioned in a Christmas-themed poem by Clement Clark Moore. This tenuous connection is easily sufficient to adopt the Nutcracker as the official ballet of the American winter-solstice bonanza of commercialism and gluttony.

As for Christmas vs. Easter, I'm guessing that 80% of American Christians view the distinction as entirely academic.

December 28, 2021, 11:03 AM · I get the impression that 'singalong' Messiah's are less of a thing in the UK, though having lived abroad for so long, I may be out of touch. The only one I sang in was accompanied on the organ, and was a bit of a shout: maybe they all are! I have never sung a 'short Messiah', though there have always been cuts. Once I sang tenor, and I found it unmusical and brutal, in a way that JS Bach never is.

I don't think the Nutcracker is as much of a Christmas event in Europe as in the US, but I have never done a statistical investigation. In any case Tchaikovsky is for me the King of ballet composers, so he's welcome at any time.

December 28, 2021, 11:46 AM · @Albrecht, whether or not the Nutcracker is connected to the core message of Christmas isn't really the point. Hoffman's short story is set at Christmas, so the ballet is performed a lot at Christmas. Home Alone has nothing to do with the core message of Christmas, but is broadcast a lot at Christmas for the same reason.
December 28, 2021, 11:55 AM · I've done the whole thing a handful of times (indeed, the first time I played the whole thing, I was a teenager, doing one of my first paid gigs), but it's been a rare Christmas where I've been actively playing the violin but didn't play the "Christmas" shortened Messiah.

I've done it enough times for it to feel tedious, but have also really felt its absence these past two years. (And it's been long enough since I've played the whole thing, that I think I might actually enjoy doing it.)

December 28, 2021, 12:28 PM · It’s basically the music/dance version of how Die Hard became a Christmas movie.
December 28, 2021, 1:19 PM · It was clever Church PR (circa 273 CE) that set Jesus's birthday within the (even then) ancient "Pagan" holy days that celebrated the sun's "return" at Winter Solstice. That way the church could build upon existing celebrations in many northern hemisphere cultures with an audience to spread "the Word."

All these secular tree, sugar plum and gift "worshiping" activities carried on outside Christian worship spaces are just modern continuations of the older cultures largely fostered by commercial interests as well as unforgotten ancient legends. They mean many different things to so many people - all good (I think).

The Nutcracker seems to me to be a Christmas play set to music & dance as much as so many Christmas movies are Christmas plays put on film - also audiences are bigger when kids are out of school and parents take a week off from work - an opportunity for classical music organizations to recoup their declining revenues. All good reasons to do these things at Christmas time (as far as I'm concerned).

December 29, 2021, 7:09 PM · Jack-louder for the people in the back!
December 29, 2021, 8:23 PM · Albrecht, as mentioned above, Messiah has texts that relate to both Christmas and Easter. A big alto recitative toward the front of the work is "Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son." A following chorus is "For unto us a child is born." These are all part of what we consider the Christmas portion. Then you get big numbers in what we consider the Easter segment, such as, "I know that my Redeemer liveth." Most organizations that perform Messiah at Christmas time simply do the Christmas portion, and then throw in a few of the "biggies" from the later sections, such as "Hallelujah" and "Worthy is the Lamb." Messiah is so long if you do the complete work, that it tends to be segmented for the two major religious holidays.
December 30, 2021, 10:33 AM · A piece not mentioned yet is the opera Hansel and Gretel. For some reason it is programed for the holiday season as something appropriate for children. The story is awful. It may be from a time of famine in the 14th century when some children were abandoned.
Edited: December 30, 2021, 12:02 PM · Joel, I'm not sure that Humperdinck's version is worse than the original that both the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen saw fit to publish, which depicted the children's parents as worse characters. Are YOU?
Frankly, I think a Midsummer Night's Dream is far worse for children.
December 30, 2021, 1:26 PM · Don't forget-- Part II of Messiah handles Good Friday. Easter doesn't come until AFTER the Hallelujah chorus.
December 30, 2021, 1:54 PM · John...I agree with Joel that “Hansel und Gretel” is a pretty gruesome opera. However I don’t know the Grimm and HCA stories. I took my godson to Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was 12 as part of his musical education. He seemed to enjoy it, and certainly liked the Italian restaurant afterwards, so I don’t think Britten/Shakespeare is as bad as kids shoving so-called witches into ovens! The Humperdinck is on my list of operas never to see again.
December 30, 2021, 2:04 PM · Eh.

H&G's real problem is a slightly incoherent mix of content and style. It's easy to go in thinking of it as a kids' opera, but the music is a fairly strong brew of Wagnerian stuff, and the plot seems to creak at times.

As for doing justice to the witches, that always seems fairly cartoonish to me. Not quite Wile E. Coyote, but it's hard for me to get upset by it.

December 30, 2021, 2:56 PM · Hmm, Stephen, to be honest, I don’t like the idea of people pushed into ovens. I don’t want to go into my reasons here.
December 30, 2021, 3:11 PM · The Grimm story behind H&G would not be considered appropriate for the younger set currently. You’ll find much the same with other Grimm tales, as well as HCA, the most notable being The Little Mermaid. Shakespeare didn’t exactly write for the younger set, so a little (or a lot, actually) inappropriateness can be expected from his works.
December 30, 2021, 3:13 PM · Ah, well ovens have different contexts in recent times.
Edited: January 2, 2022, 10:36 AM · VERY recent times, Stephen - They were called chambers until pretty recently. It's a good think my father never made any of these connections, otherwise he might have found even playing chamber music quite traumatic.

At least the Grimms & HCA didn't invoke pederasty (Goethe/Schubert did in Schubert's Op 1), and stuck to cannibalism.

You know what one fairy tale witch said to another? "I never eat gingerbread these days - You don't know who it's been".

Talking of gruesome kiddies' stories, someone beat me to it and did a much better job: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96KFEWKouuQ

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