One of my goals with these Christmas music blog posts is to hopefully expand your Christmas musical horizons. So many people have the same albums or artists: Bing Crosby, Perry Como, the first “A Very Special Christmas” collection, the soundtrack to Home Alone. And while I love many of the traditional, best-selling Christmas albums, I also love the stuff that flies below or completely off the radar.
How many of my readers have heard the song “Too Fat for the Chimney” by Canadian artist Gisele MacKenzie? Her album, Christmas with Gisele is actually pretty wonderful (she has a kind of Doris Day-Kay Thompson sound–no wonder she was on Your Hit Parade for years), but if you had the choice between Gisele or the new EP from Lady Antebellum, which would you choose? And that is why I feel obligated to highlight some albums and artists you may have never heard of.
But today I don’t want to talk about an obscure album. The artists are pretty famous, especially if you’re a fan of choral music, English church music, or both. I was introduced to today’s featured artists while attending Biola University and singing in the Biola Chorale under the direction of the incomparable Loren Wiebe. Each year, Biola put on a Fine Arts Festival called “Celebrate the Son,” and as part of that festival, the Chorale would perform, twice nightly, “Lessons and Carols,” based on the famous service from King’s College in Cambridge. One year, we performed, nearing the close of the service, a song called “What Sweeter Music.”
Composed by John Rutter with lyrics by Robert Herrick, a 17th century English poet, the song is quite possibly the most lovely Christmas song ever written. A beautiful paean to the wonder of the birth of Christ, the song alternately soars and quiets, and causes anyone who listens to it to take pause. After performing it so frequently that Christmas, I knew I had to own a recording of it. The only recording at the time, and the definitive one in my opinion, was available on today’s featured album:
Christmas With the Cambridge Singers
John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers, The City of London Sinfonia
Released in 1989 by Collegium Records (OUT OF PRINT)
It’s simply one of the most beautiful Christmas recordings of all time. Perfect choral arrangements and singing in the English style, with mostly traditional carols, including some you most likely have never heard before, newer songs, and original compositions by John Rutter, are what you’ll hear on this album. Divided evenly into two sections, with the first 10 songs being songs of joy and the second 10 being songs of peace, there is not one bad song on the album.
English choral music sounds much different from American choral music, and the style of The Cambridge Singers fits beautifully into that tradition, with the female voices taking more of a boychoir sound than what you may hear from, say, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the emphasis is on clarity, and simplicity, even when singing complicated arrangements. Most of the arrangements on the album were by Rutter, and while some may appear deceptively easy, it only takes one attempt to sing them as they appear in Oxford Publishing’s Carol collections to realize that it takes work to make them sound so beautiful and effortless at the same time.
Favorite songs on the album include “Hodie Christus Natus Est,” “The Sussex Carol,” “‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” “The Shepherd’s Farewell,” “What Child is This?” and “A New Year Carol.” These aren’t songs you’d hear from Perry or Bing, and even the songs that are a bit more familiar (like “What Child is This?” or “Silent Night” or even “The Coventry Carol”) take on a heightened beauty and dimension in these arrangements. The soprano counterpoint on “What Child” is heartbreakingly beautiful.
There are two original compositions on the album, “Angels’ Carol” and “What Sweeter Music.” The first song is a lilting contemporary choral work. Well-written lyrics and wonderful harmonies are highlights of every Rutter composition, but I especially love the tenor lines on this song. And the final verse-chorus, “He will bring new light to a world in darkness, like a bright star shining in the skies above. He will bring new hope to the waiting nations when He comes to reign in purity and love! Let the earth rejoice at the Savior’s coming! Let the heaven’s answer with a joyful noise: Gloria in excelsis! Hear the angels singing, ‘Christ is born!'” are absolutely lovely. As a choral student and performer, it’s the kind of song one can’t help but wish to sing.
But the standout of the album is “What Sweeter Music.” It’s truly the most beautiful Christmas song ever written. The lyrics are anything but trite, and cause one to actually pause and think as it is being sung. And Rutter’s melody and arrangement give each section of the choir something to add to the depth of thought and haunting quality of the lyrics. Once used in a Volvo commercial, the song is simply perfect.
“What sweeter music can we bring than a carol for to sing
the birth of this, our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!
Dark and dull night, fly hence! Away!
And give thee honor to this day, that sees December turned to May.
Why does the chilling winter’s morn smile like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn, thus on the sudden?
Come, and see, the cause why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born, Whose quickening birth gives life and lustre,
public mirth to heaven and the underearth.
We see Him come, and know Him ours, who with His sunshine and His showers,
turns all the patient ground to flowers.
The Darling of the world is come, and fit is we find a room to welcome Him:
The nobler part of all the house here is the heart
Which we will give Him and bequeath this holly and this ivy wreath,
To do Him honor who’s our King, and Lord of all this revelling.
What sweeter music can we bring than a carol for to sing
the birth of this, our heavenly King?
The birth of this, our heavenly King?”
Christmas With the Cambridge Singers is one of the finest choral Christmas recordings ever made. Sadly, it is out of print in this incarnation. New copies of the CD sell for over $100 on Amazon, although used copies are available. Several of the original compositions can be downloaded from iTunes, but I highly recommend getting this collection. Even if it is used.
What sweeter music indeed.
Find out more about the album on Amazon. Or listen to samples from the iTunes store.