Tuesday 15 October 2019

Time to rejoice in the sound of Christmas past

Fiona Maddocks chooses her all-time favourite festive songs and carols

Joy to the World: This uplifting, much-arranged carol is set to a text by Isaac Watts (1674-1748), a paraphrase of Psalm 98. Not to be confused with the band Three Dog Night's hit version (which opens "Jeremiah was a bullfrog"), the tune's origins are unclear. It first appeared in English and American hymnals from the 1830s. John Rutter's arrangement is a choral classic.

Santa Claus is Coming to Town

First sung on Eddie Cantor's radio show in November 1934, Santa Claus is Coming to Town was an immediate hit -- with 100,000 orders for the music the next morning and 400,000 by Christmas. With lyrics by "Haven" Gillespie, the tune was said to have been sketched out by American songwriter John Frederick Coots in about 10 minutes. Nat King Cole recorded it and the Jackson 5 added their own unmistakable harmonies.

In the Bleak Midwinter

The poet Christina Rossetti, a devotee of Anglo-Catholicism, had no intention of having her verses -- published after her death -- turned into a Christmas carol, first in 1906 by Holst and then in the version by Harold Darke (1909). Neither composer censored the line "a breastful of milk", but many editors since have omitted that verse, presumably to spare clerical blushes and Sunday-school giggles.

Once in Royal David's City

The sound of a fresh-faced solo treble opening the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King's College, Cambridge, means the start of Christmas for millions who hear or see the broadcast worldwide. Sufjan Stevens offers a non-saccharine alternative. The text is by the religious Irish poet CF Alexander, who wrote it for her ungodly godsons in the hope of improving their minds and souls. The tune 'Irby' is by Henry Gauntlett, a prolific Victorian hymn-writer.

Sleigh Ride

Composer Leroy Anderson had the idea for Sleigh Ride in the middle of a heatwave in July 1946. Tin Pan Alley lyricist Mitchell Parish wrote the words. Starting with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1949, it's been widely recorded: Ella Fitzgerald swings, Andy Williams croons in various keys, the Ronettes buzz and whinny, Denise Van Outen shimmies. The Three Tenors's bad English version is side-splitting.

The Christmas Song

Better known by its opening line, 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire', this classic ballad was written by Mel Torme and Bob Wells in 1944. The lyrics capture every Christmas card tradition except Jesus. Nat King Cole made the first recording in 1946. The best version is Torme himself singing it with Judy Garland in her 1965 Christmas special.

Away in a Manger

This is often the first Christmas carol children learn. The tune -- its origins untraceable but probably written in the 19th Century -- has a thin, faltering quality that sounds best sung slowly, not always tunefully but with maximum concentration by the very young. (Some just go straight on TV.) Or by those who turn it into something better, often using the American version: Mindy Smith with Alison Krauss, Mario Lanza or Renee Fleming.

Silent Night

The words were written by Joseph Mohr, an Austrian priest in the Alpine village of Oberndorf on Christmas Eve 1816. According to popular legend, two years later the village organ broke down so composer Franz Gruber provided a tune for guitar, completed in time for Christmas midnight mass. Nothing beats the Vienna Boys' Choir or the St Thomas Choir, Leipzig, singing in the original German (Stille Nacht). The most soulful is Sam Cooke and his Soul Stirrers's version.

Walking in the Air

In 1982, as if it had been around for centuries, the animated TV film of Raymond Briggs's book The Snowman embedded itself in our consciousness, becoming an instant Christmas tradition with a brilliant, haunting theme song by Howard Blake. The original was sung by choirboy Peter Auty, uncredited for a long time and now an operatic tenor. But the boy who took it into the charts in 1985, and who was made famous by it, was that cherubic young Welsh boy Aled Jones.

White Christmas

Irving Berlin wrote White Christmas for the rather whimsical musical film Holiday Inn (1942) starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. The song topped the charts in October that year and stayed there for 11 weeks. The huge success of White Christmas led to a film of that name in 1954 starring Bing Crosby. It remains his signature tune. No one sings it better.

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