December 3, 2011

Two Christmas Mornings

Time flies. It’s hard to believe that another Christmas season is already upon us. Didn’t I just get through wading through holiday shoppers in crowded malls?  It seems to me our modern, technologically advanced world has set the clock at warp speed. Every Christmas, perhaps as a subconscious survival tool, I find myself turning to holiday music composed in what I think must have been simpler times – sort of my way of turning the clock back to a time when life somehow seemed to move slower and was perhaps a little more human.  I play two very special CD’s every Christmas which fit that bill perfectly (heck, I have been known to still be playing them in July because they are too good to hear but once a year). The two disks have similar titles – All On a Christmas Morning by the traditional Irish group, Aengus, and The First Christmas Morning by Dan Fogelberg (yes, Fogelberg – although one may not necessarily view his music as coming from olden times).

Here’s the first CD in my Christmas survival kit:

All on a Christmas Morning - Celtic Christmas Celebration

All On a Christmas Morning was recorded in 1997 by the now defunct Irish folk music group, Aengus, which then consisted of accordion maestro Jimmy Keane  and Irish singer and songwriter Robbie O’Connell  with guest stars Liz Carroll (fiddle), Dennis Cahill (guitar), Kathleen Keane (fiddle, flute, whistle, harmony vocals), Pat Broaders (bouzouki, tenor guitar, harmony vocals), Jackie Moran (bodhran, percussion), and Click Horning (harmony vocal).

This disk is filled with wonderful traditional Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English Christmas tunes and songs.  Three of the tracks are original compositions which are musically indistinguishable from the old ones.  The album’s lineup is presented as a musical journey in celebration of Christmas, beginning in Scotland with a slow solo accordion piece leading into a lively jig followed by two rousing reels.  Next we are taken to Brittany for the beautiful song “Le sommeil de l’enfant Jesus,” which serves as an introduction to the complementary instrumental, “The Kings Travel East,” an eastern European-flavored dance tune.  There is a wonderful video of three young ladies tap dancing to this tune which can be seen here.

From Brittany, we journey to Ireland for Robbie O’Connell’s self-penned “Three Kings,” the mournful “Winter’s Day,” three jigs, and then “Don oiche ud i mBeitbil,” which the CD booklet describes as “one of the most beautiful songs in the Irish language celebrating the birth of Jesus.”  I wholeheartedly agree.  Go here to listen to it.  Three hornpipe pieces follow.

Our next stop is the U.S., with the song “Christmas in the Trenches,” written by American balladeer  John McCutcheon.  This is one of the most powerfully moving songs I have ever heard and  is the biggest gold nugget in the disk’s whole treasure chest.  It is about the  Christmas Truce of 1914, a true incident which occurred  between British and German soldiers on a battlefield in France on Christmas Day.  The song shows how the spirit of the season, combined with the powerful universal language of music, taught World War I soldiers that “on the end of each rifle we are all the same.”     The lyrics, as well as an article written by one of the truce participants, can be read at the previous  link.   Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“Everything was so still, so quiet in the line.   No flares, no crack of the sniper’s rifle…After a timeless dream I saw what looked like a large white light on top of a pale put up in the German lines.  It was a strange sort of light…Suddenly there was a short quick cheer from the German lines – Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!  With others I flinched and crouched, ready to fling myself flat, pass the leather thong of my rifle over my head and aim to fire; but no other sound came from the German lines…We saw dim figures on the enemy parapet…and with amazement saw that a Christmas tree was being set there… From the German parapet a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a song I remembered from my nurse Minne singing it to me after my evening tub before bed.  She had been maid to my German grandmother…StiLle Nacht!  HeiLige Nacht!  Tranquil Night!  Holy Night!  The grave and tender voice rose out of the frozen mist; it was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which one had come through a nightmare:  a world finer than the one I had left behind in England, except for beautiful things like music, and springtime on my bicycle in the country of Kent and Bedfordshire…”

Here’s a different performance of “Christmas in the Trenches,” as sung by John McCutcheon, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar, which is very moving:

The next stop in our musical journey is Wales with the beautiful Welsh hymn “Calon Lan,” another gorgeous accordion solo.  I am grateful for its placement at this precise point in the playlist, as such a contemplative and reverent piece is needed to transition us forward to the rest of the music on the album.  Next up, we stay in the United Kingdom for a real vocal treat by McConnell of “Drive the Cold Winter Away,” celebrating the end of the year and the birth of the new.  We then leap over to Ireland again with “Rivers of Frost and Snow,” a lovely Irish whistle solo, followed by  “The Christmas Fancy,” which is reminiscent of a mummer’s dance tune.  Staying in Ireland, we come to a splendid vocal piece, “The Twelfth Day Carol,” and conclude our journey with a beautiful instrumental Keane wrote in memory of his late father, who was born on Christmas Eve.  Four great reels end the program.   The entire album is a delight from start to finish.

Shortly after recording All On a Christmas Morning, Aengus  expanded to a foursome consisting of Jimmy Keane, Robbie O’Connell, Sean Cleland, and Pat Broaders.  After the disbandment of the group, Keane and Broaders formed Bohola, which released a Christmas album in 2008 entitled bo-Ho-Ho-hola featuring music, song, spoken word, and a lot of humor.

The second CD in my Christmas survival kit is:

First Christmas Morning

 Christmas – how many images the word conjures up; we think of carol-singers and holly-decked churches where people hymn in time-honored strains of the Birth of the Divine Child; of frost and snow; and, in contrast, of warm hearths and homes bright with light and colour, very fortresses against the cold; of feasting and revelry, of greetings and gifts exchanged; and lastly, of vaguely superstitious customs, relics of long ago, performed perhaps out of respect for use or wont, or merely in jest, or with a deliberate attempt to throw ourselves back into the past, to re-enter for a moment the mental childhood of the race. — Clement A. Miles – 1912, Christmas Customs & Traditions; Their History and Significance, Dover Publications 1976.

Upon reading the liner notes to Fogelberg’s The First Christmas Morning, it is easy to see why he chose to open with this quote.  Its references to frost and snow, warm hearths, and relics of the past align closely with what he writes as being his own vision of the Christmas season.  He tells us Christmas is his favorite time of the year – “not just the Christmas season, but winter in general.”  He speculates this is due to his Scandinavian and Scots-Irish genetics still singing to him “from an ancient place of deep, snowy nights and cold, brilliant days.”  Indeed, two of the original guitar compositions are winter-themed – “Winterskol,” and “Snowfall,” both evoking images of looking through a frost-paned window at a beautifully white, gently falling snow.  For Fogelberg, a large part of Christmas is the music.  He states in the liner notes that he has always been drawn to the Christmas songs, carols and hymns of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque times.  As such, this is an album to be treasured by those who likewise are drawn to music of these periods.   The choice of instruments in recording this album enhances its beauty:  guitars, mandolin, piano, keyboards, autoharp (all played by Fogelberg), violins, harp, penny whistle, hammer dulcimer and baroque trumpet.

Seven of the album’s tracks (four instrumentals and three vocal tunes) are Fogelberg’s own compositions, but it is amazing how old they sound.   Some of the instrumentals can be heard  here.  The remaining eight tracks are traditional, the earliest dating back to the 15th Century (“This Endris Night”).  Only one was written in the 20th Century (“In the Bleak Mid-Winter”), although it, too, sounds much older.

The inspiration for the album, Fogelberg writes, was an original composition he had tucked away years ago which later became the title track for The First Christmas Morning:

While mixing “EXILES” during December of 1986 in Los Angeles, I would stop at the hotel bar for a nightcap on my way to bed.  Christmas was coming on and I would sit by myself each night listening to a tape of Christmas carols on the lounge’s sound system while sipping my Irish whiskey.  I became fascinated by what made these songs so timeless and universal and spent hours analyzing their common denominators.  Then, during a lull in the mixing at Sunset Sound, I sat down at the piano and wrote the song in about an hour – lyrics and all.  I’m very pleased to at last get to present it as I think it is one of the most beautiful melodies I’ve written.”

Here’s the tracklist, with a little background of the songs culled from the liner notes:

  1. Bell Fantasy/Hark the Herald Angels Sing – A very brief introductory piece featuring a choir and the sound of bells.  It is not typical of the rest of the album.
  2. At Christmas Time – Original composition – “I wanted to write a joyous, rollicking song that employed male and female voices answering each other and had an 1800’s feel of repetitive couplets.”
  3. Winterskol – Original guitar composition.
  4. The First Christmas Morning – Astounding!  Hear it here.
  5. This Endris Night – English medieval lullaby carol edited by Fogelberg.
  6. Feast of Fools – Original composition written in the Renaissance style.
  7. I Saw Three Ships – The musical arrangement here is superb.
  8. Snowfall – Original instrumental inspired by “all the wonderful nights I spent by the fire watching the snow pile up, drifting so beautifully outside the windows and turning the mountains into a fairyland while the music of Greig, Tchaikovsky and Mozart casts its magnificent spell over me.”
  9. In the Bleak Mid-Winter – The music was written in 1905 by Gustav Holst and the words by Christina Rosetti, noted English poetess and sister of the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti.
  10. Yule Dance – Another Fogelberg “medieval” guitar composition.  “I see lords and ladies in their festive Renaissance finery, dancing in the brightly candle-lit great hall of some Florentine villa while the wine and laughter flow freely.”
  11. What Child Is This? – A 16th Century air.  This version includes some gorgeous piano.
  12. O, Tannenbaum – This one was intentionally recorded at a very low volume, I suppose in an attempt to reproduce an “old recording” sound.  I’m not sure it is effective.  It is the weakest track on the album, but is brief and does not detract from the excellence of the rest of the CD.
  13. Three Kings – An American carol written circa 1857.
  14. Christ the King – One of Fogelberg’s own carols which he wrote “in about 10 minutes in a flash of inspiration one Christmas in the early 90’s. The arrangement is very Old-Country Austrian with a few nods to Bach and Beethoven.”

It is four years ago this Christmas season that Dan Fogelberg passed away after battling prostate cancer.  His ashes were scattered over The Reach in Maine the following summer (account of the memorial is here).  The world will indeed miss this son of  a bandleader, who had the capacity within him to write such beautiful music.  Plans are currently underway to release a tribute CD to be produced by Dan’s long-time associates and friends, Norbert Putnam and Irving Azoff, and Dan’s wife Jean Fogelberg.   All proceeds will go to the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

This is my kind of Christmas music.  A heavy dose of  it arms me each year with a resiliency to cope with the madness of the season.  Thus fortified, I can smile at the driver who flips me off in holiday traffic, slip a few bills into the Salvation Army bucket, and tell the grinch in my head, “Merry Christmas!”

Filed under Folk