With the arrival of the December holidays, we’re surrounded by the sounds of holiday music. Much of this music celebrates religious holidays, but some of it has become beloved secular songs.
I’ve always loved holiday music, ranging from traditional Christmas carols to more elevated music composed by serious composers. I especially relished singing Christmas music with my high-school and college choral groups.
My high-school experience was memorable. Our school chorus was invited to sing carols in the plaza of the Chicago Sun-Times building. We joyously sang at this site on Michigan Avenue adjacent to the Wrigley Building, just north of the Michigan Avenue Bridge. What a fabulous time we had, singing a number of well-known carols in the freezing cold while bundled-up passers-by watched and listened. (Sadly, the Sun-Times building was demolished around 2004, and its plaza is now occupied by an enormous blot on the riverscape along the Chicago River: the 92-story T…. International Hotel and Tower, built by our twice-impeached former president.)
As a college student at Washington University, I joined two choral groups that sang holiday music with the St. Louis Symphony. First, as a member of the university’s Women’s Chorus, I sang with the symphony in “L’Enfance du Christ” (“The Childhood of Christ”) by Berlioz. By my senior year, I was part of the wonderful university Choir. We did a lot of singing, including a holiday-timed presentation of Handel’s “Messiah.” Singing these two pieces, as well as Brahms’s “A German Requiem,” with the St. Louis Symphony created some of my favorite WashU memories.
The holiday season and its music also revive a memory from my much younger childhood. When I was about eight, my parents shopped for a piano so I could learn how to play. I remember viewing a handsome model at the Lyon & Healy store on Wabash Avenue in downtown Chicago, where the salesman had a great sales pitch. He told us this piano was worth a great deal more money than L & H was asking because it was designed for a wealthy pooh-bah who’d returned it to the store only because he wasn’t happy with some feature or another. True story or not, my parents scooped up this gorgeous piano, and it became a highlight of our otherwise ordinary living room.
Mom immediately set about arranging piano lessons for me. Somehow she came up with Rachel G., a woman whom I remember as a rigid unsmiling taskmaster (taskmistress?), lacking in patience, whose lessons became a dreaded part of my existence.
At first Rachel G had a fairly kind approach. She introduced me to classical music in very simplified form, and I did glean a basic knowledge of composers like Mozart, Haydn, and Bach in child-designed sheet music. Truthfully, I didn’t retain much of their biographical information, but I painfully made my way through the simple arrangements of some of their most famous melodies. I later progressed to slightly more advanced arrangements of major classical pieces, like the Soldiers’ Chorus from Gounod’s “Faust” and the theme from Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto in B-flat Minor. Remarkably, I’ve saved almost all of my sheet music, shuttling it around the country during numerous cross-country moves, and I still have them, decorating the piano that now sits in my apartment.
One day fairly early in our relationship, Rachel G brought a new and very simple piece of music for me to learn. It was a well-known Christmas carol: “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The front cover of the sheet music, with a cover price of 30 cents (a 25-cent price is crossed out), portrays a Dickens-era group of four carolers, led by a man in a top hat and bright plaid coat. In big letters, the cover notes that it includes one of six different “Carols you love to sing and play.” Inside, we read that this carol was the creation of Phillips Brooks and Louis H. Redner and that Walter Lane arranged the very simple collection of notes and lyrics.
Phillips Brooks was the Episcopal rector of a Philadelphia church (later rector of Trinity Church in Boston) who was inspired to write the words of the carol by his visit to the city of Bethlehem in 1865. Three years later, he finally wrote the words, and just before Christmas, he asked Redner, the church organist, to add the music. Redner later recalled that the simple music was “written in great haste and under great pressure….Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music…would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.”
My parents weren’t members of any church, Christian or otherwise. They—especially my father–were pretty casual about religious observance of any stripe, including their own. My grandparents, who’d emigrated from Eastern Europe, were probably unfamiliar with American Christmas carols, but my American-born parents never objected to my singing them.
Still, my mother, usually reticent, seemed disturbed by Rachel G’s selection. I think she viewed the carol as a religious piece of music, and she disliked the idea of my playing religious music in our home. Before my lesson began, she uncharacteristically spoke up. I don’t recall the exact words spoken by either my mother or Rachel G, but I could grasp the tense tone of the conversation.
Looking back, I suspect that Rachel G was most likely Jewish, so her choice was somewhat curious. But I’ve concluded that her choice was based on the music, not the words. Its super-simple musical arrangement was clearly suitable for the level of my ability. So, as a conscientious music teacher, she stood her ground.
In the end, Rachel G must have soothed my mother’s concerns because I went on to learn, haltingly, the music of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” I still have the fragile paper copy of the sheet music. And I still love to play its beautiful melody in my still halting fashion.
When my family moved from Chicago to LA when I was 12, my parents sold our gorgeous piano, and our fortunes never led to the purchase of another one. That ended any possibility that my piano skills would ever improve. I grew up to deeply envy skilled pianists who undoubtedly had more benevolent instruction and a piano literally at their fingertips.
The carol I learned to play, thanks to Rachel G, has endured. When I viewed “Christmas in Connecticut,” a fan-favorite Christmas movie that appeared on TV last week, I watched star Barbara Stanwyck romanced by star Dennis Morgan. In one delightful scene, he charmingly plays “O Little Town of Bethlehem” on her piano while she’s trimming her Christmas tree.
“O Little Town” lives!