There has been Christmas music ever since there has been Christmas. And there have been Christmas albums ever since there have been albums. Before albums, of course, there were single cuts. In 1916, Caruso recorded “Cantique de Noël,” which we Anglos know as “O Holy Night.” The great Italian sang it in French. But we can go back farther than 1916. Olive Fremstad, the Swedish-American soprano, recorded “Silent Night” — actually, “Stille Nacht” — in 1911. And Charles Gilibert, the French baritone, recorded “La Vierge à la crèche” (Périlhou, not Franck) in 1907. You can find both of these cuts on a Masterworks Heritage disc, The Christmas Album. Gilibert comes through with amazing vibrancy.
One thing about Christmas albums, they almost always sell well. Otherwise, they wouldn’t continue to be made. A few years ago, I said to a well-known soprano, “Why haven’t you made a Christmas album? I think you should.” She said, “A record exec once told me that you know a singer is on her way out when she makes a Christmas album. It’s a last stop, a last gasp.” Well, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
Let’s run through a few Christmas albums, including a new one. I will be far from exhaustive. I will leave out many of your favorites, and some of mine. And I think we’ll stick to classical artists. Jimmy Durante singing “Frosty the Snowman,” Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby,” Mel Tormé singing his “Christmas Song” — all wonderful. I appreciate Mariah Carey singing “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” too. I admit, though, that I’ve never seen the point of Bruce Springsteen shouting “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.”
And before we leave the popular world, let us bow our heads to Bing Crosby and “White Christmas” — the best-selling Christmas song penned by a Russian-born Jew, Irving Berlin. It appeared in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn
. (The motel chain later named itself after the movie.) Many a classical singer has recorded “White Christmas” — and not just baritones, and not just men, either. Do you know the verse of this song (as opposed to the chorus, which we all know)? It’s seldom done. And it tells you why the person is dreaming of a white Christmas. I first heard the verse from Marilyn Horne, the great American mezzo-soprano. It goes,
The sun is shining, the grass is green,
The orange and palm trees sway.
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it’s December the 24th
And I’m longing to be up north . . .
I have a feeling that one of the reasons Horne sings the verse is that she did much of her growing up in Southern California.
She made her Christmas album in 1983, just before she turned 50. She did so with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, no less. So this is a grand album, with all the bells and whistles, or many of them. It is not schlocky or absurd, however. Horne has too much taste, and too much musicality, for that. The noble power with which she sings “The First Nowell” is thrilling. And there is also on this album a rarity: a homely little carol called “The Bethlehem Babe,” which she learned in grade school. Just about no one else had ever heard it. And Horne has given it a certain immortality. She sang this carol, by the way, in Carnegie Hall two Christmases ago. At 74, she still sounded like Horne.