Christmas Music

by Richard Brookhiser

Jeanne and I went carolling in the group in which we met–the Renaissance Street Singers. This group, the love child of John Hetland, its founder and conductor, is over thirty years old. Mostly it sings sacred music of the Renaissance in public places for free. The repertoire is great, and the refusal to earn money is rigidly adhered to. John used to (and I’m sure stilol does) stop conducting and let the group fend for itself while he returned any donations that people dropped in his music stand.

Once a year we carol. When I joined the group-1977–we carolled in Brooklyn
Heights because one member had an apartment there. For the last decade or more we have started outside John’s loft, near the former Barney’s, now a museum of Tibetan art, moved down 7th Avenue, and ended in Sheridan Square.

This year was perfect conditions–no preciptation, little wind, not too cold (over freezing). We sing the real standards–The First Noel, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem, We Three Kings of Orient Are, Silent Night, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Good King Wenceslaus Looked Out, In Dulci Jubilo, Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming–plus some less usual ones: the Coventry Carol, Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavn’ly Light. (We sang the last in the Tibetan museum–not very Tibetan, it occured to me, though they were gracious hosts.)

I am always struck by how fine these songs are. Handel wrote one of them (Joy to the World), which is pure Handel–affirmative statement, with the clever writing that allows “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains” to “repeat the sounding joy.” The lyrics of “We Three Kings” are a complex theological meditation, cast in symbols and slipped into five stanzas. “O Come All Ye Faithful” is more rather abstruse theology–”Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing” (the Trinity, in eight words). “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” has striking images (“ris’n with healing in His wings”–does Christ have wings?). Finally, there are the delights of strange language–”The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.” As a child, I thought that carol sought “To save us all from Santa’s power.” It is good to be confronted with strangeness at the heart of our comforts.

Much as I honor Irving Berlin–who was rather like Handel: direct and to the point–he didn’t do better than these.