It’s Christmas time, and you know what that means— time for Christmas carols!
The Christmas songs we know come from all over the world, and a lot of times, classical composers have liked using them in their music. Let’s look at a few ways they do that.
Sometimes, a composer just writes a simple piece of music that lets the Christmas carol speak for itself. When a composer writes out a specific way for an existing melody to be performed, we call that an “arrangement.”
The Rose on a Silent Night
Arnold Schoenberg wanted to write something simple that his family could play together at Christmas, so he wrote an arrangement of “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” for the instruments they played: two violins, cello, piano, and harmonium (a kind of home organ that sounds a bit like an accordion). Even in this simple arrangement, though, he added a little surprise. Listen about halfway through and see if you can hear which Christmas carol (probably one that’s even more famous to us!) appears.
(Hint: it starts at 4:13, with the last line of the carol in the piano…)
What Carol Is This?
Some Christmas carols started out as regular folk songs and only later received Christmas lyrics. One of these is “Greensleeves”, which we know as “What Child Is This?” Take a listen to two very different ways that Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst arranged this famous tune.
First is Vaughan Williams’ version. What kind of mood does he create?
Now here’s Holst’s version. He combines “Greensleeves” with “The Dargason”. How does he make the atmosphere different than in Vaughan Williams’?
Here are a couple of bonus examples of classical composers arranging Christmas carols:
Men of Goodwill: Britten ("God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen")
The Adoration of the Magi: Respighi ("O Come, O Come, Emmanuel")
Jazz It Up!
Now, sometimes, things go the other way, and classical music gets arranged into other styles! For example, everyone loves The Nutcracker. It’s a famous Christmas ballet— maybe you’ve even gone to see it. Here’s some of the famous music from it:
Now here’s what happened when the famous composer Duke Ellington arranged those two pieces for a jazz band:
So you can see that any tune can become anything you want it to be!
What about you?
What Christmas carol do you think would make a good arrangement? And what kinds of things would you do to make it interesting?
Sparks will fly with the joy, energy, and diversity of American music. Enjoy favorites from William Grant Still, Aaron Copland, and Joan Tower. Experience the Coltrane-inspired virtuosity of John Adams’ spirited Saxophone Concerto.