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Christmas Music Continues to Inspire, Soothe, Reflect a Season
|(ARA) - Whether it’s in a majestic cathedral, a school auditorium or a shopping mall, there’s nothing like a familiar Christmas melody to put a person in the holiday spirit. It’s amazing how the familiar strains of “Silent Night” or “Joy to the World” create feelings of joy, hope and peace.
Why does Christmas music evoke such strong emotions? Music educators and Bible scholars at Northwestern College in Saint Paul, Minn., cite childhood memories, the character of the music, and the histories of the songs themselves as reasons for Christmas music’s emotional appeal.
“During the Christmas season we look for familiar, comforting sounds of traditional, timeless music and theology. We are willing to suspend our need for what is novel, exciting or cutting-edge,” explains Timothy Sawyer, director of choral activities. “Christmas carols provide a familiar, comforting presence to which we can return year after year. This is perhaps one reason why, since its composition in 1742, Handel’s “The Messiah” has remained so popular during the holiday season.”
“People have powerful childhood and family memories built around the Christmas season, which to a large extent is defined by its music,” says Dr. Philip Norris, professor of music. “We simply can’t think of Christmas without music. Even in secular settings the Christmas story and its music are part of the aura.”
Dr. Ardel Caneday, professor of Bible understands the impact of childhood memories. “When I was in high school, the men’s octet would join the women’s sextet to sing ‘Silent Night’ a cappella. I fondly remember singing second tenor in the men’s octet. The crisp harmony was deeply stirring. It was a joy to contribute to the beautiful sounds of a favorite and cherished Christmas carol.”
From their humble beginnings in the 4th century, Christmas songs focused on the supernatural aspects of Christmas. One of the earliest songs was “Jesus refulsit omnium” (Jesus, light of all the nations) composed by St. Hilary of Poitiers, a prolific writer of hymns.
St. Francis of Assisi formally introduced Christmas carols to church services during the 12th century. A patron of the arts, he inspired composers and poets to deliver Christmas music. The lighter, joyous Christmas songs were introduced during the 1400s in Renaissance Italy. From Italy they passed to France and Germany, and eventually England where they retained simplicity, fervor and mirthfulness.
“The musical character of Christmas songs reflects the season’s themes: mother and child (Mary & Jesus), joy, hope, peace,” Dr. Norris explains. “The melodies, harmonies and rhythms created for the songs reflect those themes.”
For example, he explains, “Joy to the World” has a lively rhythm that begins on and repeats its highest note seven times. “Every phrase of the music follows the biological, physical shape of ‘joy’ -- a sudden rising to a high pitch with a subsiding direction immediately following.”
Dr. Mark Muska, chair of Northwestern’s Bible department, says Christmas music brings the focus back on the spiritual meaning. “The music helps people get back to the real meaning of Christmas,” he says. “Sometimes we get caught up in the commercialism, but the music helps us focus on the Lord’s birth.”
“The distinctive and joyful sound of Christmas music inspires reflection upon the incarnation of God’s Son and the hope of peace and salvation that He brings,” adds Dr. Caneday.
The stories of Christmas hymns and carols also contribute to the season’s musical aura. “One of my favorite Christmas carols is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,’” Dr. Caneday says. “It’s particularly stirring for me because of its historical setting against the backdrop of the American Civil War.”
Longfellow’s words reflect grief over the death of his wife, his bitter opposition to the war, and the sorrow of his son gravely injured in the war.
The history of “Silent Night” continues to inspire people. It was written in Bavaria on Christmas Eve 1818 when the church organ was broken and the town was snowbound. Church vicar Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics on the spot then handed them to organist Franz Gruber, who composed the original melody with guitar accompaniment just in time for midnight mass.
The origins of Christmas songs reflect history, religions attitudes and world cultures.
* Handel’s “The Messiah,” originally had nothing to do with Christmas. Its premiere in Dublin was a benefit for prisoners jailed for debt. Enough money was raised to free 142 debtors.
* “O Holy Night” was written by Adolphe Charles Adam, the French composer best known for his ballet, “Giselle.” Church authorities that denounced its lack of musical taste and “total absence of the spirit of religion” frowned upon the song.
* “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written in 1849 by Edmund Hamilton Sears who expressed a longing for peace. It was penned after the Mexican-American War when skirmishes between settlers and Indians and slavery supporters and abolitionists were igniting across the frontier.
* “O Little Town of Bethlehem” came out of the Civil War and was written by Phillips Brooks, a Philadelphia pastor who ministered to Union soldiers. Theories of the poem’s meaning vary. One theory explains the stillness in Bethlehem mirrors the stillness in Philadelphia where a generation of young men had been wiped out. The other theory is he wrote the text during a Christmas trip to the Holy Land and was describing Bethlehem.
Northwestern College, Saint Paul, MN, is a nondenominational Christian college that offers 45 majors in the Bible, arts, sciences and professional education to over 2,500 traditional and alternative education students. For more information, log onto www.nwc.edu or call (651) 631-5100 or (800)692-4020.
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