Music and Mystery

By Jan Richardson


Like lots of folks, I rely on music to help me cross into the holiday season and navigate its terrain. During Advent and Christmas we anticipate and celebrate the incarnation, the Word who became flesh, but sometimes it takes more than words alone to evoke and enter into the mysteries of the story of the God who came to be with us.

Over the past few years, I’ve gone in search of Christmas music that takes my ears beyond the customary holiday fare. Although there are some contemporary songs in my stack of holiday CDs, my collection leans pretty heavily toward music that reaches backward in time. This is music that draws the listener deep into the layers of stories and legends surrounding the birth of Christ, music that echoes with the ancient human longing for light and celebration in a dark time. These are songs of signs and wonders, with words and melodies that beckon us to enter into the audacious, mysterious, hopeful, and wild tales they have to tell.

Here’s some of what I’m listening to in this season. Most of these CDs are readily available online through the usual sources. I’ve provided links for a couple that are offered through CD Baby, an excellent site that’s devoted to independent musicians, and would especially encourage your support of their songmaking in this season.

Wolcum Yule: Celtic and British Songs and Carols
Legends of St. Nicholas
On Yoolis Night

Anonymous 4

The women of Anonymous 4 are masters of reaching into the treasures of centuries past to offer sustenance in the present. These three CDs are now available in a boxed set titled Noël: Carols & Chants for Christmas; the set also includes the CD A Star in the East, a collection of medieval chant from Hungary. (As a single CD, A Star in the East is now available under the somewhat more mundane title Christmas Music From Medieval Hungary).

La Bela Naissença: Christmas Carols from Provence
Patrick Vaillant, et al.

Ooohhh, I really love this one; it’s one of the newest in my collection and is among my all-time favorites. I first heard excerpts from it on Harmonia, the splendid radio show that features early music and offers archived shows on its web site. “La Fugida en Egipte” (The Flight into Egypt), with its wry alleluia, is worth the price of the CD, and Patrick Vaillant’s liner notes are a big slab of icing (chocolate) on this Christmas cake. He writes,

The Nativity is not just a series of images. A whole imaginary world is stirring behind them, and it is this that carries the entire story and all its little meanders, giving a bit of legend here and a measure of familiarity there to the whole mystery. The music is there to reveal, to unfold the tale, to give these images their dimension in sound….Christmas carols are witnesses.

The Bells of Dublin
The Chieftains

A great CD with a big dose of Irish flair. Here the Chieftains mix it up with such folks as Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, and Marianne Faithfull, plus Jackson Browne with his song “The Rebel Jesus,” which should be part of the Christmas carol canon.

Bruce Cockburn

One of the first CDs I purchased when I started searching for nontraditional fare. It’s actually very traditional, in the sense that it draws on lots of old carols, including the haunting “Iesus Ahatonnia” (The Huron Carol, written by a Jesuit missionary in the early 1600s; Cockburn says it’s the first Canadian Christmas carol) and “Down In Yon Forest” (of which Cockburn writes, “If there were a contest for the title of the spookiest Christmas carol, this ought to win hands down”). Though filled with traditional fare, the Canadian Cockburn puts a spin on it that makes it feel like a different animal entirely.

Christmas Through the Ages
Various artists; the composers include Arcangelo Corelli (how could he not have written Christmas music, with a name like that?), Benjamin Britten, and John Rutter

Aside from the tasty Christmas fare this contains, I couldn’t resist having a CD with a cover that features a fantastic depiction of the wise men wearing what look like parti-colored stockings, from a 6th century mosaic in the basilica of San Apollinaire Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. (Visit the spiffy magi.)

The Black Madonna: Pilgrim Songs from the Monastery of Montserrat
Ensemble Unicorn

This isn’t specifically a Christmas CD, but this wondrous collection of medieval pilgrim songs from Spain begins with a song about the Annunciation to Mary and ends with a Catalan round that makes mention of the magi. Sandwiched in between is a festive array of songs that tell some of the stories and miracles of the mother of Christ. The CD includes a couple of selections from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, an enormous collection of 13th-century songs in praise of the Virgin Mary. Written in Galician-Portuguese during the reign of King Alfonso X, known as “El Sabio” (“The Wise”), a number of the songs are attributed to El Sabio himself. The interaction of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions exerted an intriguing influence on the culture of medieval Spain. The songs included in The Black Madonna bear witness to this; they convey the sense that something very ancient and complex is at work in them.

Mistletoe and Wine
Mediaeval Baebes

Baebes indeed. This CD gathers up songs from a couple of their previous holiday CDs and includes “There Is No Rose Of Swych Vertu” and “The Coventry Carol.”

To Drive the Cold Winter Away
Loreena McKennitt

Containing a couple of original songs from this distinctive Canadian singer-composer, this CD primarily features traditional Christmas music from England, Ireland, and Scotland. She’s also just recently come out with a new holiday collection, A Midwinter’s Night Dream, which takes the five songs from her 1995 recording A Winter Garden and adds eight new ones. Of this new CD, Loreena says, “I really wanted to recapture some of the frankincense and myrrh in this music.” With instruments such as cello, oud, lyra, and lute accompanying her haunting vocals, Loreena achieves an exotic ambience that evokes the mysteries of winter.

A Winter’s Solstice III
Windham Hill Artists

For sentimental reasons. This is one of the oldest in my collection of cool Christmas CDs. I still particularly delight in Pierce Pettis’s take on “In the Bleak Midwinter” and Barbara Higbie’s “Lullay, Lully.”

The Christmas Gift
Cheryl Branz

This just arrived as a wondrous surprise in my mailbox. Singer-songwriter Cheryl Branz is a friend from the Grünewald Guild, and her voice will warm the cockles of your heart. The Christmas Gift is a new release that includes familiar holiday songs and carols as well as an original called “Skating,” which Cheryl wrote for her mom, who skated professionally with The Ice Capades. Available by visiting The Christmas Gift at CD Baby.

The Night of Heaven & Earth
Gary Doles

I’ve been saving my favorite for last. This CD makes me think of a passage from the Book of Isaiah, where God says these words through the prophet: “I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places” (Isaiah 45.3, NRSV). Gary (also known as Garrison) Doles is an award-winning singer/songwriter who has entered into the shadowy, secret places of the Advent and Christmas seasons and has found the riches there. With this treasure trove of utterly original songs, Gary invites us to come and find the delights and the challenges of the God who put on flesh and came to be with us. He also happens to be my sweetheart, and my enthusiasm about this CD isn’t merely a girlfriend’s bias; it’s this kind of amazing stuff that made me fall in love with him in the first place. Check out The Night of Heaven and Earth at CD Baby.

May your ears find many delights to draw you into the mysteries of this season.

5 Responses to “Music and Mystery”

  1. jeff r. Says:

    Thank you for the wonderful selections! I look forward to picking up at least a few of them. I’d also give a nod to a few CD’s from The Rose Ensemble, “And Glory Shone Around: Early American Carols, Country Dances, Southern Harmony Hymns, and Shaker Spiritual Songs” and “Celebremos el Nino: Christmas Delights from the Mexican Baroque”.

  2. phyllis Says:

    Thanks, Jan for the musical recommendations. I shall look for some of these. Mine are getting “tired”, so I could use some fresh sounds. I already enjoy Gary’s The Night of Heaven and Earth!

  3. Sr. Andrea Westkamp Says:

    Dear Jan,

    Thanks for making us aware of different music selections for this wonderful season. Like you, I feel drawn to music that expresses the mystery and wonder of Advent and Christmas. I would like to suggest a CD with contemporary Advent songs. It is “Maranatha” by Gerard Chiusano. He is the music minister in my church. I am part of the parish choir. We have been singing these songs for some years now and they continue to inspire my own refelctions and prayers.

  4. Jan Richardson Says:

    Thanks so much for each of your comments and music suggestions–I’ve really enjoyed hearing what you’re hearing in this season. These sound enticing…and could put a dent in my December budget!

  5. Janh Says:

    Jan, thanks for these recommendations. I wanted to order Gary Doles’, and it was out of stock a few days ago. Today I got an email saying it was in stock again, and I’ve ordered it. I am excited, as I listed to the songs on that website. I also so appreciate the cards I ordered from you of the Trinity Tree or whatever it was called. Thank you for this Advent blog, too.

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