Tag Archive | Christmas Carol Sing

Living inside a Broadway Musical

Last weekend was like living inside a Broadway musical – like “The Sound of Music.” Life wasn’t an opera – our conversations were spoken, not sung – but the whole weekend seemed to flow from one musical moment to the next. It’s almost like we were taking the message of the Psalms – to sing to the Lord – very literally.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
[Psalm 98:4-6 NRSV]

Overture Organ w Sam

Sam Hutchison at the Overture Center organ.

Saturday started with a magnificent Christmas Carol Sing at the Overture Center in Madison. By the time we arrived for the free sing-along (about 15 minutes early for the 11:00 a.m. event), the main floor was already filled and we were directed to the circle (lowest balcony), which was already filling up quickly. About a thousand people had gathered to sing Christmas carols under the direction of organist Sam Hutchison and the powerful Overture Center organ. What a sound we made – from the mighty organ leading us in “O Come, All Ye Faithful” to the gentle “Away in a Manger.” Hutchison introduced each carol with a brief explanation of its origin, and then directed us to sing with all our heart and soul.  Hutchison also played two organ solos. For the first one, “Chorale-Improvisation on In Dulci Jubilo,” he promised he would sound every one of the 4,000-plus pipes of the organ so that we could hear all the sounds possible from this amazing instrument. The Carol Sing ended with “The First Nowell.” Dozens of sopranos (including Mim standing next to me) sang the beautiful soaring descant on the refrain. What an inspiring way to end the morning!

After singing our hearts out, we went to a neighborhood bakery for lunch, and then home to rest up a little to be ready for more music. While at home, I practiced the music I would be playing for the Saturday evening worship service at Messiah. Then we turned around and went back to Madison for church.

Marian at organ-MessiahI played my favorite Advent prelude, an organ arrangement of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Mim sang “Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah” as the Advent candles were lit. As usual, Jeff delivered an inspiring homily, one that included the song, “I thank you, Lord, for each new day.” The service ended with a new favorite piano postlude, an arrangement of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” This is the time of year for great church music!

Caroling in Overture Center

Caroling with the Madison Symphony Chorus in the Lobby of Overture Hall.

After church we ate a quick supper at Culver’s and drove to the Overture Center again for the Madison Symphony Orchestra Christmas concert. But the real highlight of the whole weekend came before this concert began. The three-level Overture Hall Lobby served as an incredible space for another Christmas Carol Sing-along. The Madison Symphony Chorus lined the second-level railing to sing carols a capella with their director Beverly Taylor on the lower level, where concert-goers gathered to join in the singing. Our voices filled the three-level space with the most beautiful sound imaginable. I think it was a preview of the sounds we’ll hear in heaven when we sing with the angels.

For the concert, the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Symphony Chorus were joined by the Madison Youth Choirs, the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, and two soloists – a soprano and a tenor. The music was as varied as could be – classical, black gospel, traditional Christmas, and contemporary holiday music. It was a fun concert. My favorite piece came just before the intermission – the “Hallelujah Chorus” with the symphony, all the choirs, and the audience making wonderful music together.

Madison Symphony Christmas Concert in Overture Hall

My view Saturday night from the top balcony in Overture Hall. The Madison Symphony Orchestra, Madison Symphony Choir, guest choirs, and a few extra heads in my line of vision.

But the music of the weekend wasn’t over yet. On Sunday afternoon, the Monona Senior Choir – a group of about 50 singers – performed a delightful Christmas concert in the community room of our church in Madison. This was one of those concerts where my mouth just froze into a smile because I was having so much fun listening to the music. The concert opened with an arrangement that blended “Joy to the World” with the “Hallelujah Chorus.” A few songs later, a good friend of mine, dressed in a red union suit, sang “Winter Underwear” to the tune of “Winter Wonderland.” The concert ended with two little girls, granddaughters of the director, signing “Silent Night” while the violinist played the melody. What a wonderful ending to my weekend of living inside a Christmas musical.

Monona Senior Choir cropped

Some of the members of the Monona Senior Choir, with director Jan Piddington – taking a break during their concert.

Music truly is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. Advent and Christmas are special times to be reminded of this gift.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
[Isaiah 12:5-6 NRSV]

 

 

Top 10 Christmas Carols and my new favorite

1965 Singing Christmas Tree

1965 – The first Singing Christmas Tree in the Methodist Church in Cambridge. That’s me – the short one with glasses in the middle of the front row.

What are your favorites – your top 10 Christmas carols?

I made a list of mine. It was hard to stop at ten, but I did it. Then I went on the Internet to see if I could find a list of the most popular Christmas carols. Chris Wilson compiled a list of favorites for the TIME NewsFeed. His basis for identifying the favorites was the number of times the carol has been commercially recorded since 1978. (The article was dated December 18, 2013.) Here’s the list, along with the number of times the carol has been recorded:

  1. Silent Night (733)
  2. Joy to the World (391)
  3. O Holy Night (374)
  4. What Child Is This? (329)
  5. Away in a Manger (300)
  6. O Come, All Ye Faithful (296)
  7. Ave Maria (270)
  8. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (236)
  9. The First Noel (234)
  10. Angels We Have Heard on High (220)
Aunt Edith at the piano.

Aunt Edith at the piano.

The list is very similar to my own list – only a few differences. I included “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” “Go, Tell It on the Mountain,” and “There’s a Song in the Air.” (This last one is on my list because I can still hear my late Aunt Edith singing it. I’ve always loved that song, especially the way she sang it with her beautiful, clear, high soprano voice.)

Last week, at the women’s worship service in the county jail, we had a Christmas Carol sing. The chaplain provided a fairly extensive song sheet, and invited the inmates to choose the songs to sing. The first carol requested was “Silent Night.” The chaplain said we would save that for the last song to sing at the end of the service. The next song requested was “Joy to the World.” Then, “O Holy Night.” We sang most of the songs on the “Top 10” list, plus several others. It was so much fun to sing all those old Christmas carols together!

Mim directing the family Christmas program on Christmas Eve.

Mim directing the family Christmas program on Christmas Eve.

What’s so special about singing Christmas carols? I think many of us have a shared childhood experience of singing these songs with friends and family, at home, school and church. We also associate these songs with all the excitement of Christmas, including school programs and church pageants. Many of the songs have words that tell the story of the birth of Jesus. Some of the images are quite vivid – like

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
the little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head;
the stars in the sky looked down where He lay,
the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Other songs are just fun to sing – like the “Glo—–ri-a” in “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

One of my new favorite Christmas Carols is “Before the Marvel of This Night.” The image is so fresh and exciting. The setting of the song is the angels in heaven getting ready to go to earth to sing to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus. They are as excited as can be about what they are getting ready to do. Here are the words:

Before the Marvel of this night,
adoring, fold your wings and bow,
then tear the sky apart with light
and with your news the world endow.
Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace,
that fear and death and sorrow cease:
Sing peace, sing peace, sing gift of peace,
sing peace, sing gift of peace!

Awake the sleeping world with song,
this is the day the Lord has made.
assemble here, celestial throng,
in royal splendor come arrayed.
Give earth a glimpse of heav’nly bliss,
a teasing taste of what they miss:
sing bliss, sing bliss, sing endless bliss,
sing bliss, sing endless bliss!

The love that we have always known,
our constant joy and endless light,
now to the loveless world be shown,
now break upon its deathly night.
Into one song compress the love
that rules our universe above:
sing love, sing love, sing God is love,
sing love, sing God is love!

© 1981 Jaroslav J. Vajda

It’s Christmas Eve today. Can’t you just imagine what it was like for the angels getting ready to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds? Don’t you wish you were there? Over the centuries since then, composers have written plenty of angel carols that describe the angels brightening the sky and singing “Glo——ri-a” but this is the first carol I’ve heard that captures the excitement the angels felt.

Hope you feel some of that excitement today as you sing or listen to your favorite Christmas carols.

Merry Christmas!

"Awake the sleeping world with song"

“Awake the sleeping world with song”

Reflections on Christmas from a Church Organist

It’s over. The busiest time of the year for everyone, but especially for church organists, is over. As I look back over this holy season, what were the highlights for me?

  1. Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Marian playing the tracker pipe organ at Messiah Lutheran Church in Madison.

    Celebrating Christmas together with our church family at Messiah Lutheran Church. I played the organ for the 10:00 service on Christmas Eve. This is the fifth year I’ve played for one of the Christmas Eve services. (I’m a half-time organist at Messiah.) The late service on Christmas Eve is my favorite. Even though the church is full, and there’s excitement in the air, it’s a peaceful time, a time to reflect on Jesus being born and what that means to us today.

  2. Celebrating Christmas together with the people of East Koshkonong Lutheran Church. I played at four services – a Norwegian Christmas Carol Sing earlier in the month, the 3:00 p.m. Christmas Eve service, the 9:00 a.m. Christmas Day service, and a special service of lessons and carols on the Sunday after Christmas. I’ve been playing at East half-time since September. This was my first Christmas with them. They provided as many opportunities for their members to sing Christmas carols as they possibly could. Music is a very big part of Christmas for this church. I liked that.
  3. Hosting a Christmas Carol Sing at Whispering Winds. This was especially meaningful because it was the last event at our retreat center before it went on hiatus. We sang for a couple hours. Then we ate Christmas cookies and talked for another hour. It was a fun evening for a great group of friends.
  4. Playing the piano for two Worship Services/Christmas Carol Sings for women in the County Jail. The women really enjoyed being able to choose what carols to sing, and they sang enthusiastically. But what was the most special to me about these services was the testimony time that came just before the singing. A common theme expressed by many of the women inmates was their thankfulness for being able to experience Christmas in jail – far away from all the commercialism of Christmas. They had time to think about the true meaning of Christ being born into the world. They felt closer to God. Some of them also saw this as an opportunity to share the true meaning of Christmas with their children during the limited time they had for conversations with them.
  5. Accompanying Mim as she sings at home. Mim didn’t do as much singing this year as she usually does, partly because her voice has been strained by a long string of colds last year, and partly because we thought we were too busy. But, this is absolutely my favorite way to spend an evening during the Christmas season.

I love being able to play the piano and organ, especially throughout the Christmas season. Nothing is more inspiring to me than to lead a group of people from the organ or piano as they sing “Joy to the World” or “Silent Night,” and to feel the love of God filling the room. It’s the same feeling – the love of God transforming the space – whether it’s a couple hundred people filling the church with their voices singing in beautiful harmony, or a dozen inmates filling the jail chapel with beautiful melodies as an impromptu women’s choir, or Mim singing alone at home. In all cases, God is with us.

Last Saturday morning when I was at church practicing the music for Sunday’s service, the pastor came into the sanctuary to chat for a few minutes. He commented that this Sunday (yesterday) was the last Sunday for singing Christmas carols. It was the last Sunday of the Christmas season. “Joy to the World” was the recessional we sang.

Now I can put the Christmas music away till next year. I’m ready. But I’m sure I’ll be just as ready to bring it out again as we approach Christmas 2013.

 Christmas Music

Enjoying Christmas Music to the Fullest

Mim directing her family Christmas program on Christmas Eve.

I love Christmas music – listening to it, singing it, and playing it on the piano and organ. The Christmas music season for me begins the Monday after Thanksgiving (today!) and extends at least throughout the week of Epiphany (January 6), and sometimes longer.

I like playing Christmas carols from hymnals, but I also like playing fancy arrangements of carols and secular Christmas songs, too. Without counting them, I’m sure I have at least fifty books of piano arrangements of Christmas music, and at least 25 books of organ arrangements. I need a good six weeks to even play everything once.

Getting into the spirit of Christmas music, I asked Mim yesterday about her earliest memories of singing Christmas Carols. Her fondest memory is of the Christmas Eve programs she organized for her family every year when she was a child. Her grandmother and her two aunts joined Mim and her mom and dad for a lutefisk dinner on Christmas Eve. After the traditional Norwegian meal, Mim ushered everyone into the living room to begin the program.

Mim listening to her dad read the Christmas Story.

Mim handed out songbooks and selected the Christmas carols for the family to sing. They were all the traditional carols – O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Away in a Manger, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem, Silent Night, Jeg er sa glad hver julekveld (I Am So Glad Each Christmas Eve). The last one they sang in Norwegian.

After the carol sing, Mim’s dad, a Lutheran pastor, read the Christmas story from the second chapter of Luke. The program ended with opening presents. But the highlight of the evening wasn’t the presents. It was the program – the singing and reading the Christmas story. The lutefisk dinner was a close second. Really. Mim likes lutefisk!

One of my own memories of singing Christmas carols comes from my high school years. I was part of the church choir of about a dozen members. We ranged in age from 14 to 84. On Christmas morning, around 5:00, we gathered at our choir director’s house and then walked around Cambridge singing Christmas carols. We also drove to the homes of some church members who lived in the country to sing to them. Why we went caroling so early, and whether or not people enjoyed being awakened to our caroling, I don’t really know. But we had fun doing it. We ended up at our choir director’s house again for some hot chocolate and Christmas cookies.

Mim sang in the 2000 Singing Christmas Tree. She’s in the middle of the third row. Aunt Edith was the pianist in the red jacket in the front row.

That choir director was also our church organist, and my piano and organ teacher. She was very creative and started the annual tradition of the “Singing Christmas Tree” in 1965. Her husband built a Christmas tree-shaped set of risers that we assembled in the front of the church sanctuary. A chicken wire fence was mounted in front of each riser. We wired fresh evergreens to the fences. The end result was a fragrant but scratchy Christmas tree for the choir members to stand in while singing a Christmas Concert.

The “Singing Christmas Tree” tradition has outlived the choir director and many of its original choir members. For over forty years, this concert has been presented the first weekend in December, missing only a couple years throughout almost five decades. This year’s concert is scheduled for Saturday, December 1, at 4:30 p.m. and Sunday, December 2, at 10:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Last year, Whispering Winds started a new tradition for people who like to sing lots of Christmas carols just for fun – not as a concert, just to get together with friends to sing. That’s coming up on December 16 at 3:00 in the afternoon. I’ll let Mim hand out the songbooks, and then anyone can choose what carols (and even a few secular songs) they want to sing. We’ll sing about an hour, then take a break for coffee and Christmas cookies, and then get back to singing as long as our voices hold out. Feel free to join us at 3:00 p.m. Sunday, December 16. Call me (608.212.6197) if you have any questions.

Meanwhile, I hope your ears, voices, and fingers enjoy the next several weeks of Christmas music as much as mine will! The words of “Joy to the World” capture some of the wonder and excitement of Christmas music. Even heaven and nature are so excited about the coming of Christ to earth that they can’t keep from singing.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
let every heart prepare him room
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and heaven and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let all their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy
repeat the sounding joy
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

[“Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts, 1674-1748]

Whispering Winds Retreat Haven, 201 Highland Rd, Cambridge, WI.
The last of this year’s quarterly hymn sings is the Christmas Carol Sing at 3:00 Sunday afternoon, December 16. Everyone is welcome.