The power of the small: Classical music's Christmas spirit

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:28 AM

Christmas is one of those rare times in the calendar when classical music comes into its own. The December holiday concert is a lodestar for many choruses, chamber ensembles and orchestras, which repeat the same program - from carols to the ubiquitous "Messiah" - three, four, and five times to maximize the box-office receipts and save up for the lean and less spiritual months ahead.

For presenters and audiences alike, classical music may seem to represent a more genuine, or more spiritual, observance than many other traditions (Black Friday shopping springs to mind). There's something innocent about many of the carols and motets featured in holiday concerts; and so much Western classical music has roots so deeply intertwined with Christian traditions that this is a natural time for it to come forward - even when it is commodified as much as any other holiday event.

It might not pay to look too closely at the spiritual content of holiday tropes. One can, to be sure, lament what one might call the Nutcrackerization of "Messiah," a wonderful piece that mounts a relentless assault on North American concert halls and churches every December, in spite of the fact that much of the rest of the Western world regards it as an Easter piece. But a Christmas concert is a nice thing that makes people happy and celebrates the season, and there's no reason to be too critical.

Still, classical music, because it tends to fulfill a secular-spiritual role (the very ritual of the concert, bringing together hundreds of people to sit in silent contemplation, is a kind of devotional) has not infrequently wrestled with existential questions about its relationship to prevailing religious traditions. Schubert, in his settings of the Catholic Mass, always omitted the line about believing in a single Church, "et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam" - perhaps influenced by a past, Enlightenment school of thought that sought to limit the influence of the papacy. Bach, the ultimate church composer, whose six Christmas oratorios are to German holiday concerts what "Messiah" is to American ones, ventured out of the Lutheran into the Catholic tradition with his monumental B-Minor Mass, which was probably not performed in its entirety in his own lifetime.

Brahms created his own, Lutheran requiem by assembling texts from German scriptures; Verdi turned the Catholic requiem into a religious drama. These probing works end up creating their own definitions; I would bet that most people who hear the Verdi Requiem know the text of that Mass better from Verdi's idiosyncratic setting than through hearing it in its original religious context.

In New York last month, Lincoln Center devoted an entire festival, called the White Light Festival, to exploring the spirituality of music, presenting a range of different beliefs and genres. Theoretically, it was an exercise in turning a spotlight on a range of assumptions: By featuring some music that was intended to be directly spiritual, it called into question the nature of the music it didn't include. Is Bach's B Minor Mass more spiritual than Mahler's Ninth Symphony, simply by virtue of its religious content? Isn't the whole classical canon a vehicle for a very particular kind of transcendence - seen by many of its adherents as being innately superior to other forms of music?

In the popular consciousness, classical music is often seen as inhabiting some realm so exalted and rarefied that many people with perfectly good ears and otherwise discerning powers of judgment and taste will often profess they have no understanding of it. It's notable that at Christmas, a time when classical music might be assumed to exult in its spiritual function, the prevailing classical traditions are among the simplest in the repertory. They are not great, searching evening-length works, but songs that everyone can sing. (I count "Messiah" in this category; it is frequently offered as a sing-along.)

In fact, I wonder whether one reason classical music thrives at Christmas is that its traditions are actually less exalted than some other parts of the classical canon. The Christian holiday, after all, is about celebrating the birth of a baby. Short music is appropriate; happy music is appropriate; nostalgic music is appropriate. The Christmas concert includes all of these, but seldom the searing, huge emotion of Mahler's Ninth or Beethoven's Missa Solemnis.

Maybe it helps once a year to reexamine the idea of "the spiritual" and remember that it can apply to the small, happy and tender as well as to the monumental. Like many of the cliched but beloved verities of the season ("good things come in small packages"), it's a truth that can be profitably applied not only in December, but through the months ahead. For classical music, the only problem is that at other times of the year, if you offer concerts full of small bright works, not everybody wants to listen.

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