Doin’ It the Old Way

This time of year you can’t walk into a store to buy a box of breakfast cereal without being washed over by treacly, saccharine-laden goop, so that from Black Friday through Christmas becomes one long Santa-and-elf-ridden nightmare.

It wasn’t always this way.  Once upon a time Christmas was actually about Christmas.  Back around the early 1540s Martin Luther worked up Luke 2:8-18 into a song, “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her,” after its opening line, spoken by the angels announcing the Good News of Christ’s birth, the arrival of the long-promised Messiah.  The link is to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung’s running feature this time of year on Christmas music.  Follow the link, then click on the “Audio” tab to hear how it’s supposed to sound.

As with so much else of Luther’s composition, everyone’s got in on the act since.  It’s been translated, transcribed, worked over, worked up, and generally fully explored for its musical potential.  My personal favorite was J. S. Bach’s Canonical Variations for organ, which I arranged to have played at my wedding.  Alas! the organist didn’t have the chops to play the third of the five variations (which if you listen is easily understandable; I’m given to understand it’s one of his most difficult pieces to play, a statement that upon listening I can readily accept).  But still it just rocked.  Pay attention to the pedal line throughout the variation; it’s just amazing.

The organ, by the way, on which the above is played is not just any ol’ organ; it’s a Silbermann from 1714.  The Silbermanns were a family of organ builders in southern Germany, and Gottfried was the Big Dog in that pack.  In addition to this one, the cathedral at Freiberg, he also built the instruments in the Hofkapelle and the Frauenkirche in Dresden.  Both were destroyed in the bombing, and both have been re-built (although in the Frauenkirche the re-built instrument has not only Silbermann’s original registration but also added registers so that it can play later organ music).

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