Let’s Expand Our Holiday Horizons: A Top 10 List of Lesser-Known Classical Christmas Works

Here’s a post from last year to kick off your week of less-traditional, yet totally worthy holiday listening.

Before the Downbeat

ImageI’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately on the “Christmas Channel” radio stations.  What starts out in early December as great traditional fare seems to devolve as the holiday approaches. Singers and arrangers with markedly less talent and imagination dominate the airwaves.  The classy arrangements and vocal stylings of Nat King Cole or the Harry Simeone Chorale are replaced by the latest pop singer with little concept of vocal support; nor have they been advised that certain songs simply don’t work when you belt them out.

So, I relegate myself to my classic CDs, and now to streaming of albums and artists that capture the season for me.  But as with everything, there is always more to discover.  What happens when we get tired of the popular stylings and even the usual classical fare (aka, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Handel’s Messiah)?  Where do we turn for some really interesting and quality Christmas…

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From Sand Creek to Pakistan: The Solution of Creativity

d8495“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”—Leonard Bernstein

I grew up in Colorado, with the shadow of the Sand Creek Massacre still lingering over the entire state. It was talked about in school, yet explained away as something people did “in the past.” Reasons were given: Manifest Destiny, greed, the inevitable future, racism, humankind’s failings, etc. Now an apology comes 150 years after the event. It is perhaps a start towards healing:

Link to NPR Story on Sand Creek Massacre Apology

There was a part of me that didn’t buy all of the tidy explanations I’d heard in school. Part of the problem was that I kept seeing examples of similar behavior, from the atrocities in Vietnam to the rash of school shootings that were emerging as I transitioned from teenager into adulthood. I continually noticed the ruse of explaining away problems, rather than dealing with them. It was as if one story melded into the next, like a dream. Or rather like a drug, it was keeping us hooked with yet another left-brain addiction.

Yesterday’s school massacre in Pakistan was another appalling reminder that we have not progressed much in the past 150 years. Similar events across the globe continue without any plan to truly address the problem, outside of violence meeting violence. We have become equally addicted to the violence as much as to the pundits and experts for whom we regularly relinquish our authority.

 “I propose that most addictions come from our surrendering our real powers, that is, our powers of creativity … It is not the essence of humans to be passive. We are players. We are actors on many stages…. We are curious, we are yearning to wonder, we are longing to be amazed… to be excited, to be enthusiastic, to be expressive. In short to be alive. We are also not cogs in a machine. To be so would be to give up our personal freedoms so as to not upset The Machine, whatever that machine is. Creativity keeps us creating the life we wish to live and advancing humanity’s purpose as well.” –Matthew Fox, Creativity

Individuals can be mentally ill, but so can groups and entire societies. No person or group is immune. It’s a short putt from the behavior of the Taliban in Pakistan to the lynchings of the KKK in the United States. But rather than allowing this realization to plunge us into an abyss of helplessness, we can allow it to touch us, to truly feel the pain it creates. What begins as a “third person” perspective will dig deeper if we allow it. We need that burr to irritate towards the core of us. The first person perspective is the place there can the soul be touched.

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” – Thomas Merton

Many of those we define as the great artists and thinkers often began their transcendent accomplishments from the darkest of corners, from the borderlands of chaos.  Chaos creates uncertainty. Chaos is scary. It is at the border of our very sanity. But also perhaps, as Matthew Fox writes, true creativity is not possible in a vacuum. Beethoven’s battle with deafness and Shostakovich’s conflict with a rigid government resulted in their music being what it is—something that can touch us on a personal level, even though we have never experienced their level of suffering.

“What do we do with chaos? Creativity has an answer. We are told by those who have studied the processes of nature that creativity happens at the border between chaos and order. Chaos is a prelude to creativity. We need to learn, as every artist needs to learn, to live with chaos and indeed to dance with it as we listen to it and attempt some ordering. Artists wrestle with chaos, take it apart, deconstruct and reconstruct from it. Accept the challenge to convert chaos into some kind of order, respecting the timing of it all, not pushing beyond what is possible—combining holy patience with holy impatience–that is the role of the artist. It is each of our roles as we launch the twenty-first century because we are all called to be artists in our own way. We were all artists as children. We need to study the chaos around us in order to turn it into something beautiful. Something sustainable. Something that remains.” – Matthew Fox, Creativity

Some of the greatest artists, thinkers and sages were born from this place: Rumi, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Jesus, Buddha, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Meister Eckhart, Lao Tzu…the list is huge. Theirs was the way of creativity. I hope and pray that their beacon will continue to shine for our times as well. The creative, artistic solution may the only possibility left.

“And suddenly you know: It’s time to start something new and trust the magic of beginnings.” – Meister Eckhart

So , whatever his motives, I applaud Governor Hickenlooper of the Great State of Colorado for the start. I remain skeptical if it will create any meaningful change unless it creatively spurs us to develop compassionate change, true change. Band-aids on the past won’t change the present reality if we fail to act. Creativity provides the hope for a solution that allows us to evolve from our perpetual cycle of violence. Something the sages and artists have been trying to tell us throughout the ages.

Copyright, 2014. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat.