by Jay Gabler • The cover story of this month’s BBC Music Magazine promises the definitive list of the 50 greatest Christmas carols, “as voted by the world’s finest choirmasters.” I expected that the choirmasters’ list would contain a few surprises—and did it ever! I hadn’t even heard of the song the choirmasters deemed the world’s greatest carol. I decided to conduct an informal poll of my extended family members and see how the results lined up.
Choirmasters: “What Sweeter Music” (music by John Rutter, words by Robert Herrick)
Gabler family: “Frosty the Snowman” (Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson)
I was surprised to see that Rutter, often regarded as saccharin, made the choirmasters’ list—but unsurprised to find that Frosty didn’t.
Choirmasters: “Of the Father’s Heart Begotten” (Prudentius)
Gabler family: “What Child Is This” (William Chatterton Dix)
“Father’s Heart” is one of the earliest known carols, with words written between 350 and 400 C.E. “What Child Is This” was written by an English insurance man in a deep depression and suffering from a near-deadly illness. He lived through it, but the video above might have pushed him over the edge.
Choirmasters: “O Come All Ye Faithful” (probably J.F. Wade)
Gabler family: “The First Noel” (traditional)
The Gablers like “Faithful,” too—it came in at #23 on their list. The choirmasters did not return the love—“The First Noel” isn’t even in their top 50.
Choirmasters: “There Is No Rose” (music by John Joubert, words traditional)
Gabler family: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane)
I have a friend who has a couple dozen versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” collected on her hard drive—she decidedly prefers the “muddle through somehow” versions to the “hang a shining star upon the highest bough” versions—and one day we tried to listen to all of them back to back. After about ten versions I started to feel like William Chatterton Dix, and we had to bail.
Choirmasters: “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” (music by John Gardiner, words traditional)
Gabler family: “Jingle Bells” (James Lord Pierpont)
Note: The world’s finest choirmasters do not necessarily endorse this performance of “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.” The Gabler family definitely endorses this performance of “Jingle Bells.”
Choirmasters: “Lully, Lulla” (music by Kenneth Leighton, words traditional)
Gabler family: “Joy to the World” (music by Franz Gruber, words by Joseph Mohr)
The choirmasters liked “Joy to the World” okay, voting it in at #48—though the magazine notes that it’s a blatant 19th-century Handel rip-off. No votes from the Gablers for “Lully, Lulla.” After all, if the Jewish Elvis hasn’t performed it, what good can it be?
Choirmasters: “Bethlehem Down” (music by Peter Warlock, words by Bruce Blunt)
Gabler family: “The Little Drummer Boy” (Katherine K. Davis, Henry Onorati, and Harry Simeone)
The somber “introverted melancholy” of “Bethlehem Down” belies the rowdy proclivities of its writers, says BBC Music Magazine. The carol won the Daily Telegraph’s carol competition in 1927, and “the proceeds went toward an ‘immortal carouse’ on Christmas Eve.” I’m with the choirmasters on this one…”The Little Drummer Boy” is fine and all, but why must it be on every Christmas album?
Choirmasters: “A Spotless Rose” (music by Herbert Howells, words traditional)
Gabler family: “O Holy Night” (Adolphe Adam)
Hang on until the end of “Spotless Rose”: “The scrunchy harmonies of the final few bars,” says Jeremy Suter, master of music at Carlisle Cathedral, “are pure, unadulterated bliss!”
Choirmasters: “In Dulci Jubilo” (traditional)
Gabler family: “The Christmas Song” (Mel Tormé and Bob Wells)
Tubular Bells mastermind Mike Oldfield actually hit the (British) charts with “In Dulci Jubilo,” taking it to #4 in 1976.
Choirmasters: “In the Bleak Midwinter” (music by Harold Darke, words by Christina Rossetti)
Gabler family: “Silent Night” (music by Franz Gruber, words by Joseph Mohr)
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Confirming all stereotypes about dour Brits, the BBC’s choirmasters chose for their favorite Christmas carol a song called “In the Bleak Midwinter.” (And confirming all stereotypes about ABBA, Anni-Frid Lyngstad is still rocking that haircut.) “Does any other carol get to the very heart of Christmas as understatedly but effectively?” asks BBC Music Magazine. The Gablers cast their lot with “Silent Night,” which comes in at #25 on the choirmasters’ list. It’s no “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen,” think the choirmasters—or even “Once In Royal David’s City,” which is #11—but it’s not bad. Whatever.
Published on 12/17/08.