Christ is born!
For today’s Nativity feast, I wish to offer a few more samples of Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” for which Gustav Holst provided a musical setting. I wrote about the carol five years ago with different samplings: “In the Bleak Midwinter.” For this carol, I prefer female solos, and my favorite version from my personal album collection is with Kiri Te Kanawa. Here she sings for a televised holiday special.
I also found a version with Susan Boyle and Libera at Royal Albert Hall.
The ever interesting folks at U.C. Berkeley decided to replicate the famous Tsar Bell’s sound and to play it on campus for Cal Day this weekend. From ABC 7 News:
My brother Aaron and I got to see the grand broken bell in the Moscow Kremlin near the similarly massive Tsar Cannon. Let’s hope Berkeley’s experiment doesn’t inspire copycat projects to replicate the cannon; just imagine what the mischievous cadets at the U.S.M.A. might come up with. I wouldn’t want to be near West Point on that day.
One-man quartet Tyler Mancuso sings selections from Psalm 103 (104 in the Masoretic numbering) at the Antiochian Village Summer Camp:
His YouTube page states that he doesn’t use autotune; his variations are his own and recorded separately. I don’t know how Mancuso integrates the tracks, but I find the timing impressive.
I imagine that Mancuso entertains the campers well, though here we see the superiority of a real (multi-membered) a capella quartet. Four fellows can charm and wow an audience without any additional equipment—even at a rustic auditorium in the woods. Mancuso’s gift is better appreciated online. At camp, Mancuso probably joins with other campers and staff to sing. The Orthodox have plenty of singers!
As a follow-up to “Christian Kitsch,” I would like to share Jane Scharl’s “The Gospels according to Thomas Kinkade and Jean-Jacques Rousseau” from the Intercollegiate Review. Scharl argues that there is a spiritual background behind shallow Christmas art, which she describes as the most that a secular world can provide:
Rousseau’s sublimation is the best we can hope for from secular traditions. Secular Christmas music, even the best, exemplifies this attempt to sublimate experienced feelings—of loneliness (“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”), nostalgia (“White Christmas”), or love (“Let It Snow”)—beyond their context in ordinary life and elevate them to the level of the sublime. A sublime experience is a universal experience, one that has meaning outside of itself that both clarifies and validates it. This is the purest impulse of secular Christmas: to elevate our experiences to the level of the universal, and in so doing, to create a myth of Christmas to validate the feelings that punctuate our lives, even if just for one day.
We all hold an ideal of secular Christmas in our imaginations, even though for most of us it has never happened: cottages covered in snow, lanes fretted with sleigh tracks, children laughing, clear voices singing in a village square lit by lamps. Countless sugar cookies made by a smiling family while a perfect tree gleams in the corner and orphans smile at the feet of Santa Claus. It’s the Gospel according to Thomas Kinkade. But in this picture, the light illumines only itself, reflecting endlessly. It doesn’t illumine—or transform—the things of the world.
Scharl contrasts Kinkade’s work with that of Rembrandt to make her point. Pitting Kinkade against the Dutch master strikes me as a bit unfair, but I found her essay insightful.
I found a cheeky but thoughtful musing by Paul Griffiths on Christian kitsch in Duke’s Divinity Magazine, “A Defense of Christian Kitsch.” Griffiths argues that kitsch is the bread and butter of pious art for Christianity, “a religion of peasants and proles.” Therefore, he states, Christians should hesitate to look down on the gospel according to Thomas Kinkade.
I am not sure what to think. Griffiths is correct that most Christians have been from the unwashed masses; the good news is for all people, plumbers and MOMA curators alike, and there are always more of the former than the latter. However, I hesitate to agree with him—not (principally) because I am an insufferable snob whose stomach twists when I see sappy religious pictures and Jesus nightlights—but rather because art for the masses appears to have different characteristics in different regimes. In our contemporary democratic culture, mass tastes and consumption largely dictate what the entire society appreciates. Yes, we have art critics in the New York Times, and elite opinion trickles down (yes, yes, that cerulean speech in The Devil Wears Prada). Yet, our society’s master class appears generally content to fill the trough according to the swine’s appetite. In more hierarchical societies, the elite largely determines the aesthetics of the lower classes. Maybe, I just do not know enough about peasant art in ages past, but pre-modern religious art does not strike me as kitsch. Some of it crude, perhaps, but not kitsch (compare the paintings in the catacombs to the papal commissions of the Italian Renaissance—a striking difference in quality, but neither is kitsch). Consider traditional Christian iconography, the stained glass windows of Western Christendom, or the mosaics of antiquity. I do not even know whether we should call the governing force of such art “elite” taste—rather, artisans tended to work with canonical styles (hence, being determined by tradition, not any group’s fancy). The architectural progress of sacred buildings clearly involved the engineering elite, commissioned by the secular and ecclesiastical elite, but entire towns were involved in cathedrals’ construction and adornment. Would you call the windows of Chartres kitschy? Would the Most Reverend Maurice de Sully have found the aesthetic tastes in sacred art of his poor parents so different from that of the royal court? Griffiths even mentions the icons of Andrei Rublev, but surely this example provides a stumbling block for his position. Russian peasants and proles have always adored the transcendent beauty of Rublev’s iconography.
Christian kitsch may simply be yet another symptom of our decadent age.
That said, who doesn’t like angels and kittens, together, lightly hovering over little girls in Easter dresses having afternoon tea with their teddy bears in a peaceful meadow (with birds, chipmunks, and lots of unidentifiable flora in the background)?
My Albanian-yoked friend sent me the following Shqiptarët version of “O Pure Virgin.” The video visual is just a sideshow of Albianian Orthodoxy.
Have a safe weekend.
Christmas greetings on this feast of the circumcision and happy belated birthday wishes to my nephew!
Four years ago, “Once in Royal David’s City” was among the first batch of Christmas carols featured on this site. I so love the song that I present another performance of it—this time at Saint Paul’s in London:
I fancy those Jacobean ruffs! If only the Church of England would hold fast to old theology and morality, Albion might be saved from ruin!
Happy Boxing Day!
Here is the traditional Irish Wexford Carol, sung by the Palestrina Choir of Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral.
When I visited Dublin, I attended services at the city’s three cathedrals: Christ Church, Saint Patrick’s, and Saint Mary’s. Even before the Reformation, Dublin had two cathedrals.
Merry Christmas to those who follow the new calendar. May your Christmastide be beautiful and joyful.
For your gift, Christendom College Choir and Schola Gregoriana sing “What Child Is This?” magnificently:
What a perfect use of the tune “Greensleeves”!
May those on the new calendar have a wonderful Christmas Eve!
A fitting carol for the day is this lovely rendition of the English hymn, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree,” performed by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge:
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.
His beauty doth all things excel:
By faith I know, but ne’er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ the apple tree.
For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought:
I missed of all; but now I see
‘Tis found in Christ the apple tree.
I’m weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest awhile:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ the apple tree.
This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive;
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.