Help Me Fight the War on Christmas!

No, not really. I’m not fighting it because there is no such war. O’Reilly, being an obvious and crass egotistical materialist, is probably sweating this one more than ever – with the economy as it is, it seems certain that there will be no retail bonanza this year, and if it can’t be put in a box with a price-tag, Billo The Clown can’t understand it. His Jesus is Mammon. But since we as Americans must be burdened by this massively vainglorious, egotistical, amoral, unethical, stupid and ignorant horse’s ass, we must recognize the true blessings of this country, which is so rich as to create such jobs. There’s something all good people can fight for; work, and good work. Ma, piano piano, fight gently. Lets leave the people of small hearts and large resentments to weary themselves in their corners, wrestling with their tantrums and the ghosts of their own imaginations.

The best way to celebrate Christmas is through true fellowship, and it doesn’t depend on the day of the 25th either, as that is essentially an arbitrary date the Catholic church chose in the 5th century as the birthdate of Christ. We commonly give each other gifts, ideally as a token of this fellowship. So, in the spirit of fighting the good fight, and if you don’t want to follow Justin Timberlake’s low-cost gift idea, here is my completely subjective list (and without any guarantee I’ve flagged the best price, although many of these are also available for download from various sources) of things I know – or think – would be generous and welcome tokens of fellowship, things that remind the recipient and giver of this over the course of time:

Let’s start with a momentous splurge – this month marks the 100th anniversary of two great composers, one still living. To commemorate the one who has passed, and spend a lot of hard-earned money, there’s a new, complete collection of the works of Olivier Messiaen. This is indeed complete, invluding early Ondes Martenot and choral music, all the organ works, and Deutsche Gramaphone filled in any gaps in their catalog with new recordings. There’s no such edition yet available for the work of Elliot Carter, but then he’s still adding to his catalogue, and rapidly. Give him another ten years . . .

That’s not true for all living American composers, however, and there are three excellent surveys of the big three of contemporary American music, Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams. For dead composers, major, not so major, and minor, there are many, many sets – and by now you are getting an idea of my fetish for boxed sets. It’s a box full of an entire body of work, neatly contained . . . in a box! What’s not to love? If you have any faith in my taste, these are some of my recent favorites and favorite bargains:

Vaughan Williams – a comprehensive set of beautiful, satisfying music.

Benjamin Britten – one of the 20th centuries great composers, this is a huge collection.

Wagner Operas from Bayreuth – all the major works, with great artists and conductors, from Wagner’s theater.

In the standard repertoire, there are complete editions of the great composers from Brilliant Classics that are excellent value and generally fine quality of music – although the sheer size of them makes them pricy. For collections of major works, these are my very favorites:

Mozart Piano Concertos – along with the later operas, the concertos are the great, emblematic masterpieces.

Haydn Symphonies, Haydn Piano Trios and Haydn String Quartets (Naxos has also released new collections of these works)

Beethoven Symphonies (this is a superb cycle, not well known)

It’s also been a year to celebrate Leonard Bernstein, and this is a great collection – he was a great musician who made a great deal of music that is simply a satisfying pleasue. I do not have these collections of Chopin, von Karajan’s recordings of the symphonic literature and what looks to be an amazing collection of French Baroque music, but I would buy them sight-unseen for myself I covet them.

One of my mainstays is, of course, Mahler, and if you would like to give or receive a Mahler collection, there are several worthwhile choices, and the decision may come to down cost. If money is no object, the New York Philharmonic’s collection of broadcasts of the Mahler symphonies is a treasure; great performances from a variety of conductors, incredible documentation of the music and Mahler’s own time spent in New York, leading this orchestra. Simon Rattle’s recent cycle is excellent, it seems better with each listening. His 2nd and 7th are extraordinary, and he always offers ideas that are constructive to hear and argue with. Still, though, for about half price you can have one of two consistently excellent cycles, from Gary Bertini and Bernstein. The latter is consistently fine, with superb playing and superb sound. Bertini’s approach is straightforward and sober, focussed and intense, and he makes consistently intriguing and satisfying choices in emphasis and phrasing. The latter is a cycle that put Mahler on the popular map, and is more fiery and willful, and actually more controlled than Bernstein’s later cycle, but with inferior sound and execution to Bertini’s Cologne orchestra. You’ll love either, or both.

If you’re looking for jazz, each and all the sets put together by Mosaic Records are excellent in terms of both music and documentation – the booklets are full of information and beautiful photographs, and there’s an enjoyable cachet in seeing the actual number of each limited edition. What to choose depends on taste, since their selection covers swing, bop, hard-bop, vocal and even avant-garde music. For particular recommendations on other labels, some of my favorite jazz sets are these ones for Miles Davis, Herbie Nichols, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane.

Thinking about Christmas music? There is actually Christmas music out there that is also good music, which you might find yourself listening to throughout the year. There’s the well-known, and the cultish, but I think the greatest Christmas music of all time was written by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and these two CDs are truly glorious.

Of course, I read too, and books are always wonderful gifts – it’s a way to share something inexpressible about yourself with someone you care for and trust. So, let me skip the books. Ever thought about magazines? I’m a magazine junky, and it is the gift that keeps on giving. I can’t do without The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and I do enjoy Vanity Fair. But perhaps the best magazine gift, in terms of quality and the surprise of every issue, is McSweeney’s, and they are offering some interesting bargains.

Finally, a bit of advocating for myself. I treat this blog as a professional endeavor, as part of the public life of a composer and critic – that is, I treat this with as great a level of seriousness of thought as I do anything I desire to create or any work I am hired to do. It is not, unfortunately, literally professional. If you, my regular or occasional readers, have discovered anything of even modestly lasting pleasure or interest here, to your heart and your mind, if you have learned anything, if you have been presented with something new, please consider even a small donation or a generous gift, either of which will help sustain the enterprise, spiritually, physically, or both. And with that, I’ll end this by asking you to keep an eye out for a few more holiday, end-of-year themed posts, and then, hopefully, some more breathtaking and powerful insights to start the New Year. Whatever you may celebrate, peace and joy to you, in the streets, in the concerts halls, in our rooms.


I'm a composer and musician, and I write about music—I do that here, for the New York Classical Review, at the Brooklyn Rail (I edit the music section there) and any place else that will have me, like New Music Box and Music & Literature. I also wrote the Miles Davis' Bitches Brew book in the 33 1/3 series.

One comment

  • There is no War on Christmas because YOU don’t want one. The very people who say there is no “war” are amongst those who are doing the most talking about it. Interesting musical tastes….just listening to Delius a moment ago–music that is lush and sensual. I’m an atheist, but am deeply moved by spirituality in music–and I think one can be very spiritual without conforming to any particular religion. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, many others….all wrote music of the most sublime spirituality. Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” moves me tremendously, even though it was taken from poetry written by Cardinal Newman, a convert to Catholicism. What I find lacking in our society is that there is all this religion (often being forced down our throats) without that much real reflection or spirituality.

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