A fit of Christmas musick against Christmas music: Toronto Consort’s The Little Barley-Corne

Come for the rant, stay for the review.

If you’re like me, you’re conflicted about Advent, a period before Christmas. While the season of Advent isn’t quite here yet (meaning the four Sundays before Christmas, ergo, Sundays Nov 30 + Dec 7, 14 and 21) that hasn’t stopped the commercial machinery that puts Christmas music out there into stores. Perhaps you’re not yet overwhelmed, but then again maybe you haven’t been shopping. I saw crazy behaviour today on the streets, cars already packing their way into places of commerce.

Music was once for me the most innocent aspect of the season, the most direct appeal to the child in all of us, meaning, the part of me that perversely managed to remain innocent when all else around me persuaded me to be cynical and lose hope. The carols & songs of this season –both Advent & Christmas—were a direct pathway to my heart.
And of course there was a year awhile ago when something stopped clicking. It used to be that each year I could listen to each song afresh and be rejuvenated in my attitude, as though the new church year (that begins on that first Sunday of Advent) also represented my own rebirth. Like the baby Jesus I would be reborn each year with the new music.

Except that one year: something changed.

Does it happen to all of us? One year I noticed that some of the songs –even hearing them for the first time that year—didn’t quite move me as well as they had in past years. The endless cycle seemed to be broken, somehow. And so I was aware that I my capacity for magic and faith had been drained if not completely burnt out. It’s the moment when the songs stop rejuvenating you, when they’re just songs, chords, harmonies, words, angels and shepherds and sentiment that is just an attitude and no longer something genuine.

So of course when I walk into a store and hear the tunes that once were pious I am particularly enraged.  If I could do it without getting arrested, I’d start pelting merchandise at the speakers, because i find the music in stores to be something evil, something that’s stealing our innocence and perverting our children.  There’s nothing angelic about music that’s meant to stir your will to spend money, something to make even George Orwell blanch.

It’s as though my tender feelings that had once inspired me were now being mocked by the annual orgy of greed. From time to time I find a tune in the hymnal or a performance by a colleague in church or at one of the annual Messiahs will pull me out of my torpor and revivify something that’s almost gone: faith in Christmas as something more than an annual boost to the retail industry.

coming soon

And so I am especially excited to report that I just listened to something extraordinary! Toronto Consort’s The Little Barley-Corne is a CD subtitled “Christmas Revels from the Renaissance”. The music is sufficiently unfamiliar that it doesn’t sound like a Christmas CD at all. There are a couple of tunes we know from Christmas, but none of them are done in that insufferably pious way you used to find on TV Christmas specials (sorry if that dates me).

The only one I ever liked was the one where the Swedish Chef sings with Big Bird, whom he mistook for the Christmas Törkey (or something like that), and then starts to cry sentimentally when the big yellow guy gives him chocolate covered birdseed. How can you kill a bird that’s so thoughtful?

Time to change the menu!

I hope that doesn’t make you cry into your iphone (although my Swedish friends will be excused if they want to hurl abuse at me…oh well!)

But let me back up. That CD from Toronto Consort?  It transported me to another time, both historically and personally: to the time before my connection to Christmas got messed up by commercialization of the season. Can one turn back the clock? I think so. The performances are remarkable, sounding simultaneously unpretentious, yet meticulous. This doesn’t sound like the accuracy of hard-nosed scholars; there’s too much fun being had for that. It’s often syncopated and danceable, but with so much variety that you can’t stop listening. The accents are all remarkable in several languages yet these sound like people celebrating in their own tongue, a true Christmas celebration.  For now I have this music endlessly on the car CD player. It will be a long time before I can even associate the infectious rhythms with Christmas, let alone lose my sense of joy in these tunes.

And if you want to check this out in person, The Toronto Consort will be presenting a live version Dec 12-14.

Here’s the PR for the concerts:

“David Greenberg, who has been called “one of the most impassioned folk fiddlers you’ll ever hear” joins forces with the Toronto Consort to throw a fabulous Christmas party of rollicking English ballads, infectious country dances and enchanting French noels.”

Dec 12-14 at Jeanne Lamon Hall in the Trinity St –Paul’s Centre, 427 Bloor St W. Box office 416-964-6337, torontoconsort.org

They say the CD will be available at the concerts, although I think you will be able to get it –or download tracks—on the website soon.  For now, there are samples there (click the image below).

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A fit of Christmas musick against Christmas music: Toronto Consort’s The Little Barley-Corne

  1. I was right about having a copy of this. I ripped it to my media drive in 2010 so likely I had bought some time, perhaps quite a long time, before then.

  2. Pingback: 2014 CD and DVD reviews | barczablog

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