Glorious Sounds For A Glorious Season

Each December, my periodic forays into music shift into holiday mode and I have featured some seasonal music. This year I would like to feature a record that is about as far away from the classic jazz I favor, but is one that perhaps has more deeply formed my tastes in holiday music than any other.

In 1962, Eugene Ormandy directed the Philadelphia Orchestra in making a Christmas album. In an era (then as now) when every performer and his (or her) brother churned out a holiday album that made a small splash and eventually slipped beneath the waves of time, this one has remained sturdily afloat ever since. Why this album in particular? Because it was really good in 1962 and remains so today. And because it has been a part of my personal Christmas sound track for almost my entire life.

I still remember the day a package arrived for us in the mail. It was a large, flat box from my grandparents, and it contained a record. I was very young, certainly under age 5 or 6, and remember this as strange. My Grandmother Cavanaugh was not someone who was particularly into music, and I wonder why she had sent us a record. This was not something that happened either before or after. Grandmother was, however, thoroughly plugged into the Philadelphia social scene and so my mother presumed that her mother-in-law was doing her part to share some culture with those of the family who lived far away in the wilds of Indiana.

I also remember that the package arrived nowhere near Christmas, so I found it odd that we were getting a seasonal record so far removed from the season when such a gift might be expected. But whatever the reason behind the gift, it became a favorite of my mother and, through frequent playing each Christmas season, a favorite of mine too.

In 1899, Eugene Ormandy was born Juno Blau in Budapest, Hungray. He took up the violin as a child and eventually became a performer, professor and conductor before emigrating the the United States in 1921. Ormandy had the good fortune to be on the scene during a period of towering musical figures, and first conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1931 as a substitute for an ill Arturo Toscanini. This set him up for a five year stint leading the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, a period in which he led that aggregation in making several well-received recordings.

Ormandy found himself back in Philadelphia in 1936, sharing conducting duties with Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski had raised the orchestra to a national stature with a series of excellent recordings, and was also a pioneer of multi-track recording techniques that paved the way for stereo (as we have previously examined here). Stokowski’s troubled relationship with the orchestra’s board led to Ormandy taking over as Musical Director in 1938, a post which he held until 1980. He also holds the distinction of being the first to conduct a symphonic concert on television – a performance for CBS that kicked off 90 minutes before a similar performance by Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

In the world of classical music, it has been a mark of good taste to look down on Eugene Ormandy as more of a showman than an orchestra conductor, but others have ranked him among the best who ever held a baton. Ormandy was known to favor the lush, expressive pieces of the late 19th century’s “romantic” era over the earlier “classical” pieces that were more commonly performed in that time. Ormandy was known to yell “More Strings!” to get the most volume out of that section of his orchestras, partly because of the acoustics of the orchestra’s primary hall and partly because he liked the sound – a voluptuous tone that came to be known as “The Philadelphia Sound”.

That “Philadelphia Sound” is on full display throughout this album, from the very beginning. The dramatic beginning of the opening track, “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” sets the tone for an album that covers the spectrum from the beautiful to the powerful. That opening track is one of several where the Temple University Concert Choir adds another layer (as if one was needed).

I am a sucker for the traditional carols that once dominated the season, and this album picked some good ones and went to town on them. Like this track( on Side 2 of the original album), “The First Noel.” If you are with me in thinking that Christmas music has lost much of the majesty and beauty that it deserves, these selections may be for you.

Not all of the tracks are the High Octane Ormandy – he chose some which were performed with softness and beauty. “Silent Night” is an example of a performance that is more about awe than grandeur, and captures that emotion very well.

I realize that I have lost one major war – the one where I yell into the wilderness that Christmas does not begin until December 25th, and that most of December is actually the season of Advent. However, this album allows me the minor victory of including a traditional Advent carol – “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”, in what is (for me) a performance not yet surpassed in its beauty.

Yes, this album is not the modern conception of what classical music is supposed to sound like, and is also far from the world of Mariah Carey and others who have taken over the airwaves of December in recent decades. But if someone is looking for a taste of what the world of the middle of the last century was looking for in a Christmas album, you can do a lot worse than this one. The album went gold in 1963 (which is a 500,000 copy threshold in classical music) and has remained an audience favorite through reissues in multiple forms.

I am quite sure that my Grandmother Cavanaugh had no idea that a simple act of ordering a record of her local symphony orchestra and having it sent to distant family would have the profound effect which actually resulted. It was this album that taught me the old carols and also taught me how they could be performed both powerfully and beautifully. My grandmother was a complex and strong-willed woman whose relationships did not always go smoothly. But when I listen to this long-ago gift, she I am always left with nothing but warm thoughts of her.

Although it is early (it is still Advent, after all), please accept my wishes that each of you has a powerful and beautiful Christmas season.

The entire album (which features the cover art from the original release) can be found here:

COAL Update: Did you ever own a perfectly good car for only three weeks? I did.

16 thoughts on “Glorious Sounds For A Glorious Season

  1. Always great to look back on those seminal holiday records that can reel back those years. We remember the Harry Simeon Corale “Sing We Now of Christmas” Album, and well as the multiple Firestone Christmas Albums. Just a couple of notes in, and it brings back the memories. We also had the classic ‘73 version of the Little Drummer Boy, but that was already when I was in college, so I’m doing truly that it has that much to remember for me…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I adopted a couple of the old Firestone albums on vinyl, but never got into them at the time because playing them was inconvenient. Now I need to see if I still have them.

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  2. Strike up the band and sound the chorus. This is what Christmas music should sound like, such a contrast to some of the Christmas music being churned out today or making millions like Mariah Carey’s much-overplayed and over-rated “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Though I will use that title in an upcoming post, it is far from one of my favorite songs. I count among my favorites any Christmas songs by the Carpenters – a duo of perfect voices, with Karen gone much too soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will join you in the Mariah Carey not-fan club. I am not sure when it happened, but we have passed the point where most Christmas music played today has anything to do with the actual day itself. Humbug, right? I will also agree that the Carpenters were gifted musicians.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s very true JP. In some respects the whole Christmas season has become that way. Call me a Humbug too. The Carpenters made beautiful music together. On a non-musical note, this morning on the news I heard that candy canes are no longer the favorite Christmas candy as M&Ms and chocolate covered marshmallow Santas now reign. Something is not right there.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I liked this line about assuming car payment for the first time: “Although I kept up on the payment book that came along with the 88 Honda I had married – that one wasn’t really negotiable.”

    Well, you managed to thwart an ongoing chill in the air at the Firm by offering Mike a crack at buying it. Through the years, many neighbors wanted first crack to buy my Regal when I sold it … unfortunately, they were all gone, dead and buried, by the time I finally was ready to give it up after 21 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There have been cars I have had my eye on over the years that have been sold elsewhere or that the owner just kept long enough that I was no longer interested. That’s the way it goes.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It sounds like a good album JP. The one I remember most from childhood was the Mitch Miller Christmas album – the one with all those old Christmas hymns. When Mariah Carrey comes on I change the station. As for the car, it was nice of you to sell it to someone who really wanted it. I prefer to buy my cars outright too, but that seems to be fairly rare these days.

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  5. The Stan Kenton Christmas album is a fantastic illustration of the big band era sound of traditional Christmas music. I’ve enjoyed it for decades. Merry Christmas 🎄🎁

    Liked by 1 person

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