Seasons of song

Christmas, Advent music resonates strongly

by luke eggleston
sun staff writer

   Christmas music stirs strong memories in everyone. Memories of time spent gathered with family and friends, warm fires, a well-lit tree or even egg nog often bubble up whenever one hears, for example, “Silent Night.”

   More than any other holiday, we associate music with the Christmas season.

   According to Syracuse Symphony Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Daniel Hege, it isn’t simple repetition that provokes such a strong reaction. Hege believes that music is a powerful medium for invoking fond holiday memories.

   “Christmas music transports us almost instantly back to that time,” Hege said.

   Spiritual music is particularly pervasive during the holiday season. One hears traditional hymns such as “Oh Holy Night,” “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “Joy to World” and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” at the shopping mall and in other secular environments, as well as in church.

   Catholics distinguish between Christmas and Advent hymns, because both seasons are so close together. While the list above is appropriate for Christmas and the remembrance of Christ’s birth, Advent is when Catholics prepare themselves for the second coming of the Lord. Appropriate Advent hymns include “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” “People Look East” and “Come Along Expected Jesus.”

   Music is an integral element of liturgy. Indeed, the oldest form of liturgy is sung and music is the purest form of community worship. Music can express what the mere spoken word cannot. It carries language to a new level, giving it different inflections and intonations.

   Tim Davenport, the music director at St. Joseph the Worker in Liverpool, grew up in a devout Catholic home in which Advent was celebrated with reverence.

   “It was considered a very, very Holy time of year,” Davenport said.

   He has noticed, however, that recognition of Advent has declined, particularly among young people. Davenport noted that a regular exercise for his confirmation students is an essay on what Advent means to them.

   “I’m not sure they truly understand what it is,” he said.

   Davenport faults the secularization of the Christmas season, with its emphasis on holiday shopping, as the culprit behind the demise of Advent’s proper place among Christian seasons.

   “Christmas shopping and some of the secular preparations of Christmas have come to replace the spiritual implications of Advent,” he said.

   On Sunday, Dec. 7, St. Joseph the Worker hosted a special Advent prayer service entitled “A Season of Light and Hope,” which Davenport wrote.

   The parish recognizes Christmas with a special Mass that Davenport wrote for its patron, St. Joseph the Worker. Davenport introduced the Mass during a 2005 organ dedication and is considering having it published once he concludes its finishing touches.

   Davenport believes it is important that liturgy inform music, rather than the other way around. There is little place for innovation in his programs.

   Davenport compared his approach to the old adage, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”

   “Liturgy is unchanged. You don’t touch it,” Davenport said. “Some people want to change it, but you can’t. Why change it? It’s worked for many, many, many years.”

   Jim Stanley, who is the music director at Our Lady of Pompei in Syracuse and also a music teacher at the Cathedral Academy at Pompei, believes that there is some room for innovation, but liturgical traditions determine both Advent and Christmas music.

   “We’re shaped by that sameness every week,” said Stanley, whose fascination with music began when he was a young boy attending Blessed Sacrament Parish and School. Initially he was very active in the church’s choir. Then, as a teenager, he began taking organ lessons.

   For Advent, Our Lady of Pompei features a special program each Tuesday for four weeks. Farther Paul Angelicchio celebrates Mass accompanied by traditional Advent music and concludes with the Benediction.

   Both Hege and Syracuse Symphony Orchestra guest conductor Ron Spigelman said that George Frideric Handel’s most famous work, Messiah. Was their favorite piece of seasonal music.

   “That’s a huge and overarching piece but it awakens in me thoughts of Christmas,” said Hege, who was raised in a mainstream Protestant church.

   The orchestra will perform Messiah at Most Holy Rosary Church in Syracuse on Sunday, Dec. 14, at 3 p.m.

   Those who attend are asked to bring nonperishable food items that will be donated to the Interreligious Food Consortium. Although Handel initially conceived of his piece as something to be performed during the Lenten season, Messiah has come to be traditionally associated with Advent. The work consists of three parts which correspond to the life of Christ.

   The performance is one of the orchestra’s most significant traditions.

   Although the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra performs frequently at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and Most Holy Rosary Parish in Syracuse, neither Hege nor Spigelman is Catholic. Both noted, however, that people of many different faiths can find common ground in Christmas music.

   “I feel like music is such a universal language, it doesn’t have a denomination,” said Spigelman, who is the music director of the Springfield Symphony in Springfield, Mo.

   Spigelman has performed at numerous Masses throughout his career. He has found that there are certain songs traditionally associated with Christmas that he will listen to no matter what time of year it is.

   “I just love great melodies and I think some of the great melodies are in religious music or Christmas music,” Spigelman said.

   Spigelman is particularly fond of Manheim Steamroller’s arrangement of “Silent Night.” He feels that innovation can “refamiliarize” the listener with the music’s message.

   “A different spin can awaken the message again. It makes it feel like a new message,” he said. Although he is Jewish, Spigelman’s career has taken him to numerous Masses in which a homilist will retell an old story in a way that rejuvenates the message.

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