On Christmas carol remakes

I joined a choir this season to sing “Handel’s Messiah.” Last night we rehearsed with the orchestra and I am always amazed at how, though I’ve heard this music dozens of times, it never fails to move me with emotions I can barely name.  After each practice I go away with a new favourite from the oratorio running through my head.

Lest you think my musical tastes are limited to classical, let me tell you I enjoy many different genres of music; pop, rock, folk, blues, a little country.  I especially love a good a cappella rendition of a song.

But what I listen to most is Christian contemporary, because the lyrics are redemptive and like the words to the Messiah, the best thing to have replaying inside my head. This time of year, the music is mostly Christmas fare, a mix of new and old.

But I confess many of the re-makes make me cringe. As a harmony singer, I have difficulty making musical sense of newer versions of “Angels we have heard on High” or “It came upon a Midnight Clear.” Perhaps the chords were chosen to make it easier for the guitarist or no-one consulted the hymnbook. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t quite work.

When these Christmas carols  were written one or two hundred or two years ago, the chord structure was excellent and unless you count electric and bass guitars, nothing regarding the physics of sound has changed in that time. Each chord has a function in the music; a language that mysteriously connects our intellect, emotions and soul. As my harmony teacher used to say, each chord progression carries musical meaning. There are “correct” progressions and “incorrect.” A brilliant composer knows when and how to break the rules for effect.  That is why when you hear a great choral performance or symphony and they hit the notes just right you get the shivers.

So to the singer, songwriters out there. I don’t want to anyone to accuse me of musical snobbery or being unkind. I do appreciate your efforts and the variety of music you put out. I know your hearts  are in the right place.


When it comes to Christmas carol do-overs, go right ahead, add some different instrumentation, jazz up the rhythm a bit, put your vocal stamp on it. But unless you truly know what you are doing harmonically, leave the chords alone! Handel and Mendelssohn got them right the first time around.

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