A Christmas Medley
A festive selection of Christmas music in the National Library collection
8 December 2015
As a new member of the Music Cataloguing and Acquisitions team, and someone with a deep love of Christmas music, I have been enjoying the opportunity to explore some of the Christmas music in the collection. Of course, most of us are familiar with the well-known carols that are played endlessly in shopping malls around the country. However I have discovered that the Library’s collection is much more diverse than a simple collection of familiar tunes.
The earliest piece of Christmas music held by the Library is The Christmas Present Polka, an instrumental piano polka from 1852. The composer, John Howson, settled in Australia as a young man and remained until his death in 1871, composing a number of other pieces of music apart from this polka. The first piece of Christmas music with an overtly Australian theme is Our Australian Christmas Song, composed by Ernesto Spagnoletti, which has been discussed in detail in a previous blog post. Of course, Christmas music is still being published today, both as arrangements of traditional carols and original pieces. As the Library’s collection reveals, choir music remains popular, as are children’s books with singalong CDs.
Here, I have chosen to focus on four pieces of music that represent the diversity of Christmas music in the Library’s collection. These pieces also highlight some of the themes that are associated with Christmas, even today, such as sentiment and commercialisation.
Sometimes the link to Christmas is quite tenuous as in the first piece I have selected. Christmas Without Daddy (Pathetic Story Song) tells the story of a little girl who misses her father at Christmas, because he is away at war. The piece was published in 1907, and does not appear to relate to a specific war but rather is a general patriotic song. The second verse may appear rather morbid and overly sentimental to our modern eyes, implying that “daddy” will take the little girl and her mama to heaven with him because “the angels wanted dad and daddy’s pet”. The piece was composed by Robert C. Stynes. We hold one other work by this composer but we know very little else about him. Interestingly, however, he had a darker side that conflicts with the family sentiment of his carol. He was charged with having failed to pay maintenance to his wife!
One of the most utterly charming pieces of music with a Christmas connection that the Library holds is The Cinnamon Bear. The song was originally connected to a Californian radio program designed to be listened to over the period between the American Thanksgiving holiday and Christmas, but was later released in Australia in 1937 to promote Koala jelly crystals. It is perhaps an example of how music can be repurposed for different audiences and uses, with minimal changes. Somewhat anachronistically, its cover seems to depict a koala bear sitting amidst a snowy North American Christmas landscape!
For something with a more Australian flavour the Library holds classics such as The Three Drovers and The Carol of the Birds. Also in the collection is An Australian Carol by Ron Grainer, perhaps better known as the composer of the Dr Who theme song. The carol was published in the 1940s and recorded by singer Patrick O’Hagan, an Irish Tenor who went on to star in his own Australian television show, Patrick O’Hagan Sings. The lyrics of An Australian Carol speak of the very different weather at Christmas time in Australia:
No snow falls at Christmas on this sunburnt land
There’s only the heat and the dust and the sand
But as in the lands that our folk left behind
We’ll celebrate Christ’s birth the hope of mankind
The carol goes on to describe typical bush scenes of celebrating Christmas around the campfire or under a gum tree. It is telling that these scenes of Australianess still resonate with us even though these days we’re more likely to spend Christmas Day in air conditioned houses or around the barbecue than out bush.
Silent Night is probably my favourite carol. It was originally composed by Austrian schoolteacher Franz Gruber in 1818 at the request of priest and lyricist Father Joseph Mohr. Since then Stille Nacht has been translated from the original German into 140 languages and become a Christmas standard around the world. This particular arrangement was designed for use in radio lessons for students in remote areas in circa 1930s. I can just imagine children crowded around the radio in outback Australia, singing along to this song. It’s truly a mark of an iconic song when it reaches the remotest parts of the other side of the world!
While the School of the Air arrangement of Silent Night is the earliest held by the Library, we do hold an astonishing 51 variations, published both individually and in compilations. This includes an arrangement by Judith Durham from The Seekers published in 1968, a combined carol/recipe book by Tom Piper Limited from the 1970s, and an orchestral arrangement by Andrew Schultz from 1998.
So however, wherever you celebrate the holiday season, there’s sure to be a song in our collection that’s right for you!