Entry from December 22, 2006

From National Review on-line:

No Christmas is complete without The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge playing in the background. That’s partly because I remember going to the service at King’s or listening to it on the radio for many years in England and always being moved by the combination of the solemn story of salvation and the indescribably sweet sound of boy trebles and male voices that is the hallmark of English choral music. It’s partly, too, because when I was a teacher I both sang in the choir and drilled the readers when my school had its own lessons and carols concert every Christmas. The Chaplain was a liberal churchman and used to ask me every year to have the readers use one of the modern translations of the Bible. I always insisted that if he wanted me to coach them it would have to be in the Authorized or King James Version. That was one tiny victory for the forces of reaction.

When jazzed up carols or those with a rock beat like Mannheim Steamroller’s are playing, I run. Hasn’t the devil got enough of his own tunes — not without reason known as the best — without colonizing those of pious and penitent Christians? This is the music of sex and self-indulgence, which are all very well in their place, but their place isn’t — or shouldn’t be — Christmas. To hear such stuff is a continual reminder of how hard it is to preserve not only any sense of the sacred in our public spaces but even any sense that the sacred should be allowed to exist there.


As a footnote to the last paragraph, I’d like to hear from anyone who can help me identify the source of the saying: “Why should the devil have all the best tunes?” A Google search suggests that the overwhelming majority of those who quote them attribute the words to General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, who supposedly wrote hymns to go with the melodies he heard in music halls and taverns. There are also minorities who vote for John (or Charles) Wesley, Martin Luther or others from the Reformed and Protestant traditions, but I seem to remember reading of a very similar sentiment expressed in a much earlier, Catholic context — going back, indeed, to the very origins of church music. Then it referred to the cantus firmus that was the building block of plainsong and that was often taken from the popular ditties of the middle ages. I even seem to remember hearing that the favorite cantus firmus, used over and over again, was a French tune called “L’homme armé.” Have I dreamed this?

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