I love handbells. I play in a handbell choir at my church. Here we are playing Advent Carol on December 1, 2019. (If you listen carefully, you may hear O Come, O Come Immanuel and a snippet of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Oh, and I’m second from the left in the back row.)
Christmas music is so well-suited for handbells that no Christmas is complete for me without bells. Here are some beautiful examples:
O Holy Night played by a soloist:
Carol of the Bells:
Troika, from Prokoviev’s Lt. Kije:
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen:
A boy (Jordan Moore) plays all the bell parts for O Christmas Tree plus an iPhone ocarina app:
The Calypso Carol:
Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!:
We Wish You a Merry Christmas:
And for a big finish, Wizards in Winter:
If you enjoyed these carols on handbells, please click the “like” button and share on all your social media. Feel free to leave a comment below. And have a blessed Christmas!
Poor Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Following the huge success of The Sleeping Beauty ballet in 1890, the Tsar wanted another hit from Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa.
Petipa took charge of the storyline of the ballet and created two scenes based on the Alexander Dumas adaptation of ETA Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The first act is a children’s pantomime, complete with party games. During Christmas festivities, Uncle Drosselmeyer gives Clara a toy nutcracker, which her brother promptly breaks. At night, the nutcracker (really Drosselmeyer’s nephew transformed by the evil mouse king) comes to life and with the toy soldiers defeats the mouse king and takes Clara on an enchanted journey. The second act finds the young couple in the Kingdom of Sweets, where confections dance for their entertainment.
But when Petipa handed over the synopsis, Tchaikovsky was appalled. Nothing sparked his interest and the music that emerged was dry and lifeless. He missed his first deadline for the performance.
Worse was yet to come. While traveling through Paris on his way to an American tour, Tchaikovsky learned about the death of his beloved sister Sasha. But in his grief he found inspiration for The Nutcracker. In Clara, he found a parallel for his sister. Memories of their childhood and the last Christmas they spent together, in 1890, sparked the music. The whole ballet transformed by his change in attitude. Tchaikovsky imagined himself as the magician Drosselmeyer. When Clara and the Nutcracker fight the Mouse King, Clara thwacks the rodent over the head with her slipper and breaks the spell, releasing the dashing Hans Peter. Heroism and freedom find voice in one of Tchaikovsky’s most longing melodies. Clara has become a woman, and in her the spirit of Sasha lives on.
The ballet’s second act is a reflection of the first, with the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince appearing as counterparts for Clara and Hans Peter. While the latter pair dance to a rising melody, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s pas de deux with the Prince is dominated by a solemn descending motif. The “Waltz of the Flowers,” with its brooding minor passages, echoes the triple-time dance through the snowflakes.
Despite its emotional power, the first audience in 1892 dismissed the ballet. Although the first act with the big Christmas tree and the children and the toy soldiers and the battle with the Mouse King is engaging, the second act hardly involves any drama at all; it’s just a series of colorful dances.
The libretto was criticized as not being faithful to the Hoffmann tale. Critics decried the featuring of children so prominently in the ballet*, and many bemoaned the fact that the prima ballerina did not dance until the Grand Pas de Deux near the end of the second act. Some found the transition between the “real” world of the first scene and the fantasy world of the second act too abrupt.
Response was more positive for Tchaikovsky’s score. One novelty in the score was the use of the celesta, a new instrument Tchaikovsky had discovered in Paris. He utilized it for the character of the Sugar Plum Fairy because of its “heavenly sweet sound”.
Despite the failure of its initial performance, The Nutcracker has become the most frequently performed of all ballets and has served as an introduction to classical music for many young people. It also would be young dancers’ first chance to perform in a ballet as well. Because the first act is set at a Christmas party, the ballet is often presented at Christmastime, and some major American ballet companies generate around 40% of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.
*A sweet story about the children who participated in that first production: Apparently the children had a hard time learning the little toy instruments they were supposed to play on stage, and did not play them very well; but after the premier Tchaikovsky sent a note to all the children congratulating them on their performance and he sent each child a box of candy.
The information in this article came from:
Now it’s your turn. Have you ever seen The Nutcracker live? When our children were younger, we took them to see it at Princeton’s McCarter Theater and at Phoenix Symphony Hall. What other holiday entertainment traditions does your family enjoy? Share in the comments below.
Reading to your children is beneficial in so many ways. During the frenetic weeks before the holidays, turning off the smartphone and reading to your kids is a great way to slow down and focus on the joy of the season and build memories with your family.
I still remember my mother reading The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Our copy was a beat-up hand-me-down from another family, which at one time had been a beautifully designed pop-up book. I bought a newer, simpler version for our children.
I also bought them a bunch of Christmas-themed Little Golden Books. (Do they even make them anymore?) My favorite was one that existed when I was a child, Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, adapted from Robert L. May’s story by Barbara Shook Hazen, beautifully illustrated by Richard Scarry.
If you’re Christian, a book about the nativity is a must. There are literally hundreds of them out there; pick one with beautiful illustrations. Or if you can’t find one specifically about Christ’s birth, I suggest Donna Clark Goodrich’s My Rhyme-Time Bible for Little Ones.
Another classic you must read to your kids: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Did you know that Dickens also wrote The Life of Our Lord for his own children? It was published posthumously in 1934 and makes an excellent gift.
If you like to laugh out loud, I recommend The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. Any child who’s ever been in a Christmas pageant will identify, and the Herdman kids are a hoot and a half. It also gives parents a chance to talk about how to treat people with challenging behaviors.
Need some more suggestions? I listed my eight favorite Christmas books here. (There’s some overlap, but five I didn’t mention in this article.)