December is Homeschool Holiday Music Month in the River Houses, and throughout the month we’re sharing an assortment of seasonal favorites in a great variety of styles and genres — classical and modern, sacred and secular, serious and silly — along with a collection of easy educational notes that will let you teach little musical lessons all along the way.
One of the world’s most popular Christmas carols, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” is an American original in both words and music. Its popularity makes it a great piece to discuss with your students at this time of year in the context of musical styles and artistic preferences. You can find dozens of versions online — which ones do your students like best? Have them listen to several and invite them to give reasoned explanations of their choices — that’s the way to help them develop a more mature aesthetic sense.
Perhaps they’ll pick a traditional version from the velvet-voiced Nat King Cole (1919–1965):
Or perhaps they’ll prefer to listen to just the simple tune alone, with no vocal accompaniment:
Or maybe a soulful southern-style performance from Elvis Presley (1935–1977) will attract their attention:
Or perhaps they’ll like a classical choral version with full orchestra, like this one from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, one of the most famous choral groups in the world:
Or if that’s too loud, perhaps the softness of Canadian folksinger Sarah McLachlan (b. 1968) might be better:
The ancient Romans had a famous saying, “De gustibus non disputandum est” — “In matters of taste, there can be no dispute.” You like Elvis, I prefer Sarah McLachlan, and that’s all there is to it. But even if there are no absolute rights and wrongs in matters of taste, there can certainly be reasons behind individual preferences, and those reasons are what you want your students to explore. Do they tend to prefer male voices or female voices? Do they tend to prefer faster performances or slower performances? Do they like simple arrangements or complex orchestral arrangements? By encouraging your students to think about the reasons for their aesthetic judgements you’ll help them develop intellectually and analytically, and in their own self-awareness.
And don’t forget to include a little history along the way. The text of “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which is based on the Christian Nativity story, was written for Christmas in 1868 by Phillips Brooks (1835–1893), the rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Philadelphia. Brooks asked his church organist, Lewis Redner (1831–1908), to write an accompanying tune, which he did (more or less the day before it was first performed). “Neither Mr. Brooks nor I ever thought the carol or the music to it would live beyond that Christmas of 1868.” And yet they both did and still do, more than a century and a half later, and all around the world.
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by:
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The Everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary,
And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep
Their watch of wond’ring love.
O morning stars, together
Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King,
And peace to men on earth.
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
O holy Child of Bethlehem!
Descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin, and enter in,
Be born in us to-day.
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell;
Oh, come to us, abide with us,
Our Lord Emmanuel!
What marvelous musical discoveries have you been making in your homeschool during this delightful Holiday Music Month? 🎄 🎵
❡ Musical memories: If you’d like to fill your homeschool with some beautiful background sounds during the holidays, why not tune in to the 24-hour Holiday Channel from WQXR, the famous classical music radio station in New York City. “Enjoy the sounds of orchestras, choirs, brass ensembles and more as we celebrate the sacred and secular sounds of the season.” I have it on as background music almost every day at this time of year. Won’t you join me? 📻
❡ Olden times and ancient rhymes: What did the Christmas season sound like a hundred years ago and more? Find out from this wonderful collection of historic recordings of American Christmas music, brought together by the Library of Congress. 🎄
❡ Lift every voice: This is one of our occasional posts on Homeschool Arts & Music. Add your name to our weekly mailing list and get great homeschool teaching ideas delivered right to your mailbox all through the year. 🗞
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