Once again it is time for a musical advent calendar featuring a different Advent or Christmas song each day. This is my personal tradition, begun in 2004 when many in the blogosphere were complaining about Christmas music and how much they hated it. I felt then, and still feel now, that the music of this season is so diverse that no one could hate it all, however curmudgeonly and anti-Christmas they might be.
Let’s start with “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Ives. It’s sung in the video above by Chanticleer, a men’s a capella choir. Here are the lyrics:
Little star of Bethlehem!
Do we see Thee now?
Do we see Thee shining
O’er the tall trees?
Little Child of Bethlehem!
Do we hear thee in our hearts?
Hear the Angels singing:
Peace on earth, good will to men!
O’er the cradle of a King,
Hear the Angels sing:
In Excelsis Gloria, Gloria!
From his Father’s home on high,
Lo! for us He came to die;
Hear the Angels sing:
Venite adoremus Dominum.
Ives wrote this piece in 1894, when he was just 20, and was obviously influenced by the European cradle songs, folk carols we enjoy at this time of year. He was probably at Yale at the time. He was known as “Dasher” and was popular, though unsuccessful as a student. Ives went into the insurance business. He served as music minister and organist in a few churches in the area (and in fact his “Christmas Carol” was sung in a Sunday School Christmas program in New Haven the year it was written), but fairly early in his life he devoted himself to the insurance business and became extremely successful.
He was a modernist and highly experimental in his music, which may explain why much of it was never performed during his lifetime. Toward the end of his life, he was discovered by guys like Aaron Copeland, his stuff gained an audience, and he received a Pulitzer Prize. Since his death in 1954, he has become one of the most famous American composers.
Ives was just one of the many artists throughout history who was unappreciated or underappreciated during his lifetime and later lionized. He was fortunate, perhaps, in that he was successful in his day job and began to be recognized in his art before he died. Still, for most of his life, Ives must have enjoyed music as a hobby after his days spent building a successful insurance company.
Did he know his own value as a composer? I don’t know. It may be that there are, all over the country, people who think that they will be famous after their deaths, but who are actually being ignored because they’re not that good. Ives wrote some weird stuff, for sure, but this little carol is sweet. Hum it to yourself, play it on your guitar, or harmonize with your kids.