Winter Music

by Kerry Dexter / Dec 21, 2015 /
Kerry Dexter's picture

Winter: it is a time of drawing in and venturing out, of traveling and welcoming travelers, of celebration and of quiet reflection, of learning from the gifts of solitude and the warmth of community. Music makes a fine gateway and companion for all this.

Winter Music

Advent and Christmas are naturally the center and inspiration for much winter music, both the reflective kind and the sort for singing and playing with others. Even if Christmas is not your holiday, or if it is but you are thinking you have had a bit too much of  music of the season, read on for ideas to explore...

Narada Presents: The Best of Celtic Christmas is a two disc set. One of the discs, called The Night Before, is all music from the west of Ireland based group Dordan. They bring classical and traditional backgrounds to the music they offer, lending both clarity and joy to their music. Tunes as well as songs in English and Irish, some well known and others perhaps less so, combine to create the sense of anticipation the title suggests. The other disc will take you down musical routes from Brittany in France to Irish communities  in North America to the Highlands of Scotland to the heart of Cape Breton in Atlantic Canada to the hills of Donegal in Ireland's northwest, with music from artists including Natalie MacMaster, John Whelan, Bonnie Rideout, Altan, Frankie Gavin, and Cathie Ryan.



Another winter themed collection from the folks at Narada (It's an independent label based in Wisconsin) is well worth your attention too, especially if you'd like music which sets the scene for Christmas but can work equally well as background or top of mind listening. The Best Of Narada Christmas is a primarily instrumental set of more than two dozen pieces of music. Most of them will be familiar to you, but done in ways that add fresh approaches while respecting the spirit of the composition. That is only what you would expect when you see that in addition to the aforementioned Dordan musicians include David Arkenstone, Tingstad & Rumbel, and Michael Whalen.


If you'd like songs that will get you singing along, then Kathy Mattea has you covered on her album Joy for Christmas Day. Her warm alto invites you in, and arrangements by Mattea and her long time guitar player/music director Bill Cooley draw you deeper to the songs. The music is balanced between carols and contemporary songs. Among the carols there are O Come All Ye Faithful, and a medley that goes from O Come O Come Emmanuel to God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. The contemporary songs include those with a touch of humor, such as Baby King, and others with an invitation to reflect, as in Straw Against the Chill.


Remember the song We Three Kings, about the journey of the three wise men? That song turns up on several of the recordings discussed here. It is not on Karavan Sarai's album Woven Landscapes, and the album itself is not a Christmas album at all. It is rather original music mainly on acoustic instruments. written and played by Narayan Sijan woven in and out of electronic sounds by Carmen Rizzo. Sijan, who was raised in a musical family in the US midwest, counts among his travels more than a decade spent in India, considerable time in Egypt, travels in Turkey and elsewhere in Central Asia, and a return to the US, to California where he collaborated with Rizzo. All this comes out in his music -- and what, you may ask, does it have to do with Christmas? Sijan's music cannot help but get you thinking about the journeys those wise men made and the landscapes they traversed so long ago. It could also be a good gift for someone for whom Christmas music isn't the right choice.


Irish singer Caitriona O'Leary went on a different sort of journey, one that was led by Christmas, history, poetry, and music. You have likely heard what's called the Wexford Carol or the Enniscorthy Carol -- all sorts of artists from Alison Krauss to Celtic Women to Loreena McKennitt to Dordan, whose music you met above to Matt and Shannon Heaton, whose Christmas album you will learn about below, have recorded it. O'Leary, whose work and interest crosses borders between early music and Irish folk, had learned that there was more than one carol to be found associated with the single one that's well known. Some of them are still sung in Wexford, but others seemed to live on only in a book of poetry published in 1684. O'Leary dug into research and found what may be some of the original melodies and began to imagine what a recording would be like. 


The result -- or rather the first result, as it is anticipated there will be more recordings -- is the album The Wexford Carols, which comprises a dozen songs. The stories include tales of the shepherds, a story of the flight into Egypt, and several which while keeping to the Christmas story, also take reference to the difficult times in Ireland when they were written, times when, for instance, it was forbidden to say or attend mass. O'Leary's soprano is the guide star for most of the tracks, and she's thoughtfully supported  with acoustic backing including fiddle, bodhran, and cello. She also has musical guests along: pop legend Tom Jones, Americana and country artist Rosanne Cash, and Rhiannon Giddens, founding member of the African American old time string band Carolina Chocolate Drops. This might seem an unlikely group, but each brings his or her own musical perspective to the carols and to the recording, most of which was done with all the artists together live in the studio in Ireland. 

The members of Cherish the Ladies know what they are about with Christmas albums: their first one, On Christmas Night with Heidi Talbot handling the lead singing, is a longstanding favorite in both Ireland and North America, they have another out, Star in the East, guitarist Mary Coogan has a solo Christmas recording, and flute and whistle player Joanie Madden is a guest on Kathy Mattea's Joy for Christmas Day which you learned about above. Now, they have a new holiday album out and they went to County Clare to record it. So they decided to call it Christmas in Ireland. 


As you can count on with Cherish, there is are generous helpings of tunes and a selection of fine songs. These come both from the traditions of Christmas and newer pieces. There's a lovely song called All the Valley Down, with Hannah Rarity from Scotland as a guest for the lead voice, and a fine and lively set of new and older tunes weaving together O Christmas Tree, Road Dust, Are You Joanie Madden? and Watch Your Step. Don Stiffe from County Galway steps in for lead voice on The Christmas Letter, and they decided to make a video to go along with that one, so you can see Stiffe as well as Madden and Coogan, Kathleen Boyle on piano and Mirella Murray on accordion, and guest fiddler Nollaig Casey making music -- fair warning, though, whether you've any connection to Ireland or not, the song is likely to bring a tear to your eye.


Rarity contributes a fine vocal to the carol Once in Royal David's City, and there are a dozen more songs and sets of tunes to enjoy.

On their album Fine Winter's Night, husband and wife duo Matt and Shannon Heaton also offer a thoughtful mix of song and tune, of traditional and original music, of seasonal music and music that may be enjoyed through the seasons, too. In the title track, Shannon contrasts the clear cold beauty of the night sky with warmth of celebrations drawing us within; in First Snowfall of December Matt imagines an encounter during a Victorian holiday season that might only have happened at Christmas. There are tunes and carols and an idea about the role of a cat at the first Christmas, too. Shannon plays whistles and flute, Matt is on guitar and bouzouki; they both sing and trade lead and harmony parts. Altogether, Fine Winter's Night offers a fine portrait of the light hearted and reflective aspects of Christmas and the winter season.


...and though it didn't make it onto the album, one December evening after a Fine Winter's Night holiday concert, Matt and Shannon Heaton had another song of the season to share:


Kerry Dexter is music editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach her at music at wandering educators dot com.
You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Symphony, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, and other places on line and in print, as well as at her own site Music Road.