If laughter is the best medicine, then I’d like to think music is a close second. I discovered around the age of 18 that I have an ear for playing music, which is a blessing and a curse. I’m confessing that my love for music, specifically playing the piano, borders on problematic. Most days if I’m running behind I can blame it on the irresistible gravitational pull of that glorious black and white keyed beast that lives in our living room. Other times, the guitar is impugned. If the jazz bars would have me and I could pay the bills, I’m afraid medicine might become my hobby.
Listening to music is equally appealing. Mozart helps the infant brain grow and the college student score higher in math. Whether it’s Beatles or Stones, Rock or Country, Jazz or Classical, music can lift the spirit, infuse the soul and send us flying. Have you ever seen someone singing in the car, smiling, oblivious to the hubbub around them? Or, how about after your first breakup, when somehow every song on the radio seemed perplexingly written just for you.
The Christmas season brings with it some of our favorite music, and to my wife’s delight, my children and I start practicing around September. Not that we really need the practice, but it’s a good excuse to cover up our sentiment. The classics, so jazzy and light, so uplifting and spiritual – aaah, there’s a reason they are classics. Being a music buff, I’d like to share some little known history of a few Holiday favorites.
Austrian Catholic priest Joseph Mohr penned one of the most beloved and well-known songs, ‘Silent Night’, in 1818. The church pipe organ had broken and Franz Gruber hastily composed the music for a tenor, a bass and two guitars. That same night it was heard for the first time at Midnight Mass. The song quickly became a favorite around Austria, then the world, and it was the 1850s before the anonymous composers knew of its success.
“Gloria in Excelsis Deo” was called from peak to peak on Christmas Eve by shepherds in the south of France, announcing the birth of Christ. The song, “Angels We Have Heard on High” was first published in a carol collection that dates 1855.
“Joy to the World”, penned in 1719 by English hymnist and cleric Isaac Watts was based on Psalm 98 in the Old Testament. The “Carol of the Bells” was originally a Ukrainian folk song intended to be sung a-capella, celebrating the joyous bounty of the season.
“Adeste Fideles” was written in France around 1750 by British exile John Francis Wade, and a century later British clergyman Frederick Oakeley turned out the English version, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. He translated the song because he felt if congregations had good literary texts to sing, they would sing well.
Modern day composers, such as Johny Marks who wrote “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”, provided the songs for legendary singers like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, who made the Christmas songs into classics. Judy Garland made “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” famous in the 1944 film Meet Me in St Louis. Gene Autry wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” and his singing made “Frosty the Snowman” a huge hit in 1951.
Even the great geniuses of American musical theater, Rodgers and Hammerstein, gave us some great Christmas tunes with “My Favorite Things”, from the 1959 Sound of Music. In the stage version, Maria sings a duet with her Mother Superior in the covenant, listing the many things in her life she could not give up as a nun – whiskers on kittens, brown paper packages tied up with string….
When it comes to Christmas recordings, here are some of our family favorites: A Very Special Acoustic Christmas by assorted artists, My Kind of Christmas by Christina Aguliera, Go Tell it on the Mountain by The Blind Boys of Alabama, When My Heart Finds Christmas by Harry Connick, Jr, Yule B’ Swingin’ by assorted artists, and of course the timeless classic of all classics, The Christmas Song by Nat King Cole.
George Frideric Handel composed the oratorio, “Messiah” in 1741, and the “Hallelujah” chorus is perhaps one of the most celebrated works of the Christmas season. There is a story told about this chorus… that Handel’s assistant walked in to Handel’s room after shouting to him for several minutes with no response. The assistant reportedly found him in tears, and when asked what was wrong, Handel held up the score to this movement and said, “I thought I saw the face of God.”
My prescription for the holiday season is to ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ – eat rich but healthy, drink in moderation, and merrily enjoy the simple beauty of the songs that celebrate the reason for the season.
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. When not practicing medicine he can usually be found playing music.