Notes and Editorial Reviews
Liturgical traditions and their authentic expression - a historic treasure.
Don’t be fooled by the title. This is not Christmas music to have on the stereo while sipping mulled wine and munching fruitcake. It will certainly not put you in the mood to go a-wassailing. The subtitle is more indicative of what the listener will find: “Ancient Christian Liturgies”. While it will never be a popular stocking-stuffer, this CD will be welcomed by those interested in liturgical music. It should also appeal if you are a student of church history in the Holy Land and the languages and traditions of Christian Rome, Byzantium, the Middle East and North Africa. One could almost expect to find it in the “World Music” section.
This is both a historic and historical recording. In September of 1967, only 3 months after the Six-Day War, Israeli musicologist Amnon Shiloah, now Professor of Musicology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and considered the world's leading authority on the Arab and Jewish musical traditions, was, according to the liner-notes, “looking for the oldest Christian traditions in his country”. After convincing the clergy and choirs to perform Christmas services in September - no mean feat, to be sure! - he set about creating a “snapshot” of the Nativity at various ancient Christian churches in the Holy Land. He did this simply by taking with him a portable tape recorder and recording the liturgical proceedings. These are therefore not pristine studio recordings, but low-tech warts-and-all recordings of what the listeners would actually have heard if they had been present.
As listed above, almost all the major liturgical Christian churches in the Holy Land are represented. The only one missing is the Russian Orthodox Church. Although Russian Orthodox pilgrims had been taking the pilgrimage since the 11th century, it wasn’t until 1858 that they established a mission in Jerusalem. For this reason they were not included in Mr. Shiloah’s selection.
We begin and end with the bells of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem —appropriately, because it is administered by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian authorities. A fascinating tour of pre-polyphonic ecclesiastical music follows, beginning with Gregorian chant, winding through lean and primitive sounds and rhythms, at times almost tribal. We hear the sounds of Ancient Greek, Ghez - or Ge’ez, an early Semitic tongue and the official liturgical language of the Ethiopian Church since the 5th century - Ancient Armenian, Ancient Syrian, Aramaic, and Arabic. The only instrumental accompaniments come on track 8, the Abyssinian hymn “Today He is Born” which uses a kind of kettle drum, and on track 16 where a triangle accompanies the Coptic “Hymn to the Holy Trinity”. Some will be surprised at hearing Christians chanting in Arabic, especially since, to many, the sound will be reminiscent of the muezzin calling Muslims to prayer. In fact this form of Christian chanting predates Islam by six hundred years.
Christmas in the Holy Land is a fascinating disc, but it will not appeal to everyone. If you are looking for beautifully recorded examples of liturgical Christmas music, you will need to look elsewhere. If, however, you are interested in liturgical traditions and their authentic expression, this disc is a treasure.
-- Miguel Muelle, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Alleluia by Anonymous
Choir Of The Syrian Church
Psalm 42 by Anonymous
Etienne Khuri (Cantor)
Midnight Mass by Anonymous
Choir Of The Sisters Of Zion
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