For my last article of the 12 Works of Christmas series I wanted to go out with a bang, something that would really encapsulate the Season of Giving. When I think generosity and Christmas music I think of those big ethnomusicological carol sets, like the ones by Joseph Canteloube and Béla Bartók. This Christmas Eve all our wishes will be answered with the greatest carol set of all - Witold Lutosławski's 20 Polish Christmas Carols.
I don't know if I've mentioned this but Lutosławski is one of my classical music heroes. In my opinion he was the only composer to turn Stalin-era restrictions into great art (as in his Symphonic Variations and Symphony no. 1) while still working under those rules, and after the Stalin years ended he was at the forefront of the avant-garde in ways that were both groundbreaking and comprehensible to wide audiences (such as the stunning Mi-parti). I first discovered Lutosławski's works, both the Stalin-era stuff and his later stuff, in high school, and my mind was permanently blown, and to this day I've yet to find works by Polish composers or others from the time that approach his orchestrational flair or his dramatic sensibilities. The carols were written in the mid-40's, dead center of his Stalin period, and are some of the richest music to come from Eastern Europe at that time (or ever, really). I hadn't heard any of these carols (one of the perks of perusing old carol collections) and each setting is highly creative and charming, capturing all the wonder and intimacy of the season while raising a few eyebrows in the process. For reasons one can only find baffling the Carols are very rarely performed, only receiving a recording in the 2000's not catching nearly as much traction as they should have since. The orchestral version has some of the most sophisticated orchestration to ever be dedicated to Christmas music and as of this writing there's only one video'd performance up on YouTube, and a selection at that. Obviously greater efforts need to be made to get the likes of the Northwest Boy- and Girlchoirs to team up with the likes of the Seattle Symphony to get these carols performed. Will you like every carol? It's a surprise, like each one being a little gift. I'm hoping everybody has a Merry Christmas tonight and tomorrow, and that we can all celebrate the Christmas cheer in the face of Stalinist pograms, just like Lutosławski.