21-songs-of-the-holidays -1500x400.jpg

Songs of the Holidays

The SLSO is delighted to bring the sounds of the season to the comfort of your home through its online video series, Songs of the Holidays presented by Mercy. This series features familiar and beloved tunes alongside unique pieces for the special occasions we joyfully celebrate during the winter season. We are grateful to Mercy for their continued tradition of supporting our holiday programming, and for their role in caring for our St. Louis community.

From our family to yours, we wish you a wonderful holiday season filled with peace, joy, and inspiration through music. All best wishes for the year ahead! 

Give the gift of music! Gift certificates can be used for all SLSO sponsored events and never expire. They can be used online or just like cash at the Powell Hall Box Office. 

“Pifa” from Messiah

Composer/Arranger: George Frideric Handel
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Stéphane Denève, conductor

Handel’s Messiah, now going on 280 years old, occupies a permanent place in Christmastime concerts. Indeed, many can instantly recognize—and often sing—the oratorio’s famed “Hallelujah Chorus.” But the work as a whole is a bit less familiar, and the movement featured here, “Pifa,” is one of only two movements written for instruments alone.

“Pifa” is a gentle, pastoral scene of shepherds watching their flocks. The title comes from a tradition in Rome, where pifferari, shepherd-bagpipers, would perform in the streets during the Christmas season. While linking the sound of bagpipes to Handel’s string orchestra setting might seem a stretch, listen again: the steady drone of the bagpipes travels through the low strings, a comforting constant.  


Composer/Arranger: Astor Piazzolla | arr. Federico Mondelci
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Stéphane Denève, conductor

December packs a lot of holidays and special occasions into a short amount of time. One you might not have on your list—and that the SLSO couldn’t resist celebrating—is International Tango Day. Argentinian composer and tango master Astor Piazzolla crafted his Libertango in the 1970s, a piece that many consider a symbolic break from the strict classical tango style to the freer-form tango nuevo. Dancer and pedagogue Gustavo Naveira wrote that the “growing, improving, developing, enriching” tango nuevo “is a dance of greater possibilities.”

Libertango opens with thumping double basses and throaty cellos. The lower strings soften to make room for slinky violins, then melodies weave in and out of each other, resembling the tango dance itself. The piece intensifies, driving towards a final flourish.

“Carol of the Bells”

Composer/Arranger: Mykola Leontovych | arr. Brian Blume
Will James, percussion
Alan Stewart, percussion
Shannon Wood, percussion
Tom Stubbs, percussion

Of all holiday songs, “Carol of the Bells” seems ready-made for performance by percussion. The SLSO percussionists here showcase the melodic side of their instrument family with chimes, glockenspiel, vibraphone, and marimba. The carol dates to 1914, when Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych was commissioned to compose a work based on traditional folk chants for choir, which would become his “Shchedryk,” or “Bountiful Evening.”

The four-note tune, which Leontovych found in a folk anthology, is quite a contrast to the midcentury crooning many associate with wintertime songs. Instead, it evokes something ancient and ritualistic, connecting to the song’s origins as a new year’s tale of a swallow delivering promise of the coming spring’s bounty. 

It was introduced to American audiences in 1921 by the Ukraine National Chorus. Fifteen years later, Peter Wilhousky, lyricist and arranger for the NBC Symphony Orchestra, copyrighted new text for the song. For Wilhousky, the tune conjured handbells, giving him a thematic idea that he wove into his English lyrics.

“Carol of the Bells” by Mykola Leontovich; arr. by Brian Blume
 Copyright © 2013 Tapspace Publications, LLC (ASCAP). All rights reserved.

“Mi Y’malel”

Composer/Arranger: Traditional | arr. Adam Maness
Shawn Weil, violin
Nicolae Bica, violin
Chris Tantillo, viola
Dave DeRiso, double bass

“Who can retell the things that befell us?” So begins an English translation of the Hanukkah song “Mi Y’malel.” This Hebrew text opens with stories from the past, then points to hope for a community who “will arise, unite, and be redeemed”.

This arrangement of “Mi Y’malel,” released to coincide with the eighth night of the Festival of Lights, makes use of a rare combination of two violins, viola, and bass. The presence of bass gives the arrangement depth and broadness, and a texture close to the human voice.  

Beginning with stark colors, the song builds from solo viola to full quartet. Each instrument takes a turn at the opening groove. What starts as a foreboding verse—which in a singing tradition would tell the tales of Israel—finds its way to a warm and bright chorus, and a fiery and triumphant ending.

Sleigh Ride

Composer/Arranger: Leroy Anderson | arr. Timothy Myers
Timothy Myers, trombone
Amanda Stewart, trombone
Jonathan Reycraft, trombone
Gerard Pagano, bass trombone
Alan Stewart, drum set

The warm, mellow tones of the St. Louis Symphony Trombones carry Leroy Anderson’s midcentury classic, Sleigh Ride. Originally an instrumental piece, lyrics were added shortly after its initial release, bringing out the coziness of the winter season with lines like, “We’re snuggled up like two birds of a feather.”

An ensemble in their own right, the Trombones have performed as a unique chamber ensemble for nearly 15 years, expanding the repertoire for trombone quartet through commissions, arranging their own works, and giving master classes to young musicians. Their “astonishing amount of versatility and virtuosity” has been lauded by the International Trombone Association Journal.

"Sleigh Ride"
by Leroy Anderson
arranged by Timothy Myers
© Woodbury Music Company LLC
Used with permission

Concert Variation on “Adeste Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful)”

Composer/Arranger: Carlos Salzedo
Allegra Lilly, harp

Both the text and the tune of this hymn come from ages ago—many accounts trace it to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, whiles others point to the thirteenth century or even earlier. While nobody is quite sure where either originated, eighteenth-century Englishman John Francis Wade is frequently credited as authoring both.

Many have memories of singing this song at Christmas services and festivals, perhaps with the hearty sounds of congregation and organ. This arrangement for harp is every bit as jovial, and offers a rounder, subtly warm take. Lilly’s performance gives a rare chance to hear the melodic lines that lie beneath the main melody. Later, the harp dazzles with virtuosic techniques like harmonics and arpeggios, broadening into a lush finish. 

“Umoja,” sub: “The First Day of Kwanzaa”

Composer/Arranger: Valerie Coleman
Ann Choomack, flute
Xiomara Mass, oboe
Diana Haskell, clarinet
Felicia Foland, bassoon
Julie Thayer, horn

Kwanzaa, a celebration of African American culture, centers on seven principles, one for each day of the tradition: unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith. The first day is represented by the word “umoja,” which is Swahili for “unity.” Composer Valerie Coleman’s treatment of this idea, utilizing the sonic texture of a woodwind quintet, perfectly captures how many sounds can become united.  

The instruments of the quintet—flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, and horn—weave in and out of each other joyfully, featuring first one instrument, then another, adding musical comments on each other’s lines. “Umoja’s” final note, as the quintet comes back together, is one of warmth, peace, and togetherness.

Umoja, by Valerie Coleman, VColeman Music Publishing, LLC (ASCAP).

Auld Lang Syne

Composer/Arranger: Traditional | arr. Adam Maness
Aleck Belcher, double bass
Chris Carson, double bass
Sarah Hogan Kaiser, double bass
Ronald Moberly, double bass

In English-speaking parts of the world, the New Year is celebrated with one song: Auld Lang Syne. The Scots poet Robert Burns is credited with writing the text and pairing it with a folk song he collected, though it is likely many other versions existed through oral tradition prior to Burns’ 1788 setting. It entered broad cultural consciousness when Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians performed it on New Year’s Eve broadcasts from 1929 to 1976. 

The text, translated as “Old long since,” or “For the sake of old times,” reminds listeners to take stock, reminisce, and remember old friends. Our memories of this famous text lend the simple folk tune a bittersweet air. This performance by the SLSO’s double basses, the heartbeat of the orchestra, provides a deeper sense of this song’s meaning, as the world looks forward with hope to the new year.