Without music, Christmas is a silent movie

The Glenview Air Base Choral group sings Christmas carols. Dec. 20, 1943  (Tribune photo archives.)

The Glenview Air Base Choral group sings Christmas carols. Dec. 20, 1943 (Tribune photo archives.)

Without music, tonight and tomorrow would be just another Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning.

More than most of the holiday trappings, music is Christmas Eve and Christmas dawning, whether for the Christian faithful or for the secular merrymakers. It describes and explains Christmas more than the wonder in your children's eyes, the piney fragrance of the Christmas tree freshly brought inside, the doorbell announcing the arrival of family and friends, the presents under the tree, the roasting and baking kitchen smells, the warmth of the fireplace.

Without music, Christmas is a silent movie.

Without music, worshippers gather not in exultation but in muted isolation. Without music, presents are wrapped not in anticipation, but dutifully. Without music, the chores of Christmas are a drag.

Christmas, with music, is majestic. Music unites us in excitement, expectancy and, most of all, in hope. Everyone needs hope. For Christians, this holy day is the embodiment of hope, that the promises God made to mankind are at hand. I have to believe that even for non-Christians and unbelievers, hope still is what brightens and energizes this holiday. It's a reason for taking a pass on cynicism, ridicule and skepticism. It is, after all, a nativity.

While so much divides us these days, the music of Christmas is shareable — we all know the words and can hum the melodies. Santa, Rudolph, the three kings of Orient. Music tells us stories, of grinches and dancing snowmen and a wildly imaginative beagle engaging the Red Baron. Christmas music calls the faithful to gather in exultation and triumph.

Christmas music is evocative. Who, upon hearing the season's melodies and lyrics, isn't transported to the past, as surely as a Jacob Marley rekindles in Ebenezer Scrooge memories of joyful Christmases, sadly no more?

Everyone has favorite Christmas music. For some, it is deeply nostalgic: "I'll Be Home for Christmas." For others, it is uplifting: "O Holy Night." Or Schubert's "Ave Maria," sung by Luciano Pavarotti. Or comforting: "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht." Or joyous: "Adeste Fideles."

My favorite isn't Christmas music in the strict sense. It is Ludwig van Beethoven's soaring  "Missa Solemnis" in D Major. It so inspires and moves me that I want to share it with you.

In scope and magnificence, think of George Frideric Handel's "Messiah," the frequently performed and favorite choral

A page from the original score of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

A page from the original score of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis

music of so many at Christmas. Indeed, scholars say that parts of "Missa Solemnis" are suggestive of "Messiah."

The Beethoven work is music for the Catholic Mass, in five movements: The Kyrie (Lord have mercy on us), Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory be to God on high), Credo in Unum Deum (I believe in one God), Sanctus (Holy is the Lord), and, returning to the plaintive , Agnus Dei, (Lamb of God … have mercy upon us. Grant us peace).

My words can't do the music justice, so I turn to the liner notes of Charles Stanley for Otto Klemperer's Vienna Symphony Orchestra's 1959 (and my favorite) recording: "To the heart (the music) does go … Its power, its great soaring architecture, its moving detail, its overpowering air of sincerity and dedication — all combine to make it, with the Ninth Symphony and the last five quartets, the crown of Beethoven's music." (The complete work is posted as a video below. It actual performance starts about 7 minutes 45 seconds into the video.)

I was introduced to this work many years ago by an immigrant German couple almost four times my age, two people I so admired for their goodness, who said one day to me, "Please, come and listen. For this Christmas, it is our gift to you."

Much has been written about how this masterpiece reveals and affirms Beethoven's unorthodox religious beliefs, but I think the music speaks for itself. I suspect that faith, for Beethoven, was something beautiful beyond description, something so electrifying and heartening that it could only be described through something as cosmic as music.

God gave us Beethoven, to me the world's greatest composer. Beethoven gave us "Missa Solemnis," and the Missa blessed us with inspiration so sweet that it can move me to tears. Through the soul-touching crescendos and diminutions, the subtle variations of tone and tempo and the perfect harmonies by the orchestra, soloists and chorus, we suddenly ascend to where, floating high above it all, a solo violin is heard, filled with longing, as if reaching for God.

You don't have to believe to be moved and wonder at the beauty of it all. But at this moment, to me, we celebrate the promise of God delivered.

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  • What sublime music. Merry Christmas, Dennis, to you and yours.

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