Carmen’s Corner: Christmas Music, Roman Style

Places look different from each other. But have you ever noticed differences from place to place in the feel of starched linen from no-iron Pima cotton, the sound of birdsong, the taste of an apple? These deviations from the expected often absorbed unconsciously are part of what makes travel renewing. The sound of the Christmas season in Rome—indeed, in most of Italy—is unexpected in this way. For one thing, it is shorter. The Christmas season there does not start in October, and Roman business owners aren’t as fond as Americans of repeating Christmas songs throughout the day. This is not to say that Rome is a music-free zone at Christmas. American Christmas songs jingle merrily along in Italian, sung in unison by children’s choruses in a very high register. You are less likely to encounter Bing Crosby and “White Christmas” than a soprano rendition of “Natale Bianco.” Classical Christmas music also differs significantly between nations. Most Americans don’t realize how dominated our Christmas season is by two pieces (Handel’s Messiah and Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker), portions of which ring out in versions country, soulful, and pop as well as original. In Rome, you can listen to the radio, shop, and attend party after party in December and without hearing so much as a strain of “Unto Us a Child Is Born,” “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies,” or even the “Hallelujah” chorus. Serious Christmas music, in Italy, is written for the Catholic mass, often for basilicas with huge musical resources, and, needless to say, in a language few understand. Much is, in addition, old, as is the Church that commissioned it. (One of the greatest and most frequently performed composers of this type of music, Palestrina, will be celebrating the 500th birthday soon.) If you find yourself in Rome around Christmas with a hankering for music, you have a number of options. If you hold an invitation to Christmas Eve mass at St. Peters, congratulations, you have hit the jackpot; the music is as impressive as everything else. If not, do not despair. During Advent and Epiphany (the period after Christmas) there are concert offerings, but you will have to seek them out (online or at a tourist office); some are classical, but others are “Euro-pop.” The non-Catholic English-language churches, and in particular the Episcopal Church of St. Paul within the Walls, hold the Protestant line with pre-Christmas concerts (this year featuring The Nutcracker!). Opera houses acknowledge the season with one festive offering (The Nutcracker!). And there is, of course, the option of actually heading to a major church or basilica (try the Cancelleria) Sunday during the Christmas season, or on Christmas Eve, to soak up a little Palestrina!