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From Tchaikovsky to Tin Pan Alley

Uplifting music for Christmas

Presented by Sandy Burnett

12th December 2023

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Our lecturer, Sandy Burnett, introduced his lecture by describing it as a ‘smorgasbord’ of music after which he hoped we would all leave uplifted and happy.  He was right.  He gave us a wonderful hour of entertainment covering music, all with a Christmas theme, from England, France, Germany, South Africa and Russia, starting with The Nutcracker ballet by Tchaikovsky and finishing with everyone singing along to Bing Crosby and “White Christmas”. 

The lecture started with us learning how Tchaikovsky wanted to create something special for the sugar plum fairy in The Nutcracker and he composed a piece for the Celeste, or bell-piano.  It’s distinctive sound produced the wonderful, now very famous piece of music to which the sugar plum fairy dances.  From there we jumped to the 1960s and the Duke Ellington Orchestra who produced their own interpretation of the Nutcracker March, with the disciplined sound of trumpets alongside free and easy jazz sounds.

We then heard three English Carols, all performed and beautifully sung by the Kings College Cambridge Choir.  The first by Elizabeth Poston (1905 – 1987) who wrote “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” in 1967. Poston was said to be a WWII spy who send coded messages via recordings on air. The second was by John Rutter, “What sweeter music can we bring” written in 1987 and based on text dating back to the 17th century.  The third was composed by Philip Heseltine, also known as Peter Warlock.  He composed “Bethlehem Down” in the 1920s.  Our lecturer was able to learn from one of our members that Warlock was walking from the Ship Inn in Bishops Sutton to the village of Ropley with his friend Bruce Blunt and by the time they reached Ropley “Bethlehem Down” had been created!

Burnett then introduced us to Andreas Reize, director of St Thomas’ Church and school in Leipzig, a position once filled by Johann Sebastian Bach who composed The Christmas Oratorio in 1734, a Baroque piece written for several instruments, including trumpets, drums, strings and flutes, making a connection between heaven and earth.

In 1742 George Frideric Handel composed the Messiah, which has many unforgettable melodies.  We were taken from Susannah Cibber, the first soprano to perform the Messiah to South Africa and a Zulu version of “For unto us a child is born” by Concord Nkabinde.

We finished by listening to a selection of Tin Pan Alley songs – popular, old songs.  Firstly, The Christmas Song written by Mel Torme one hot summer’s day in California, who was thinking up scenes that would cool him down: “chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose”…   Sung by Nat King Cole, it was a smash hit in 1961.


We heard the distinctive voice of Eartha Kitt singing “Santa Baby” with which she made her big break in 1953.

Finally, the classic “White Christmas” written by Irving Berlin in 1942 and sung by Bing Crosby.  Burnett took to the piano and encouraged us all to sing along as he played.  A perfect end to a fascinating and entertaining evening.

Vicki Cowan

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A member of The Arts Society
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