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AU Music Faculty Share Their Favorite Holiday Music

Favorites range from the classical canon to contemporary

The AU Music Program’s annual holiday concert. Photo: Noah Puzzo.

We asked American University Music Program faculty to share their favorite holiday songs for our last feature of the year. Whatever you are listening to this season, Happy Holidays! 

Joshua Bayer, jazz, and director of the AU Jazz Orchestra

“Why ‘Sleigh Ride?’ Who doesn't like a sleigh ride?” 

Matthew Brown, conducting, and director of the AU Symphony Orchestra, AU Symphonic Band, and Singer Songwriters' Hub

“My favorite holiday song is a tie between ‘The Christmas Song,’ (aka ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’) written by Robert Wells and Mel Torme in 1945, and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ written in 1943 by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. To me the lyrics, the melody, and the harmonies of each song combine to perfectly capture the joy and melancholy, the excitement and nostalgia, the thankfulness and longing of the holiday season. Every December, I look forward to revisiting the soulful and iconic renditions by Nat King Cole (‘Chestnuts’) and Judy Garland (‘Have Yourself...’) as well as numerous other versions from over the decades, while being at home with family staying warm and trying to hold on to all the holiday memories we can while they last.

Casey Cook, voice, and director of the AU Chorus 

“For me, it’s the David Willcocks arrangement of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful.’ It’s just a Christmas carol, and it’s not a particularly fantastic piece of music, but it’s become a tradition in many choral concerts I’ve been a part of over my lifetime. There’s a particular chord in the final verse on the words ‘Word of the Father’ that has become a bit of a meme. For many people, Christmas doesn’t really begin until they’ve sung that chord. It’s so pervasive, you can even buy a coffee mug with just that chord on it.”

Larry Ferguson, percussion 

“It's tough to say, but my favorite holiday album is Charlie Brown Xmas. I listen to it first thing each year when it's holiday time. If I had to pick a tune I would say ‘Christmas Time is Here.’"

Jennifer Hamady, voice 

“From the first time I heard the song ‘O Holy Night’ as a child, it has been my favorite. The gorgeous instrumental arpeggiation, the vocal line that journeys from reverent to resolute, from a whisper to a wail … regardless of the rendition, the song always brings me to tears. It moves something within me that encapsulates the spirit of the holiday … the peace and possibility of the season, and of life itself.” 

Barbara Hollinshead, voice

“A slightly off the beaten path Christmas song—an oldie, but goodie! ‘Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep,’ from the movie White Christmas (1954).

I volunteer singing at the Sibley Hospital’s Hospice, and several patients have really enjoyed it.”

Ann Kang, piano and director of the AU Music Program and Chamber Music

“I had a job as a church musician for many years while I was a student. The culmination of Christmas Eve mass was always ‘O Holy Night,’ sung beautifully by the soprano soloist. I always looked forward to that! Of course, it’s not Christmas without Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker or Mariah Carey's ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You!’ It’s whatever music you listen to that enhances the feeling of warmth and content during the season with family and friends.”

JP Merz, music theory and composition 

“’We Wish You’ by Pobbles is my favorite holiday song right now for its clever subversion of a classic Christmas tune and for taking the sparkly, magical sounds/timbres of traditional holiday music to a hyperpop-inspired extreme. It was also very divisive among the students, which always makes for a good discussion!”

Sterling Scroggins, voice

“When I’m asked to sing a solo at Christmas time, my favorite is ‘Sweet Little Jesus Boy’ by Robert Mac Gimsey. Its melodic range fits my voice well and it is easily sung a cappella. I like its message, linking the story of Jesus and his birth to those marginalized by our society. ‘Long time ago, you were born; born in a manger low — Sweet little Jesus boy. The world treats you meanly, Lord Treats me meanly too, But that’s how things are down here...’

I also like the contemplative ‘A Christmas Carol’ by Charles Ives. Ives’s lyrics (for example, ‘Little Child of Bethlehem! Do we hear Thee in our hearts?’) are set in a simple strophic manner with a quirky syncopated accompaniment. Ives’s compositional style was uniquely his.”

Nancy Snider, cello and Director of Applied Music

“‘Es ist ein Ros entsprungen’ is a Christmas carol and Marian hymn of German origin. It is most commonly translated into English as ‘Lo, how a rose e'er blooming’ and is also called ‘A Spotless Rose’ and ‘Behold a Rose of Judah.’ The rose in the German text is a symbolic reference to the Virgin Mary. I love it for its simple beauty.

Bill Wielgus, oboe

“Without a doubt my favorite holiday song is the ‘Sleigh Ride’ by Leroy Anderson. In my 27 years of playing holiday concerts as an oboist with the National Symphony Orchestra, that was the one selection that I would never tire of. Anderson has been described as the ‘Norman Rockwell of American classical music,' and it's easy to see why, with his expert craftsmanship, ebullient good spirit, and gentle whimsy. The orchestration alone is a masterpiece! Sleigh bells were never jinglier, the cello countermelody beneath the sprightly tune is divine, and ooh—wait for that whip crack! And if we sit patiently savoring this irresistible melody, we are rewarded with that jazzy peroration near the end, enhanced with shivery woodwind trills that I always delighted in practicing. Yes, there is a version with lyrics, but I'll take the original any day and I'm so glad Professor Matthew Brown introduces a new generation of students to its pleasures every year by always programming ‘Sleigh Ride’ for the AU Symphony Orchestra Holiday Concert.”