In Tune With Christmas

Mary Breden, director of Choral Activities and chair of the Department of Music at Loyola Marymount University, joined the music faculty at LMU in 1992. She is the conductor of the annual LMU Choruses Christmas Gala Concert. Breden has taught choral and music education at San Jose State University and the University of Texas at Austin. She earned a master’s degree in music and a doctoral degree in music arts at Arizona State University, where she studied conducting with Douglas McEwen. She was interviewed by John Kissell.

What is your favorite classical Christmas-season piece?
Oh, the particular one that I’m working on at any given time. One of my favorites is a lovely, charming work called “The Laud to the Nativity” by Ottorino Respighi [1879 – 1936]. It relates the story of a local village welcoming the Nativity event into their homes; it’s a charming work.

Was there a composer who had a very great impact in shaping what we now consider Christmas music?
I don’t know that I would earmark a composer. As I think over the classical composers who have done some of the great Christmas motets — such as the Latin motets that I’ve grown up with and done oftentimes — there are the great Renaissance composers like Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina [1525 –1594] or Tomás Luis de Victoria [1548 – 1611]. Victoria wrote probably one of the most famous motets that is still performed today: “O Magnum Mysterium.”

Do you wish there was more emphasis on sacred songs rather than popular tunes?
I do, because I think we’ve become such a commercial world. So much of the sacredness of this feast is lost to so many people. I love a lot of the more popular tunes of Christmas, such as “White Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride” and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” But there is so much just absolutely stunningly gorgeous Christmas music that comes out of the simple carol tradition and out of the great classics of all periods of music.

Do you have a favorite popular Christmastime tune?
Probably “White Christmas.”

Are there any particularly well-known Christmas songs that are actually drawn from classical compositions?
Perhaps the most well-known piece from the classical repertoire that people associate with Christmas is “Messiah” by Handel. It’s not solely for Christmas, but the most familiar part of it is the Christmas part. I mean, the “Hallelujah Chorus” has nothing to do with Christmas and yet we associate it with Christmas and with Easter. It certainly tells the story and is drawn from scripture.

Are there contemporary composers, or 20th century composers, who are writing particularly outstanding Christmas music?
There are so many, so many. Daniel Pinkham, an American composer, wrote “Christmas Cantata.” It’s with brass, and it’s probably done somewhere in this country every Christmas. Los Angeles composer Morten Lauridsen’s “O Magnum Mysterium,” definitely. I’m discovering new composers every year whose works I do in the LMU Christmas concert, because I’m always looking for new things. We did a work this year called “We Sing Thy Birth” by Steven Paulus, an American composer. It uses three poems that, again, deal with the Christmas event but are not specifically known as Christmas carols.

Do you look forward to the Christmas season?
I love everything about Christmas. I love lighting the tree, turning on the radio and having a couple of days where all they play is Christmas music, some wonderful and some cheesy. I think the true meaning of Christmas comes in the beauty of the message and music that relates that. I’m just selfishly lucky to be involved with choral music and get to do great, great Christmas music.


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