- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2006

In terms of vocal music, I tend to regard Christmas as an annual celebration of two Alfreds. One is American: the songwriter and jazz musician Alfred S. Burt, who died half a century ago, a victim of cancer at the age of 33 in 1954. The other is English: the celebrated countertenor Alfred Deller (1912-1979), whose uncanny voice and extended professional career were richly preserved in scores of record albums. Together with his broadcasts and concerts, they rejuvenated the performance of baroque and Renaissance music for a generation.

Mr. Burt left a handful of Christmas carols as his most conspicuous musical legacy — 15 in all, most composed annually as part of a family Christmas card tradition that originated with his father, the Rev. Bates Gilbert Burt, an Episcopal minister in Pontiac, Mich. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in music in 1942, Mr. Burt was invited to add musical settings to the annual Christmas verses.

When the Rev. Burt died in 1949, his role as lyricist was inherited by a family friend, Wihla Hutson, the church organist. The most lilting and familiar of the carols, “This Is Christmas” and “Caroling, Caroling,” grew out of the second collaboration. While also sadly abbreviated, it concluded with a surge of inspiration in the final months of the composer’s life, producing four memorable tunes, “Caroling, Caroling” among them.

Since few singers who made Christmas albums failed to record that particular song in the years following Alfred Burt’s death, it was probably the first evidence of his popular melodic gift that caught up with the general public. He had earned his living principally as a band arranger and director, doubling with the Alvino Rey and Horace Heidt ensembles in the early 1950s. A memorial album, “The Christmas Mood,” was released for the holiday season of 1954, with impeccable renditions of a dozen Burt carols by the Columbia Choir and a somewhat incongruous, ultra-perky medley from the Ralph Carmichael Brass Ensemble. (The composer’s favorite instrument was the cornet, so the frequent horn riffs make sense as homage.)

In 1963 a “complete collection,” titled “This Is Christmas,” offered all the carols in a cappella versions by The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. Mr. Burt and Mr. Joyce had become friends while stationed with the Army Air Force Band in Texas during World War II.

That was pretty much it for formal recognition of the Burt songbook until John Williams revived 11 of the carols in back-to-back Christmas albums with the Boston Pops Orchestra in the early 1980s. (Mr. Williams’ fondness for the Burt carols dates from the 1950s, when some of them became staples at movie colony Christmas parties in Los Angeles.) These segments, inserted midstream in the albums “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “Joy to the World,” were so richly orchestrated and sung that their impact seemed to make the subsequent selections anticlimactic.

Last year I became aware that three albums of Burt carols, including “Christmas Mood” and “This Is Christmas,” had been revived by a small label, Variety Artists Group, in Southern California. They may not be available in stores, but you can order them by mail at Alfred Burt Christmas Carols, P.O. Box 2302, Idyllwild, Calif. 92549. A phone call to the office (951/659-9900) might even secure a conversation with the composer’s daughter, Diane Burt, who was very young when her father died but continues to guard the heritage. She can be heard briefly on the third album, a “Golden Anniversary” anthology, soloing on a verse of the haunting “Some Children See Him,” perhaps the most eloquent linkage of racial tolerance and childlike piety in the modern yuletide repertoire.

Have the movies overlooked a potentially heartrending holiday musical biography in Alfred Burt’s work and premature death? Probably, but the prevailing cultural climate would seem to preclude such a faith-based project. It is exhilarating to be reminded that there was this exceptional, sincere flurry of carol-writing not so long ago.

• • •

Well before the Burt songs became a seasonal enchantment, I treasured a couple of Christmas albums recorded by the Alfred Deller Consort, a quartet of soprano, tenor, baritone and countertenor formed by Mr. Deller in 1948. In this case, one encounters both familiar and unfamiliar songs spanning about seven centuries of English Christmas remembrance. Harmonizing for the most part without instrumental accompaniment — although Desmond Dupre does strum lute or guitar on certain selections — the Consort is likely to introduce you to some jovial or plaintive numbers. In addition, they usually find fresh and felicitous approaches to the famous numbers such as “Deck the Halls,” “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

It’s a great convenience to have the original albums, “The Holly and the Ivy” (1957) and “Hark, Ye Shepherds!” (1960), paired in a new CD from Vanguard Classics, which borrows the title of the former for the doubleheader. Mr. Deller’s virtuosity may have had greater latitude in solo albums; for instance “The Wraggle Taggle Gypsies,” where his verbal precision and high register are particularly delightful when articulating such balladic nonsense as “whipsee diddledee dandy dee” or “rifol, rifol, tol-de-riddle-li-do.” His voice accommodates a disconcerting expressive range from the robust to the fragile. It can get to you alone or as part of the quartet, where his notes frequently swoop to the top of the scale, suggesting a songbird that has eluded its cage and plans to flutter picturesquely near the ceiling.

An English teacher introduced one of his more receptive high school classes to the quaint pleasures of “The Holly and the Ivy” before Christmas break in 1957 or 1958. I suppose a similar gesture would be grounds for dismissal in some districts at this PC date. Every part of the package might be suspect: the preponderance of Christian sentiments, the English cultural bias, a lead singer with a very high voice. Even more reason to relish the opportunity to arm the car CD with vintage Alfred Deller this year, where he can alternate rapturously with Alfred Burt.

Recordings with carols by Alfred Deller, Alfred S. Burt:

• “The Holly and the Ivy,” performed by the Deller Consort (incorporating the record albums “The Holly and the Ivy” from 1956 and “Hark, Ye Shepherds!” from 1960). Vanguard Classics CD

• “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” performed by the Boston Pops Orchestra, conducted by John Williams (Burt carols on track 3, “A Christmas Greeting”) Sony Classical CD

• “Joy to the World,” also by the Boston Pops and John Williams (Burt carols on track 7, “A Christmas Bouquet”) Philips CD

• “The Christmas Mood,” performed by the Columbia Choir and Ralph Carmichael Brass Ensemble. Variety Artists Group CD

• “This Is Christmas,” performed by The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. Variety Artists Group CD

• “The Alfred Burt Christmas Carols: Golden Anniversary Collection,” an anthology with several performers. Variety Artists Group CD

WEB SITES: www.vanguardclassics.com,www.varietyartists.com/burt, www.alfredburtcarols.com

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