Soundtrack for the season

December 20, 2012 11:00 AM

Fran Simon

Why do we still care about Christmas carols? Tulane music chair C. Leonard Raybon says it’s because they resonate with the primal human instinct to sing. “It is one of the most basic human impulses,” says Raybon, choral director in the Newcomb Department of Music.

C. Leonard Raybon

“Music was born when a caveman stepped out of his cave and spontaneously began to sing,” muses C. Leonard Raybon, left, choral director at Tulane. (Photo by Paula Burch-Celentano)

“I’m convinced that music was born when a caveman stepped out of his cave and spontaneously began to sing,” Raybon says. “Human beings memorialize experiences in song.”

Some carols have thrummed the heartstrings of Americans for centuries. Take “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” — Raybon’s personal favorite — which was written in 1739, adapted to music written by Felix Mendelssohn. “The line ‘Risen with healing in his wings’ — lyrics just don’t get better than that,” Raybon says. “And the music is simply beautiful.”

Raybon notes that the major key in which most Christmas carols are written evokes happiness. These beloved songs — with their familiar tunes and lyrics — become a part of many families’ traditions and tend to put a smile on the lips of those who sing along. Good songs stand the test of time, regardless how badly they might be sung, Raybon says.

“When you’re caroling, no one is going to look at you cross-wise if you can’t carry a tune. If you can’t harmonize, sing the melody and we’ll sing the harmony along with you! I love the harmonies — that’s where the goosebumps come from.”

As popular vocalist Bobby McFerrin has said, “The human voice is the greatest musical instrument.”

To hear Raybon direct the performance of two of the most popular Christmas carols, click on the audio files below. The first is “Angels We Have Heard on High,” a 19th-century carol performed by the Tulane-Newcomb Choirs with a majestic arrangement by Howard Helvey. The second is  “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” which was written in 1962 and sung by the Tulane Men’s Chorus. Both carols were performed at a Dec. 9  concert on the Tulane uptown campus.

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