This year Christmas came and went, and I barely knew it. When you are totally depleted of energy, merely getting dressed is an ordeal. I spent the entire season doing nothing but getting my choir ready for special Christmas music. Beyond that, there was nothing left for writing or anything else.
And I hate that because Christmas inspired some of the greatest music ever written. One of those was O Sanctissima. You may be vaguely familiar with the tune because Bing Crosby used the tune as the basis for a new song he introduced called The Bells of St. Mary's, which, by the way was the name of the blockbuster movie in the early 1940s by that same title, and starring Bing Crosby.
The original tune inspired that song. And I can think of no other medium through which to convey that old tune to the masses than Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Ormandy developed a sound all his own and unequaled among the great symphony orchestras. It was a big, full sound in the grand classical tradition. He doubled the size of the string section when he took over the orchestra in the late 1930s, and his brass and woodwind sections had the best musicians in the world. Ormandy loved the velvety, mellow feel the strings gave his sound, but he would not hesitate to play full volume when the music called for it. And it was all in balance, the brass in sync with the strings due to the fact that Ormandy had insisted on so many stringed instruments. Very few ever were able to capture the Ormandy magic, and I can tell you that watching him and learning from him was the thrill of a lifetime.
Ormandy's arrangement of O Sanctissima has it all. In fact one could say it is a miniature showcase of the Philadelphia sound. It begins quietly and slowly and gradually builds through the trumpets and woodwinds until on the final round those glorious strings let it fly...and I mean they play it as if they are playing for God Himself. And then after Ormandy shows us what his "Philadelphia sound" can do, he gradually lowers the volume until the end when the strings play one last chord the way Ormandy liked it on a piece like this -- soft, deft, lovely, and inspiring. You see, music is primarily an emotional exercise. No one could capture that like Eugene Ormandy because he himself was deeply moved by the music, sometimes tears rolling down his cheeks as he directed the orchestra from the podium. And then there would be that impish smile as if to say, "This is what music is meant to do, and this is what I present to you through my wonderful musicians. Isn't that just absolutely beautiful..."
Yes, dear maestro, it is...
O Sanctissima by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra