A Classical Christmas

Henry Doktorski with the Pittsburgh Chamber Orchestra

CD booklet cover, with Huei-Sheng Kao, Gretchen Van Hoesen, and Henry Doktorski, from original 1993 Soli Deo Gloria release.


Huei-Sheng Kao, first violin (Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra assistant concertmaster)

Hong-Guang Jia, second violin (PSO member)

Mark Jackobs, viola (PSO member)

David Premo, cello (PSO member)

Don Evans, double bass (PSO member)

Gretchen Van Hoesen, harp (PSO principal harpist)

Lee A. Foster, percussion (Wheeling Symphony percussionist)

Henry Doktorski, converter/free-bass accordion and piano

The 1993 release also included a bonus track with the Pittsburgh Boychoir (J. Scot Franklin, Director)


Capriccio on “Twelve Days of Christmas”

Quodlibet: Ave Maria (Bach/Gounod)

Two-Part Canon: We Wish You a Merry Christmas

Prelude & Toccata on “Good Christian Men Rejoice” (J.S. Bach)

      In dulci jubilo (BWV 751)

      In dulci jubilo (BWV 729)

Nocturne: Stille Nacht

Farandole: March of the Three Kings (Georges Bizet, from L’Arlesienne Suite)

Berceuse: Away in a Manger

Jazz Fantasia on “Carol of the Bells”

Theme & Variations on “Coventry Carol”

Minuet: Dance of the Angels

Suite on Four Polish Carols

      Przybiezeli do Betlejem

      Lulajze jezuniu

      Dzisiaj w Betlejem

      Gdy Sie Chrystus Rodzi

Ayre: What Child is This

Gigue: Dance of the Shepherds

Sonatina on Three Christmas Carols

      O Thou Joyful Day

      It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

      Angels We Have Heard on High

Serenade: Sleep, Baby Jesus

Chorale and Dance on “Jingle Bells”

Bonus Track: Capriccio on “Twelve Days of Christmas,” vocal version with the Pittsburgh Boychoir (on the original 1993 release only)

Total Time: 73:17
Released November 1993

CD Booklet Notes

George David Exoo

After my first hearing of A Classical Christmas, I suspected that the highlight of the album for most listeners would be the bonus track, Capriccio on Twelve Days of Christmas, featuring the Pittsburgh Boychoir. [This track only appeared on the original 1993 Soli Deo Gloria release; it was omitted in the subsequent 1994 Alanna Records release.] And with good reason: their effervescent singing is absolutely enchanting.

Originally Twelve Days was conceived only for chamber orchestra, but after the instrumental recording sessions were finished, producer Henry Doktorski had an inspiration to add in the final mix the heavenly, yet rambunctious voices of the Pittsburgh Boychoir. The result is a truly unique and decidedly American presentation of a timeless Christmas classic.

Although I would not discount an iota from the glory of finely trained trebles, still for me this album’s real treasure lies in the less obvious, but no less spectacular arrangements of other cuts. Creator Henry Doktorski displays his genius as composer, arranger, and performer in this tapestry of old and new Christmas carols, where each piece exhibits a high degree of originality, cleverness and solid musical craft.

Especially intriguing are Doktorski’s three original compositions. Consider the most ethereal, the serenade, Sleep, Baby Jesus, which was written for harpist Gretchen Van Hoesen. Doktorski composed this hauntingly simple melody in only fifteen minutes, then arranged it for harp, accordion, string bass and glockenspiel on the day before the recording session. Why the hurry? At the time he had only three pieces for harp and he wanted on more to take advantage of union regulations governing time limits for recording artists. Here is delightful proof that it is possible even for bureaucracy to drive the muse of music, Polyhymnia, into action.

Equally persistent in memory is the minuet, Dance of the Angels, which invites the company of heaven to the dance with a lilting but mystical perfect fifth. Doktorski wrote this piece for a ballet scene in his opera, Journey to the City of God, which is based on John Bunyan’s famous book, Pilgrim’s Progress.

The last of the three original carols is the strongly rhythmic gigue, Dance of the Shepherds, which is spiced by the flavor of twentieth-century quartal and quintal harmonies. This piece first appeared as a song for soprano and piano with lyrics from William Blake’s poem Dancing Down the Valleys Wild.

It is, of course, the singability of carols that make them perennially enduring year after year. The melodic beauty of Doktorski’s compositions recalls Ralph Vaughan Williams’ memorable comment on atonal music: “And just what’s wrong with a good tune? ” I believe these new carols are destined to become as much a part of future Christmases as Jesu Bambino or the Pat a Pan.

Of the arrangements of familiar carols, Jingle Bells is particularly striking. In 1857 Pierpont wrote the tune for a Sunday school class. Doktorski introduces the piece with a somber maestoso in the Baroque style. Suddenly a trivial antebellum Southern pot boiler becomes a serious piece of concert music, yet droll in its musical irony, especially so when the dance in five part counterpoint begins.

Other arrangements will live in memory like the jazzy Carol of the Bells, with its distinctive sound created by the German sixth chord in the development section. Doktorski’s transcription of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria evokes angelic feelings through the lucidity of a rich tremolo on the solo accordion, delicately interlaced with a molto espressivo solo violin beautifully played by Huei-Sheng Kao.

Most intriguing for ethnic listeners will be the album’s inclusion of four Polish carols arranged for accordion and string quintet. These lucid pieces evoke images of romantic nineteenth-century Warsaw: Cobblestone streets, horses and wagons, candlelight, and siedem potraw—the traditional Polish Christmas eve dinner—as well as the simple joys of family Christmases in rural homes. Doktorski wrote this suite in tribute to his Polish heritage and as a Christmas gift to his father and mother, who, he admitted, “sometimes had to use firm measures to make me practice the accordion when I was a little boy. ” [For more about this suite, go to Four Polish Carols.]

Doktorski tells the story of the origin of the imaginative arrangements: “In June 1992, I visited the largest music store in Pittsburgh and asked for Christmas music. Not just any ordinary arrangements of Christmas music, however. I wanted something interesting, something exciting, something contrapuntal, something intellectually stimulating like the music of my favorite composer, J. S. Bach.

“I searched in the piano department, the organ and choral department, the brass department and the strings department. But although the store had hundreds of arrangements of Christmas music, none of them, I felt, were really what I was looking for. After many hours of reading through music scores, sheet music and anthologies, I sadly left the store and returned to my car.

“Just then, a conscientious store employee ran out into the parking lot shouting and waving a book in his had, ‘We found something you might like, ’ he panted. ‘Look at this! ’

“I glanced through the book, entitled Christmas Holiday and immediately was delighted beyond my wildest expectations. Here was an anthology of superb arrangements of Christmas music—tasteful, artistic, and in a contrapuntal style. One of the carols was arranged as a two part invention, another with Alberti basses, another as a canon at the octave, another as a theme and variations. My search had ended!

“I turned to the cover and eagerly sought the name of the master craftsman who had written such interesting arrangements and saw the name: Willard A. Palmer, the same author of my first accordion method book which I had studied some thirty years ago!

“I this recording, I have expanded some of Dr. Palmer’s scores and included several of my own. I then orchestrated the pieces for accordion, harp, piano, strings, winds and percussion. The result is I hope a tasteful and musical presentation of Christmas music which will delight and uplift the spirit in all of us. ”

The most distinctive feature of these arrangements, besides their clever twists of musical speech, is the use of the accordion as the principal instrument. No doubt it will come as a great surprise to most American audiophiles to hear an instrument commonly impoverished by its association with proletarian polka bands and German beer gardens on a recording with such sophisticated taste and music merit. It is a pity that the concert accordion is not well known to United States audiences. It is, however, a respected classical instrument in Europe and Russia where it is regularly heard in contemporary music concerts. Continental conservatories, including the Moscow Conservatory and the Akademia Muzyczna im. Fryderyka Chopina in Warsaw, teach classical accordion, as do many European colleges and universities.

According to Dr. William Schimmel, dean of the Neupauer Conservatory of Music, the accordion is an instrument which has been “invented” many times. As far back as the second century it appeared in China as the cheng, a small mouth-blown organ used to accompany the singing of monks. It appeared again during the Renaissance in France and Italy as the portative organ. In the early 1800s it showed up in Czechoslovakia as an all-button instrument with bellows. It was invented again and again and appeared under such names as harmonium, concertina, bandoneon, bayan and mussette, to name a few.

The instrument heard in this recording is a free-bass concert accordion. The free-bass left hand manual enables the artist to perform difficult contrapuntal music with both hands up to a range of seven octaves. This fairly recent innovation liberated the performer from the limited oom-pah-pah sound of the bass and chord accompaniments characteristic of the tradition accordion. Listen to the accordion solos. Bach’s Prelude and Toccata is a fine example which displays the virtuosity of the concert accordion. Note for note, it is an exact literal transcription of a work originally written for pipe organ.

Doktorski’s instrument, built in Italy by skilled craftsmen, has been called “the Stradivarius of accordions. ” It was entirely hand-made, from the Swedish blue tempered steel reeds to the final polish. The inner parts of the instrument are built with precious wood which had first been aged twenty years to insure maximum resonance and acoustical properties. The resulting sound is unique, rich and full-bodied, and very refined.

“I’d like to help to enlighten the public’s awareness of the beauty, grace and sensitivity of the concert accordion, ” Doktorski said. “Most people don’t realize what a serious instrument it can become in the hands of a master musician. ”

A Classical Christmas will receive many spins in your compact disc player, not just during Christmastide, but throughout the calendar year.

Reviews of A Classical Christmas
Listen to Sound Files from A Classical Christmas
About Four Polish Carols
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