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Why brass music has such a special relationship with Christmas

There is something particularly cheering about horns playing festive favourites as the temperature drops.

By Rachel Cunliffe

I cannot be the only person who winces the first time the jangly opening bars of “All I Want for Christmas” and “Jingle Bell Rock” ring out each year. Even dismissing the annual rows about the political correctness of “Fairytale of New York” and “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”, Christmas pop music is so disappointing: overrated and overplayed.

Fortunately, there’s an antidote. It involves putting aside saccharine platitudes about this supposedly most wonderful time of the year and bizarre entreaties to Santa, and reverting to tradition. Which is why I was so delighted to find Radio 2 paying tribute to the seasonal magic of the brass band. As the presenter and Australian jazz sensation James Morrison points out, “For many, Christmas and brass bands are inextricably linked.” A Top Brass Christmas has it all: the Salvation Army trumpeting out “Joy to the World”, a gorgeous jazz rendition of “Winter Wonderland” by Chet Baker, and a Nutcracker medley by a variety of artists that shows just how creative one can be with Tchaikovsky’s classic. (The March from Act I sounds irresistibly toe-tapping when performed on saxophone and jazz piano.) There’s even a brass arrangement of “Christmas Time (Don’t Let the Bells End)” by the Darkness that will make your heart soar.

Carols are spellbinding in their own right, channelling ancient mysticism with their haunting chords and multi-part harmonies. But there is something particularly cheering about a brass band playing festive favourites as the temperature drops –the auditory equivalent of a cup of mulled wine. Listening in the depths of a pitch-black December night (around 5.30pm), my spirits lifted. This is music written and performed to warm the soul, not to be endlessly replayed by bored radio DJs for six weeks of the year. So if you’re don’t fancy hearing “Last Christmas” for the 600th time, remember that there are alternatives – and this alternative comes with trumpets.

A Top Brass Christmas
BBC Radio 2, 20 December, 9pm

This article was originally published on 7 December 2022.

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This article appears in the 07 Dec 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special