For the upcoming Christmas celebrations, all across the world, the music scene celebrates with numerous concerts bringing the public closer to the festive spirit. Egypt is no exception, with December already boasting performances by soloists, orchestras and smaller ensembles. This is topped with the quintessential Christmas ballet: The Nutcracker.
It goes without saying that Christmas carols make up the best-known musical associated with the holiday, with a history soaked in Christian religion, tradition and a pinch of myth. In fact, the carols’ history sends us back to the beginning of popular songs celebrating the birth of Jesus, which broadly paralleled the Winter Solstice. Falling on 22 December and representing the shortest day in the year, the latter event was celebrated with singing and dancing in pre-Christian cultures, and proved to be one of those rare pagan traditions that stood the test of time. In other words, the end of December was known for celebrations marking the symbolic death and rebirth of the Sun, and once the Christianity stepped in, the early Christians replaced the pagan songs with those associated with the new religion.
During his reign (126-137), the Roman Bishop Pope St. Telesphorus, known for feuding with those who did not comply with the official dogma, called for singing the Angel’s Hymn at a Christmas service. Though today we no longer know the tune of that song, many historians refer to it as the first Christmas carol. Despite the presence of music, songs and hymns, since the beginning of Christianity, the road leading to carols and Christmas songs as we know them today took more than a millennium and a half.
At the beginning of that journey we find the Church incorporating singing into the masses, especially those held at Christmas time. However, the deeply solemn character of those compositions (recognised as hymns) and their Latin lyrics, prevented them from reaching popular celebrations.
It was in the 12th century when St. Francis of Assisi – believed to be behind the Nativity plays performed in town squares and churches, which included numerous songs that people could understand – that carols took off. Apart from capitalising on religious themes, the plays’ plots also brought in scenes based on historical events and legends or scenes drawn from daily life. In the 14th century Dominican mystics followed in St. Francis’s footsteps, and the Blessed Henry Suso is credited with writing In dulci jubilo. By the 15th century travelling singers or minstrels popularised such songs across the continent. This is believed to be the first significant spread of new carols that dominated France, Spain, Germany and other European countries.
The first carols spoke of Mary and Jesus, and the stories from Bethlehem. Even if scholars point to the very weak connection between the lyrics and actual historical events, their entertaining character reverberated through the Christians who sung them mostly at home, rather than at church. Even if singing during Christmas suffered a decline in the 16th and 17th centuries – the Reformation period – England revived the tradition at the beginning of the 18th century. From this time we have Joy to the World written by Isaac Watts and first published in 1719.
Singing around Christmas time became popular during the 19th century with composers writing songs that oscillate between the celebrations of the winter weeks and religious themes. The famed Jingle Bells, for instance, doesn’t have a religious theme as it is a winter song though often sung around Christmas time all around the globe. Most scholars point out that the song was written by an organist from Medford, Massachusetts named James Lord Pierpont in 1857. Some historians claim that Pierpoint wrote it during his stay in Savannah, Georgia. Geographical polemics aside, the song was originally titled One Horse Open Sleigh, and composed for Thanksgiving. Its winter character allowed it to become a staple composition performed around the Christmas time, often during concerts that also feature carols with religious themes.
The well-known Christmas carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night) dates back to 1818, and was based on a poem written by a German priest, during his stay at a pilgrims’ church in Austria. It was translated into English more than 40 years later by an American Episcopal priest named John Freeman Young. The best known carol of all time, Silent Night was first recorded in 1928, by Bing Crosby, and has become the most recorded carol in America since 1978, with names such as Elvis Presley (1957), Sinéad O’Connor (1991), Mariah Carey (1994), Olivia Newton-John (2001) and even Justin Bieber (2011) capitalising on its guaranteed success.
Another Christmas hit is O Holy Night, composed by Adolphe Adam in 1847 to the French poem Minuit, Chretiens. An English Christmas carol, Twelve Days of Christmas is derived from a 1909 arrangement of a traditional folk melody by Frederic Austin, yet its earlier versions go back to the end of the 19th century. The carol is a lovely, cumulative song that made its way into the repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavorotti, Placido Domingo, Charlotte Church and Celine Dion, among countless others.
The Christmas spirit encourages singers across the stages of Cairo and Alexandria to present that particular repertoire. The Room Arts Space and Cafe in Garden City, for one, is offering The Sinatras Christmas with the favourite Christmas songs, winter jazz and Sinatra tunes featuring Lynn Hisham on 9 December, followed by the Christmas movie night screening Home Alone on 12 December.
The Cairo Symphony Orchestra will join forces with the Cairo Opera Ballet Company and the Cairo Opera Choir to give a special Christmas concert conducted by Mohamed Saad Basha, on 14 and 15 December
16 December will witness numerous events across a range of stages, such as Bohemian Latin Christmas, a project paying tribute to the Clazz Brothers’ famous Latin Christmas album and featuring Amira Reda at the Room Arts Space; Gala El Hadidi’s annual Christmas concert at the Cairo Opera Small Hall; the Fabrica Christmas Choir led by its founding director, soprano Neveen Allouba, at the Saint John the Baptist Church; and the Saint Mary Choir singing Christmas carols at the Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Catholic Cathedral.
A day later, on 17 December, Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral is holding a celebration with hymns and prayers.
But no Christmas celebration is complete without the famed Nutcracker ballet, to be performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company between 27 and 30 December at the Cairo Opera House.
Based on the story The Nutcracker and the King of Mice by E.T.A. Hoffman, the magical performance with music by Tchaikovsky opens with the clock striking midnight on Christmas Eve. This is obviously why the ballet is usually performed around Christmas time. Even though the story diverts a little from Hoffman’s text (as Pepita, the choreographer, used Dumas’ revised version of The Nutcracker), the basic plot line remains the same. It follows Clara, a girl dreaming of a Nutcracker Prince battling against a Mouse King with seven heads.
Filled with captivating melodies and dances, The Nutcracker has its own Egyptian history which goes back to the Khedivial Opera House (known as Old Opera House). In 1971, the Egyptian ballet company presented “Kingdom of Sweets,” a segment from The Nutcracker which includes several iconic dances: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, and the “Waltz of the Flowers.” The performance staged at the old opera was put together by artistic director Anatoly Kuznetsov.
With the burning of the Khedivial Opera House in October 1971, the entire ballet company, and hundreds of other artists, lost their home. It wasn’t until the opening of the new opera in 1988 that the Ballet Company founded by the “spiritual father of the Egyptian ballet”, Abdel Moneim Kamel, and operating under the Academy of Arts, was moved to the new stage, becoming the Cairo Opera Ballet Company, the name we know it by today.
In fact, The Nutcracker was among the first complete works performed by the Cairo Opera Ballet Company when it premiered in 1993. While working on the ballet, Kamel added his creative touches to the iconic work and enriched the characters. It is this version that continues to be performed through the years, incorporating creative ideas and a few segments by Kamel into the well known choreography of Marius and Lev Ivanov Pepita.
On its premiere at the Cairo Opera, the role of Clara was given to Erminia Kamel (today the artistic director of the troupe), while Lamia Mohamed took the role of a younger Clara. The Nutcracker performances have been duly repeated on an annual basis, each time featuring dancers who grew artistically, and with time, were replaced by the troupe’s younger stars.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.