Interview with Ron Clancy

Have you always loved Christmas music? How did your interest in Christmas music develop, and how did you become such an excellent music historian?

It all started in the 1950 Christmas season. That was quite an exhilarating time for a six-year-old boy raised at St. John’s Orphan’s Asylum in West Philadelphia.The next four weeks of that holiday season brought one festive party after another. Hosted by local companies and colleges, we were giddy from all the excitement leading up to Santa’s big day. And when Villanova University students came by to treat us to a day in downtown Philadelphia.

That meant shopping for our Christmas gift at one of Quaker City’s premium department stores – John Wanamaker, Strawbridge & Clothier, Lit Brothers, or Gimbels. It was a thrill just strolling along, or milling about, with bustling crowds of shoppers, who were neatly groomed and dressed, and pausing occasionally to behold the magical winter wonderlands on display in the large storefront windows. Our merriment was untold, almost mystical, and the popular holiday songs and carols that filled the air added to our festive mood. That was my first fond memory of the joys of Christmas music.

After shopping for presents, the Villanova students treated us to a grand lunch at Horn and Hardart’s, a glass-and-chrome cafeteria-styled coin-operated automat and Philadelphia institution since 1902. And to top the day, we were treated to a matinee double-header – a Laurel & Hardy short and the comedy Fancy Pants with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball that left us in stitches. All in all, it was a fantastic day for us orphan boys.

Finally, on a snow-dusted Christmas Eve, Sister Carmine roused us from our comfy beds for our first Midnight Mass. To this day, I have never forgotten the feeling of awe before entering the chapel. The crèche on the side of the altar was magnificent and quickly caught my eye. The Baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and surrounded by Joseph and Mary, shepherds, ox, ass, and sheep, and overhead was an angel bearing the good tidings. “Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.” (Glory to God in the highest. And on earth peace to men of goodwill.)

The ceremonial burning of frankincense only added to the drowsy and sweet intoxication caused by the lush fragrance of Christmas firs tethered to the pillars throughout the intimate chapel. But what mostly enhanced my wonderment and which made the occasion truly memorable was the singing of Christmas carols. Sung beautifully by a small choir of nuns, the enchanting notes of the mystic “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the reverential “Silent Night,” the Latin hymn “Adeste Fideles,” and other carol gems seemed to spiral heavenward as though on the wings of angels.

After Midnight Mass, Sister Carmine led us in procession across the vast concrete yard to our dormitory. A steady night wind whipped through the bare trees that only hours before had been dusted with snow, and soon Sister Marie Carmine had us all snugly tucked into bed. When the wee morning hours began weaving a final spell, I remember barely lifting my head from my pillow to catch any sighting of a foreign and ancient star. Then I fell back into a pre-warmed nestle with carols ringing in my ears and dreamed of Christmas and Santa all night.

For a six-year-old boy, the experience of that Midnight Mass and the holiday season kindled a love for Christmas and its music that has remained throughout the years.

Have you always loved Christmas music? How did your interest in Christmas music develop, and how did you become such an excellent music historian?

What is your favorite Christmas song/carol, and why?

The Christmas Song sung by Nat King Cole is my favorite Christmas song. I have always been a massive fan of Nat King Cole. O Little Town of Bethlehem is one of my favorite carols. It accentuates peace and calm, and the imagery is just fantastic.

“THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION” is a three-volume set of Christmas music with excellent text, lyrics, and beautiful images of great art. It is truly a collector’s dream! What compelled you to put this collection together and to write the books?

I began collecting Christmas music in the late 1970’s and eventually owned a sizeable library. The collection included many classical pieces, such as motets, Christmas concertos (Baroque concerti), oratorios, hymns, etc., that are not usually part of mass-marketed Christmas music collections. Friends of mine suggested I write on the subject.

THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION is a planned ten-part series, the first three already published. I put it together because I felt the marketing of Christmas music had become somewhat stale. The giants of direct marketing of the genre have sold it by the same formula for the past 25 years. Instead of creating a me-too product line, I opted to develop exquisite Christmas music packages that would provide enjoyment on not one but three levels: art, fascinating stories (history), and the music itself. Songbooks came in two of the collections.

Another impulse was to explain the origins of Christmas music over a two-thousand-year period.

You obviously had to perform extensive research to ensure the integrity of your facts for the music, history, and art. How did you conduct your research? Did you ever run into problems obtaining accurate information?

Before I wrote one word, I planned to develop a series of products, initially titled A Christmas Festival of Great Music, Songs and Carols. Most of my early research was in the Music Department of the Free Library of Philadelphia and eventually hundreds of more hours in its Art, Religion, and Prints & Photograph departments. Research locales included the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Museum of American History, and the fine art, music, and research libraries at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, the Moore School of Art and Design, the University of the Arts, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, St. Joseph’s University, the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, Westminster College of Music, and several smaller branch libraries in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Before purchasing a computer, I also corresponded with other seminaries and libraries via snail mail.

The research was done without regard to the lateness of the hour. At times, there were problems associated with accuracy since some sources differed from others on the facts. I tried to make allowances for these discrepancies.

I also consulted with Prof. William E. Studwell, one of America’s leading authorities on Christmas carols and editor of the first three titles, who reviewed the manuscripts for accuracy of content.

Did you have to obtain permission from the copyright holders? How difficult was this process, and what did you learn? Were there any songs you wanted to include but could not due to not being able to obtain permission?

Yes, I had to obtain hundreds of permissions from copyright owners before a book went to print. It was sometimes difficult, especially concerning some images from the late 1940s – early 1950s. I developed databases that provide information on one thousand plus copyright ownership of images, song lyrics, and recordings. In some cases, I had to inform image owners the copyrights belonged to them. American Christmas Classics required one hundred and seventy-two clearances before the book went to print.

I am proud to say that I was able to obtain permission for every single song I requested. It wasn’t easy since SONY Music, the manufacturer of the music CDs, was denied permission on three occasions for the recording rights to Bing Crosby’s White Christmas and Nat King Cole’s rendition of The Christmas Song. Because of persistence, I got the rights to these two valuable American holiday songs, another chapter in the adventures of THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION.

“American Christmas Classics,” a part of “THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION: Glorious Christmas Music, Songs, and Carols,” is a beautiful tribute to American Christmas carols and songs. How did you select the carols and songs for this volume?

There was a certain amount of subjectivity involved. Still, aside from my preferences, I tried to include carols and holiday classics from a two-hundred-year period that most people would select. Although most of the selections come from the 20th century, thus making it one of the most, if not the most, copyright-protected collections of American Christmas music ever assembled, I did not make allowances for what was copyright or public domain. You tell the history and let the chips fall where they may. As a result, the collection was quite costly to produce, making it a difficult sell despite its great appeal. Consumers who might want only the music CDs would have to purchase six or seven CDs to replicate American Christmas Classics, and they wouldn’t get a lavishly illustrated book with one of the most significant collections of American Christmas art!

In “Best-Loved Christmas Carols,” you say that “O Holy Night” (Cantique de Noël), a French carol, was once actually detested by Church authorities. Why did Church authorities feel this way?

The author of the lyrics eventually became a socialist and denounced his Catholic faith. To boot, the composer of the music, Adolphe Adam, was Jewish. This combination may have had much to do with the clergy’s antipathy toward the carol. But parishioners loved the carol, and eventually, conservative higher-ups relented in their criticism.

I think “Children’s Christmas Classics” appeals to the entire family. It even includes a bonus songbook so the whole family can sing along. What has been your feedback from both children and adults on “Children’s Christmas Classics?”

Most women think highly of this volume, but it is still too early to tell if it will succeed in the marketplace. Folks who purchased all three books of THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION also enjoyed Children’s Christmas Classics. This third volume of the series uses a similar logic as Walt Disney’s film Fantasia. Disney wanted children to appreciate classical music through the prism of animation. He achieved his goal, although it took many more years than he had envisioned. I, too, wanted to provide children with an opportunity to appreciate classical music and enjoy classic holiday songs and carols. Also, including Biblical passages supporting the Nativity gospels allows parents to teach their children the Bible stories.

What makes your Christmas music projects unique from others on the market?

It is the only one I have found that tries to describe the history of Christmas music over two thousand years and to do so by fusing that history with the time-honored music of Christmas and art. I hope the latter will be judged as one of the finest collections of Christmas art. The massive nature of the collection and insistence on creating something truly unique and beautiful sets THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION apart from most collections produced since 1980. This effort was achieved with the immeasurable aid of a very supportive and wonderful spouse and a vision to do what marketers of Christmas music for the past twenty-five years said could not be done.

What do you hope readers walk away with after reading and listening to “American Christmas Classics,” “Best-Loved Christmas Carols,” and “Children’s Christmas Classics,” the three volumes in THE MILLENNIA COLLECTION?

I hope they will better appreciate Christmas music as an integral part of celebrating a festive time of year with family and friends. Still, most importantly, it inspires readers to remember and celebrate the seminal event of the Western World, i.e., the birth of Jesus Christ.

Of all the music collections and books you have written, is there one that is more special to you? And why?

Volume four, titled Sacred Christmas Music, is extraordinary. The first draft is still in the works. It begins with the history of Christmas music from the early centuries of Christianity. The artwork includes many manuscript illuminations from the great libraries of England, France, and the Vatican and many religious paintings by renowned artists. The storyline is a primer on Western music’s development through the lens of Christmas music. Sacred Christmas Music will contain two CDs and a sizeable hymnal/music book.

Any final thoughts to share with us?

I wanted to create exquisite collections for those who appreciate Christmas music. I hoped they might consider my collections as family heirlooms to be enjoyed for years.  

Interview with Olivia Wilson
September 13, 2005