Christmas Music

Happy holidays, everyone, and happy New Year. Hope you’ve all been having a good and restful time. One highlight of my holiday was a Christmas dinner we gave for 15 assorted family members, featuring a 20-pound roast beef, which was so big we couldn’t fit it in our refrigerator. Had to put it outside in the cold, but not on our deck, because animals might eat it, or on our porch, because birds might get it (turkey vultures or crows). So we put it in our car.

One feature of Christmas, of course—one unavoidable feature—is Christmas music, which I love, as long as I’m not forced to listen to it in too many stores. We had a lot of it at home, alternating between pop (my choice) and classical (my wife’s). That made me think about the differences between pop and classical Christmas music, which tell a lot, I suddenly realized, about the differences, on a larger scale, between all of pop and all of classical.

Classical Christmas music, at its best, is joyous and radiant. Reverent, too. It tends to be religious, and often tends to sound traditional. That’s what people like about it. (I’m counting classical versions of Christmas carols here, just so everyone’s clear about that.) And it also—with the grand exception of Christmas music sung by old-time opera singers—tends to be discreet and respectable. Nobody’s going to get larger than life. Nobody’s going to be funny. Nobody’s going to show any attitude.

What can spoil classical Christmas music? Two things (maybe more, but I haven’t thought of them). The carol arrangements can be awful—too fancy, too gaudy, too restrained, too inept. There’s a big gap between the great composers we’re used to and most of the people who do Christmas carol arrangments, and the gap is, all too often, all too easy to hear. And then classical singers can be overbearing. Christmas carols—and even some of the standard classical Christmas songs, like “Panis Angelicus” or “O Holy Night”—aren’t deep or complex music, and can easily be spoiled, or else made crazily ridiculous, when singers do too much with them.

What this means is that opera singers often have to turn down their wattage. Case in point: Eileen Farrell blazing through “Deck the Halls” at something near full gleaming power, overwhelming the poor little song, and just about leaving it comatose with shock. Hearing this is like needing some milk, and driving to the convenience store in a fire engine, with lights and sirens going crazy. Classical singers can also be sententious. Even Franco Corelli, one of my all-time favorites, practically murders “Panis Angelicus,” which just can’t take his slurping passion. But the worst, the very worst I heard, was (to my dismay) Marian Anderson, who sings “Away in a Manger” as if she was a marble statue of Queen Victoria overacting as she played a marble statue of Queen Victoria on TV. She’s unbearable.

Pop Christmas music is normally fun. A lot of it is secular. Well, “Jingle Bells,” in the traditional Christmas carol repertoire, is also secular, as is “Deck the Halls,” but both are secular about things that aren’t around much any more, sleighs and fa la las, which give them both an air of sacred music, since they bring us to a world as far from us, and as nostalgically imagined, as angels or the Christmas star. And pop Christmas songs are secular in the most everyday sense—“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” or “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” That’s their strength; both in their tone and content they ground us in the life we actually live. (Just as the strength of classical Christmas music, at its best, is to take us off to what might be a better life.)

They also can be low-key, and funny. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard “The Chipmunk Song,” with Alvin messing up, over and over. But it always makes me laugh. And pop Christmas songs can be sad—“Blue Christmas,” or, most poignantly, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which (as I learned from a feature in the Daily News, my favorite New York tabloid) was written during World War II, and speaks for guys who were off fighting in the military, and might never see Christmas at home again. (“I’ll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams.”) A lot of people are sad during the holidays; sadness is also a very natural, and even (in a way) a very holy part of life. Bringing it into Christmas music helps make Christmas human and complete.

And what goes wrong with pop Christmas songs? They can trip over their attitude. Or, rather, their attitude stops meaning anything. How many times can you hear some hipster (or would-be hipster) take on “Jingle Bells,” with a subtext that says nothing more than “Hey, I’m a hipster singing ‘Jingle Bells.’” That gets old in about 20 seconds.

And can pop Christmas songs be reverent? That’s not a move that comes easily to them, but yes, they really can make it, or at least some singers can. Elvis can. His “Silent Night” is oddly touching; he brings it off lightly, but with a properly serious tone, which came easily to him, I think, first because he was the ultimate musical chameleon, and could imitate anything, and secondly because he sang gospel music reverently. Didn’t take much to transpose the tone into something appropriate for “Silent Night.”

Maybe the most reverent pop Christmas song I’ve ever heard is Aaron Neville’s version of “Ave Maria”; it’s pure, and gorgeous. The Beach Boys ought to be able to sing reverently, because they were masters of close harmony. But their version of “We Three Kings” (the only traditional song on their Christmas album) sounds smarmy. Phil Spector’s “Silent Night,” on his immortal Christmas album, serves mainly as an accompaniment to a spoken message from him, but it’s lovely; Spector, clearly, could have been reverent if he hadn’t wanted instead to put more pure verve and power into “Frosty the Snowman” than you’d ever think the song could handle. (Maybe that’s his own form of reverence.)

In the end, it’s a tossup. Like so many choices in life, it depends what you’re looking for. I do end up, though, with two regrets about classical Christmas music. It’s predictable; it covers, really, a pretty narrow range of emotion, no matter how touching the feelings in that range can be. (I’m excepting, of course, full-length masterworks like Messiah or L’enfance du Christ.) And there ought to be room in it for something other than radiance, reverence, and tradition. I miss humor, and everyday sadness.

Very, very rarely these things sneak in. I remember a really sweet “White Christmas” from Carlo Bergonzi, which he sings first in English, and then in Italian. His English is (how can I put this?) wonderfully sincere, but when he switches to his own language, his voice brightens; it’s like a quiet sunburst.

But maybe the most touching Christmas track I heard this year was a Nancy Wilson version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” which I found on an anthology with the scary name Yule B’ Swinging.  Wilson makes the song, in an unassuming but unmistakable way, the triumph of hope over experience. She thinks the guy just maybe might go out with her, but she doesn’t quite believe it. But still she’s hopeful. That’s more complex emotion than I got from any of the classical stuff, and it made me sad that classical music doesn’t seem to have any room for any Christmas song like this.

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