Christmas is upon us, which means that we have been listening, willingly or unwillingly, to Christmas music for a month. I suppose I’m like other people, in that there is Christmas music (I suppose I ought to say ‘holiday music’ or ‘winter solstice music’) that I like, and some that I dread.
I thought I’d write about a few of the songs I dread.
First up, although the all-but-ban on religious Christmas music means you don’t hear it as often as you used to, is that ear-offending maudlin atrocity, “Little Drummer Boy”. It’s enough to make you hate, not only Christmas, and not just drums, but music in general. “Parum-pum-pum-pum” is not a lyric, it’s not even much of an onomatopoeia, and it’s only there because they needed something to rhyme with “drum”, and “slum”, “scum” and “dumb” don’t fit the mood. It’s the kind of song that you hate but that gets stuck in your head anyway—which is just one more reason to hate it.
Then there’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. It’s not a bad song musically, but the lyric is downright creepy. I dislike the message that Santa is some kind of surrogate divine judge who decides whether or not you’re to get presents come Christmas morning. Moreover, who is this old white man who sees you when you’re sleeping? There’s definitely something wrong there.
Next: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. I have nothing against the other Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, but I find this song annoying in the extreme. I find the catchy tune irritating, but the biggest problem, as with the previous entry, is the lyric. The moral is skewed, as I mentioned in a previous Christmas post. The message we get from Rudolph isn’t that it’s good, to be different.. The lesson is far more utilitarian: the song tells us that it’s okay to be different as long as you’re useful. What’s going to happen to Rudolph on the next clear Christmas Eve? (And, while we’re giving a close reading of the song, note how it never tells us that the other reindeer ever let Rudolph join in their games, only that he’ll go down in non-scanning history.)
And what of “Winter Wonderland”, another secular number that gets stuck in your head? I dislike the forced alliteration of “walking in our winter wonderland,” but that’s a venal sin. The thing I hate most about this one is the ghastly rhyme of “snowman” with “no man”. I blush for the lyricist every time I hear the song, and, given its ubiquity, I spend a lot of my musical December blushing for Richard B. Smith.
Then there’s the insufferable “I’ll be home for Christmas”, which I’ll admit I probably hate because, as the only child of two deceased parents, I haven’t had a home to go back to for Christmas for years. Don’t feel too sorry for me, I make a nice ecumenical Christmas for myself—but don’t make me listen to that verkakteh song.
“Jingle Bell Rock”. Two words: Mean Girls. That ruined the over-covered over-played song for me for this lifetime.
That awful drummer boy aside, all my choices above are secular winter solstice-type songs, and I’ll admit to a bias in favor of Christmas songs that are actually about Christmas. Anybody who knows this blog knows I’m a big opera fan, and opera singers tend to concentrate on religious songs on their Christmas albums. I like it that way. I switched on Joan Sutherland’s “O Holy Night” on Wednesday to drown out Rudolph and Frosty streaming in through the window, and quite a relief Dame Joan was, too. That said, there’s one classical religious song trotted out by seemingly every opera singer on their albums of Christmas music that drives me crazy: the Schubert Ave Maria. Let me make it clear: it’s not the tune itself, nor how it works when sung to the original German text as one of Ellens Gesänge. It can be most lovely (consider the hypnotic performance I provided a link to in one of my Beverly Sills posts, or the magisterial organ-accompanied performance Jessye Norman gives on her magnificent disc of sacred songs), but it’s awful when soupily orchestrated and re-worked so that the Latin text can – with endless repetitions – be jammed onto the notes written for a song in German that’s not a translation of the prayer anyway.
For a classical Ave Maria in Latin, might I instead recommend the so-called “Bach-Gounod” setting? Gounod did a deft job of sticking the original text onto a Bach keyboard piece, far better than Anon. did when he murdered the Latin to make it fit Schubert’s melody. Renata Tebaldi’s performance makes a marvelous case for it..
See? There are Christmas songs I like. Perhaps a word or two on those would counter accusations of Scroogeism from the pro-drummer boy lobby.
At a very young age, I was positively fascinated by “The Twelve Days of Christmas” and could get awfully upset with people if the pipers piping, lords a-leaping, ladies dancing and drummers drumming didn’t come out in what I believed to be the right order. I think my version called for 12 drummers, 22 pipers, 30 lords and 36 ladies, but I wouldn’t swear to it all these years later.
I recall, again as a very little boy, writing down somewhere that my favorite song (of all, not just at Christmas) was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. Although I don’t think it’s still my favorite song ever, I definitely retain a soft spot for it and its major key anthem-like majesty. Reassessing the song as an adult, however, I have come to question the syntax of the first line. Does it mean “Listen to the herald angels singing ‘Glory to the Newborn King’”? Or does it mean “The herald angels are singing ‘Hark! glory to the Newborn King’”?
If I had to say which Christmas song was my favorite today, I’d probably answer Adam’s “Cantique de Noël”, which I first heard under interesting circumstances when I was a teenager. Good though the song is in English, it’s even better if it’s sung as written, with the little embellishments in the second verse (there are three verses in the original), and, yes, in French. “Minuit chrétiens, c’est l’heure solonelle”, is a far stronger first line than “O holy night, the stars are brightly shining” with its garbage first syllable, and “Noël! Noël! Voici le rédempteur” has a lot more punch than “O night divine” as a the refrain, especially as, while nights can be holy, I don’t see how they can be divine. My favorite version of the song in English is Dame Joan’s performance, sung a minor third higher than the traditional high voice key, enabling her to deliver a stunning high D-flat at the song’s climax. If you want to hear a version in French, I wholeheartedly refer you to Renata Scotto’s scrupulously musical performance, embellishments and all, at 41:22 on her Christmas album.
Speaking of Scotto’s Christmas at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, it also preserves what is probably the absolute worst Christmas song of all time, John Corigliano’s “Christmas at the Cloisters”. Try it out: it can be found starting at 20:45. If it weren’t so funny, it would leave you longing for that dreadful drummer boy.