Sunday, December 19, 2021

Vital Viewing (Bethlehem After Dark Edition)


A great many people claim to hate Christmas music, but I'm not one of them. I like a lot of different kinds of music, and all the diverse genres come together most often during the holidays. Think about it. Rare is the radio station that has both Burl Ives and George Michael on its playlist, except in December, when it's not at all unusual to hear both "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Last Christmas", one after another, without even having to change the dial. If the different races and different creeds and different nations had the same generosity of spirit as does the average radio programmer from the day after Thanksgiving right up to December 25, the world would be a better place. 

Christmas music can be divided into two broad categories: Christmas "songs" and Christmas "carols." So what's the difference between a song and a carol? Well, I've been doing all kinds of googling to find that out, and the answer is a bit unsatisfying. Historically, a carol is a song associated with a festive occasion, and Christmas certainly qualifies. But if we go by that definition, there is no difference! Any song that touches on Christmas is a carol. "Santa Baby" is a carol. "The Chipmunk Song" is a carol. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" is a carol. Yet I can't imagine carolers such as the ones pictured above going door to door singing those songs, not without getting road salt dumped on their heads. It seems to me that no matter what it says in a dictionary, carolers use some sort of weeding out process before going out and risk having their tongues fall off from frostbite as they make their nightly rounds. After listening to Christmas songs traditionally referred to as carols and those traditionally referred to as songs, I think I've figured that weeding process out. Tradition, in fact, has a lot to do with the difference. As does technology and commercialism. Christmas songs are a relatively recent development, the product of the era of sound recording. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, but as with so many things that have come to define modernity, the device didn't really become a consumer must-have until the 1920s (you probably weren't paying attention because of all the covid news, but modernity celebrated its 100th birthday last year.) And of course, that's also when "record" went from being a word used mostly by historians and county registrars to one that for a while there came very close to being synonymous with music itself. In the 1930s came radio, which briefly competed with the phonograph for the listeners attention, until companies such as the Radio Corporation of America found it was easy to manufacture both and use one to promote the other.  Around the same time, movies began talking, and singing. In the 1950s came television. More competition, and even more promotion. And finally, the internet. All of which increased the demand for more, and newer, music, and musical stars--everyone from Bing Crosby to Gwen Stefani--to perform it. It also meant $$$$$$$$$$, and the contracts and copyrights to make sure everyone involved gets their cut. As for Christmas, the holiday simply followed, and eventually even magnified, these trends. Yuletide may have its roots in antiquity, but today it is the very soul of modernity.

Now onto carols (and remember, this is an informal definition.) Carols go back to before the 20th century. The copyrights having long since expired, they're today all in the public domain, and though they've certainly made the transition to the phonograph and radio and television and the internet and can and are sung by pop stars, such songs were originally performed by the aforementioned carolers and church choirs. And that brings up another important difference. While there are a few that are secular in nature, such as "Deck the Halls", most carols are religious. Now, as one of the theologically uncommitted, I'm on the outside looking in, yet I can still enjoy the melodic qualities of a good religious carol and even see the appeal of the lyrical content. (A baby born in a manger grows up to be Messiah? That tops Lincoln's log cabin!) I also think carols, unfairly, are seen by some people, whatever their spiritual bent, as being kind of boring, probably because so many of us as children are forced to sing them in school or church pageants, and those wounds persist. So today what I want you to do is really listen to a carol, just one carol, but performed by three different artists or groups of artists. I don't think you'll be bored, and it just might help you overcome any traumatic childhood memories you may have of holding up a hymn book and trying to look at that and not stare at an audience of bored parents staring condescendingly back at you.

The carol I've chosen is "O Holy Night", aka, and for a very good reason aka, "Cantique de Noël" ("The Christmas Canticle".)  The original is in French, and not a song at all. It was an 1843 poem titled "Minuit, Chrétiens" ("Midnight, Christians") by Placide Cappeau, who was asked by a parish priest in the small winemaking town of Roquemaure to write something to celebrate the renovation of the church's organ. Soon thereafter, Cappeau showed his poem to Adolphe Adam (composer of the ballet Giselle), who agreed to set it to music. They were an odd pair for a church hymn. Cappeau was a political radical and ardent secularist. Adam eschewed politics but was a musical careerist who composed everything from vaudeville tunes to opera, and not a regular churchgoer. However, both were local celebrities in their day, and the priest probably thought having them aboard would be good PR, a way of getting Frenchmen into the pews between revolutions. The song eventually came to the attention of a Massachusetts-based Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight, who had once taught school at the famous (if short-lived) New England Transcendentalist-friendly Brook Farm commune. After that noble social experiment unfortunately fizzled, and all those 19th century proto-hippies were forced to rejoin the Establishment, Dwight became an influential music critic, as well as the publisher and editor of Dwight's Journal of Music. In 1855, Dwight decided to translate Adam's and Cappeau's Christmas carol into English:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices!
O night divine, O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night, O night Divine.

Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming,
With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand.
So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming,
Here come the wise men from Orient land.
The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger;
In all our trials born to be our friend.

He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger,
Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend!
Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.

Love one another? Slave is our brother? All oppression shall cease? Yeah, man, like groovy. Anyway, I don't really expect you to remember all those lyrics, but if you stick around, you'll get to hear 'em instead of read 'em. Three times in fact.

I already told you that Placide Cappeau and Adolphe Adam were celebrities in their day. Well, the 1847 premiere of "Cantique de Noël" involved yet another then-celebrity, opera singer Emily Laurey, whose name, unfortunately for her, has since slipped into obscurity (it's hard for a vocalist to attain any kind of posterity when no machine exists to record her voice.) Still, Laurey debuted the song, so as a kind of tribute to her, I've decided the first video should take place in an opera house, this one in Vienna. Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and José Carreras, aka the supergroup The Three Tenors, sing "O Holy Night", first in its original French and then in (heavily Italian-accented) English:

Um...that was only two tenors, huh? Perhaps Mr. Carreras had a taste for an eggnog shake and snuck out to McD's. Here's hoping he makes it back in time for "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."

As you know, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, pictured above. Except that's not really Jesus. Those Judean overlords the Romans may have known how to build roads and aqueducts and amphitheaters, but photography was a bit beyond them. Not that it matters. The nice thing about Christianity is that it can be so democratic at times. True, the average person can't run or cast a vote for Pope, but Christ himself is open to anyone as long as you have an Equity Card and a good agent. You don't have to be Jesus to be Jesus in a movie or rock opera or movie based on a rock opera. So, lower your heads, my children, Ted has arrived

Pretty spirited, even holy spirited, performance, but does he think he's what they say he is?


Oh, don't worry, I'm not going all secular on you. I said it's an O Holy Night and it's gonna be an O Holy Night. In fact, once Mariah gets out of her jammies and into something more form-fitting, she's headed for church:

I don't know if it's all she wants for Christmas, but Mariah just gave that old carol some soul.

No comments:

Post a Comment

In order to keep the hucksters, humbugs, scoundrels, psychos, morons, and last but not least, artificial intelligentsia at bay, I have decided to turn on comment moderation. On the plus side, I've gotten rid of the word verification.