Wednesday 1 December 2021

Christmas - the season for murdering traditional songs

In my family we have often used the term murdering to describe what most singers do to a well known classic song - and Christmas is the season when such musical homicide becomes wholesale. 

There are various ways of committing this crime - one is to slow the tempo and draw-out the 'deep meanings' in a lyric such as... Jingle Bells. 

Another is when the singer pulls the tempo all over the place - dragging-out some of the phrases and falling behind the beat, then catching-up with the band by gabbling a few words. 

The tune itself is, of course, ripe for killing - by adding decorations to the basic tune that have nothing to do with its meaning, but are supposed to show-off the singer's technique. Howling the highest note is a further mutilation, or adding extra-high notes ("just because I can!"). 

The there is the orchestra - and there are innumerable ways this can destroy a song. The Americans used to be keen on interjections from syrupy, mixed-voice choirs. Jokey little phrases on novelty instruments such as xylophones or sleigh bells. Or just sheer over-production - layering on more and more instruments until the texture turns to mud. 

When it comes to Christmas songs (or carols) - less is more. The plainest arrangements of the most straightforwardly performed songs are the best; and these are often the earliest, or the one's that made a song popular in the first place... 

(And what a superb song! As well as its haunting tune, which subtly builds, mainly by the rhythm enhancements - the arc of the lyrics is absolute perfection.)

But then again, so many of the songs are themselves dire! Including many of the most famous; such as the glutinous White Christmas, or the inept and creepy Happy Holiday - or... well, there are too many to mention...

Except for the one I hate most of all: "I wish it could be Christmas Every Day" by Wizzard - which has it all... an idiotically wrong sentiment and lyrics, a swampy arrangement, a nasty tune that sticks in the mind like a burr - and something that gets repeated ad nauseam every year without fail, on every supermarket PA system. 


Anonymous said...

Bruce, what is your favorite Christmas carol (or song if it's not a traditional carol)?

I will be happy to tell you mine but don't want to bias your answer.

- Bruce B.

Apoliteia said...

Greetings to you Bruce! I have lurked your blogs, especially the Notion club papers one, for years now but not commented until now (I think?) This post, however, spurned me to give my five cents.

I am myself a Christmas person - a decreasing trait in my millennial age cohort, I feel. It follows that Christmas carols (mostly in my native Finnish) are an awaited pleasure of the season for me. However, what you describe as butchering carols with because-I-can-kind of tempo variation and other such shenanigans certainly "jingles a bell" for me. Very small deviation can ruin the whole thing, like a twisted cog in a machine.

One thing us Finns do like in music is doing things in minor note. A 'longing' kind of sentiment, shared by many Slavic nations may be behind that - Even our light stuff, like Schlager and pop seem to adhere to that default of minor to this day. No wonder, then, that our Christmas carols (traditional ones especially) are solemn sounding to the point of being almost dour. Do not fall for that, though - there is always the glimmer of light that is Christ Our Lord, whether it's in lyrics or not.

I thought that perhaps some of those I like could give some musical variety to your advent as well - even though not knowing the language takes a little out of the impression. I tried to pick 'pure' performances to give as clear an idea of them as possible. "Sylvias hälsning från Sicilien" from 1853 is oft-voted as best of our carols. The background as well as English lyrics: "Tonttu" is a story of a guardian-elf (comparable to Northern England's hob maybe?) who, failing to catch sleep in a winter night, goes rounds of farmstead's buildings and checks that all's well with animals as well as humans. While not openly Christian in its lyrics, the song gives a strong vibe of somewhat sleepy quiet, peace & harmony in the world that is desirable mindset in Christmas time. "Näin sydämeeni joulun teen (Eng. Thus I make the Christmas into my heart)" is a ponderous kind of carol, the singer stargazing in solitude - slowly transitioning the realization of that vast space into paving way in his own mind amidst all mundane Christmas hassle for the crib of Christ the child - thus finding inner peace, without which Christmas could never really come. It is uplifting to think that this kind of carol was produced as late as 1988!

Sorry for the long text, and merry advent to you!

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - I don't really have a particular favourite - I like most carols, except I am not keen on Once in Royal David's City or God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen. Both of these I find musically tedious - and with too many verses (especially OIRDC).

Anonymous said...

Bruce – my favorite Christmas carol is patapan, in English or the traditional French.

Bruce B.

Charlie said...

Great post!

Yes, the unadorned originals are the best!

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is one of my all-time favorites, in spite of the musical tedium" because the lyrics are so great and so very Christian. "Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day to save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray." It's not just, "Welcome to the newborn king" but also "this what he's here for."

Other favorites include:

The Little Drummer Boy (I agree, a perfect song)
Silent Night
Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
O Holy Night

Here's hoping we all enjoy a season full of unadorned classics with murdered radio songs kept to a minimum!

Joseph A. said...

Apoliteia, thanks for the Finnish songs. I much enjoyed "Sylvias hälsning från Sicilien," but the first stanza's lyrics . . . my goodness, how depressing!

I really love "Once in Royal David's City." Being a non-Anglican American, and not raised with high choral Western singing, I had not heard it growing up. In undergrad., I studied in Paris for a year. When homesick, I would seek out Anglophone opportunities, and so I went to the American Cathedral in Paris for a Christmas concert. It began with "Once in Royal David's City," and I was spell-bound.

For traditional carols, I don't think that you can beat "Adeste fideles" -- though I'll grant that the "Silent Night" people have a good contender. When I was a boy, my favorite carol was "O Holy Night," but I found it too melodramatic as an adult. Maybe, I've just become more sentimental over the years. My favorite carol now is probably "In the Bleak Midwinter" -- not that old. My favorite even more "recent" carol -- one created during my parents' lifetime -- is "Do You Hear What I Hear?" From the 1960s! I also really like "In dulci jubilo" -- it makes me happy.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Don’t dismiss Jingle Bells!

“In that day shall there be upon the bells of the horses, HOLINESS UNTO THE LORD” (Zechariah 14:20).

Zeno said...

In the bleak midwinter is probably my favorite. From a poem by Christina Rossetti.