Beloved Christmas carols: Chanticleer sings "In the bleak midwinter"

At least within the context of Christian worship, the male chorus can be dated back to priests singing liturgical prayers, a practice even older than Gregorian chant. By the time singing choral music in parts became commonplace, the church disapproved of women participating in worship anywhere but in a convent. Mixed church choirs would have been anathema.

Churches initially found two ways to provide treble voices within a male chorus. Men could develop the so-called falsetto register, substituting a kind of head voice for the normal, deeper chest voice. Probably plenty of tenors in volunteer church choirs today occasionally cheat and go into falsetto for some of the higher notes. A trained singer can develop a good enough falsetto to sing an entire song in it (either as a choral singer or soloist). Such voices are often called counter-tenor. While most counter-tenors sing in the alto register, some have been able to develop their voices to the soprano register.

Adult men can develop a falsetto capable of making a pleasing sound as sopranos only with difficulty. Even so, their voices have a weaker sound than the tenors and bases. Boy singers, on the other hand, often have natural soprano voices. Even in the era of unaccompanied Gregorian chant, churches routinely trained boys to sing. In fact, the well-known syllables do, re, mi, etc. were invented as an easy way to teach boys the chants.

Boys, of course, bring their own disadvantages. They behave like boys instead of adults. Choirmasters had to beat them repeatedly and severely in order to get them to maintain dignity suitable to a worship service. (Even well into the last century, corporal punishment remained an expected part of education and training of children, and especially boys.) Second, boys voices tend to break at awkward and unpredictable times. The most beautiful boys’ voices become quite ugly when they break, and it can take years of further vocal training for them to sound good again.

Castrati represented the best of both worlds. From antiquity, emperors had often preferred eunuchs as personal servants and high political appointees. The sound of eunuchs singing must have been commonplace. The development from such eunuchs to the castrati is not at all clear, but some time in the mid-sixteenth century, some of the nobility began to castrate some of the boys with the best voices so they could continue to sing treble for the rest of their lives.

The practice caught on quickly. Pope Sixtus V reorganized the papal choir so it could include castrati. What began as a means to insure the quality of church music quickly spilled over into opera. Throughout the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth, all of the best castrati preferred the stardom and riches they could make as operatic stars. That left the church with lesser voices. In time,
European society forgot earlier objections to women singing in church or on stage.

As female trebles became accepted, society began to disapprove of the whole process of castrating boys to preserve their voices. Rossini’s Petite messe solonelle, for “twelve singers of three sexes” called for both women and castrati. It is probably the last important piece of church music composed with castrati in mind. In 1878, the Catholic church finally forbade the process, following both the French and newly united Italian governments.

Most male choruses from the nineteenth century to the present have comprised the robust combination of tenors and basses. In recent decades, however, rock musicians began to experiment with the falsetto voice. Perhaps in part because of that, male choirs (notably Chanticleer and the King’s Singers) have revived the male falsettist and used them for the alto and soprano parts.

Here is Chanticleer singing an arrangement of Gustav Holst’s setting of “In the Bleak Midwinter.” I truly love this arrangement, with its key changes and imaginative voicing. It also shows as well as anything else that in reviving an old choral practice, Chanticleer does not limit itself to music composed when it was current.

Beloved Christmas carols: Silver Bells

Silver Bells, which appeared in 1951, comes at the end of an amazing 19-year run that witnessed 19 Christmas songs that have have enjoyed continued popularity for more than half a century:

Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town (1932)
• I Wonder As I Wander (1933)
• Winter Wonderland (1934)
• Carol of the Bells (1936)
• The Little Drummer Boy (1941)
• Happy Holiday (1942)
• White Christmas (1942)
• I’ll Be Home for Christmas (1943)
• Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (1944)
• Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1945)
• All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth (1946)
• Here Comes Santa Claus (1946)
The Christmas Song (1946)
• Sleigh Ride (1948/1950)
• A Marshmallow World (1949)
• Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1949)
• Frosty the Snowman (1950)
• Silver Bells (1951)
• It’s Beginning to Look Like Christmas (1951)

Oddly enough, lyricist Ray Evans and composer Jay Livingston did not want to write it. Paramount Pictures asked for a Christmas song for the Bob Hope movie The Lemon Drop Kid, about a racetrack tout with a big gambling debt that had to be paid off by Christmas. The pair, who worked together for 64 years and created hundreds of songs, hadn’t had a hit for a while and didn’t think a Christmas song could possibly make another one for them. In spite of the success that the songs listed above had achieved, they grumbled that everyone sings old songs at Christmas and newer ones never make it. Paramount insisted.

The Bob Hope character in the movie raised the money to pay off his debt by getting friends to stand on street corners of New York with bells, dressed as Santa Claus. Most of the other songs on the list, to the extent that they have a discernible setting at all, concern small towns or the country side. The movie dictated a city setting, very unusual for Christmas music. Anyone who has lived in, or visited, an American city will recognize the imagery of decorated shop windows, bustling crowds on the sidewalks carrying the packages they have bought, and the ringing of bells–by the Salvation Army, of course, not a petty crook. Therefore, Evans and Livingston set a bell on their work table for inspiration.

In two days, they had a song. The gentle waltz of the melody underscores the familiar emotional flavor of the season, whether in the quiet of the countryside or the bustle of the city. Livingston proudly showed his wife Tinkle Bell. She asked him if he was out of his mind. The bathroom meaning, being used mostly by women and children, had never occurred to him or Evans. They actually tried to start over and come up with a new song until they realized that all they needed was a new word to substitute for “tinkle.” They selected “silver” and submitted the song to Paramount.

As it turns out, Evans and Livingston made only two small mistakes: one word in the original lyrics and the worry that they could not turn out a Christmas hit. Livingston later called Silver Bells their annuity because of its dependable sales year after year.

Sources: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
America’s Songs / by Filip Furia and Michael Lasser (Routledge, 2006)

Beloved Christmas carols: O Holy Night

Isn’t it hard to believe that such a beloved Christmas carol as O Holy Night was actually banned by the French church for a time? It seems some of its leaders looked askance at both the poet and the composer.

A parish priest in Roquemaure, France, asked a local wine merchant and amateur poet, Placide Cappeau, to write a Christmas poem in the fall of 1847. Cappeau found inspiration and wrote his poem “Minuit, Chrétiens” on his way to Paris for business. When he arrived, he took it to a friend of friends, the operatic composer Adolphe Adam. Adam wrote the music a few days later. When Cappeau returned to Roquemaure, he gave both the poem and the music to the priest. The new carol was performed for the first time at the Christmas Eve midnight Mass that same month.

Although on good terms with the local parish priest, Cappeau had raised the ire of the local church hierarchy for his radical political opinions. As the words translated “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother” indicate, he opposed slavery and social inequality. That made him a seem a threat to the regime of King Louis Philippe, who was deposed by a revolution in 1848.

The churchmen also looked askance at Adam, a composer of opera, regarded at the time as light entertainment and not serious music. For some reason, they thought he was Jewish, too. How could such a team possibly produce music worthy of the Christian religion? So they attempted to ban the new song.

It is indeed all too easy to fall into the trap of wrapping one’s political leanings in a cloak of religion, which makes it difficult to see either religious issues or political issues clearly. Perhaps this opposition persuaded Cappeau, whose attendance at church had been sporadic anyway, to give up Christianity entirely and adopt even more extreme political and social views.

Others, outside the narrow confines of the church leadership, had no trouble finding the true spirit of Christianity in O Holy Night. Either they didn’t know Cappeau’s social views, saw no contradiction between them and the Christian gospel, or didn’t care about the controversy. The carol became known all over France and by 1855 had been published in London. Eventually it was translated into many different languages.

The American music critic John Sullivan Dwight provided the best-known English translation. Supposedly he, too, published it in 1855, although there is reason to doubt that date. Dwight, a Unitarian minister, shared Cappeau’s strong opposition to slavery. In abolitionist Massachusetts, it would have been difficult to find anyone who thought the views in either Cappeau’s poem or Dwight’s translation dangerously radical or unChristian.

As widely loved as O Holy Night has become, it has not found a place in very many hymnals. Perhaps the fact that Adam was used to writing for professional singers and not congregations adequately explains that fact. Certainly soloists sing it in churches all over the world, and many of the world’s best singers have recorded it. How could anyone get through Christmas without hearing it at least once?

Source: Hymns and Carols

Beloved Christmas carols: O come all ye faithful

O come all ye faithful shows that conspiracy theories are not new in our time.  Once scholars turned their attention to Christmas carols, its origins had been forgotten, but both the words and music turn out to be the work of John Francis Wade, an English Catholic born in 1711.

Eighteenth-century England knew nothing of religious liberty. Being Catholic was dangerous. The English Civil War that began in 1642 and ended with the beheading of King Charles I took place in part because Parliament suspected the king of Catholic leanings. The Glorious Revolution of 1689 deposed King James II specifically because a son had been born to that Catholic monarch and thus the throne would no longer naturally be passed down to his Protestant daughters.

When his younger daughter, Queen Anne, died without heir in 1714, Parliament feared the rest of the Stuart family, who were all Catholic. It gave the throne to a German relative (King George I), who happened to be Protestant. James had already tried to regain the throne by force. Both his son and grandson pursued their  own claims, meeting military defeat in 1715, 1719, and 1745.

In the midst of all this political and religious strife, many English Catholics, including Wade in about 1731, went into exile in France. Wade made his living there by teaching music and making beautiful musical manuscripts. He apparently wrote the words (in Latin) and music to “Adeste fideles” some time between 1740 and 1743. Here is the first verse:

Adeste, fideles læti, triumphantes;
Venite, venite in Bethlehem:
Natum videte Regem Angelorum.
Venite, adoremus Dominum.

Some English Protestants apparently suggested that the words had some hidden Jacobite meaning. According to this theory, “Bethlehem” was a standard code word for England. “Angelorum” means angels, but take away the “e” and it become “Anglorum,” or “English. So the first verse really meant to glorify Charles Stuart as king (‘regem” of England!

That may or may not be true, but after the final defeat of the Stuarts no one remembered such theories for long. Wade  himself returned to England before his death. Both his words and music became popular all over Europe. The carol was first printed in England in 1782, but without attribution. Wade’s authorship remained unknown until more than two hundred years after he wrote it.

At least 50 English translations have appeared over the years. Frederick Oakeley, an English Anglican priest, made the most popular one in 1841. Ironically, he converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. He changed his original first line, “Ye faithful, approach ye,” to the familiar and more singable “O come, all ye faithful” at about the same time.

And isn’t that the real message of the entire text? O come all ye faithful: Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Coptic, it doesn’t matter. Come and worship not only the King Angels, but the Lord of the Universe, born in human flesh to redeem all humanity from sin and death. Let us all adore him.

Sources: Hymns and Carols of Christmas; Christmas Classics: The Story Behind 40 Favorite Carols / by David McLaughlan (Barbour, 2010)

Beloved Christmas carols: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town

Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town is a product of Tin Pan Alley, with words by Haven Gillispie and music by J. Fred Coots. Most of the lyricists and song writers who worked with Tin Pan Alley lived in New York. Gillespie, one of the few successful exceptions, chose to live with his family in Covington, Kentucky and make periodic trips to New York sell his latest work.

On one trip in the fall of 1932, he learned that his brother Irwin had died suddenly of pneumonia. Gillespie had trouble putting his heart into his work, even though Irwin had devoted his last words to encouraging him to keep pushing his songs. When the publisher Leo Feist asked the pair to write a Christmas song while he was in town, Gillespie didn’t see how he could write anything cheerful. They boarded a subway, and Coots called out the name of New York streets, in case one of them might inspire the heart-broken lyricist.

Gillespie’s own thoughts went back to Irwin, but soon he was remembering the Christmases of their childhood. His mother used to tell the boys to do as they were told or Santa Claus wouldn’t come. He found some paper and began to sketch lyrics based on her warnings. He came up with stern but affectionate admonitions leading of to the promise that Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Once he finished the words, Coots had no trouble fitting them with suitable music.

Although Gillespie had written successful children’s songs before, most of Tin Pan Alley avoided them as unlikely to sell well. When other songwriters first heard Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, they kidded the pair for its corniness. The next step after finishing a song, trying to find a well-respected star to sing it, proved difficult. In fact, it took two years. Finally, they approached Eddie Cantor. He hesitated just like everyone before him, but his wife loved the song. He sang it on the radio for her sake, and it became one of the biggest hits of 1934, selling 25,000 copies a day.

Both Gillespie and Coots had successful careers before they wrote Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, and both continued to write songs successfully for years afterward. Hardly anyone sings or remembers anything else that either one wrote, but Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town, written reluctantly by a man mourning the death of his brother, remains as popular today as when Eddie Cantor made it famous nearly seventy five years ago.

Sources: Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town
America’s Songs / by Filip Furia and Michael Lasser (Routledge, 2006)

Nutcracker: Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet

For some reason, Americans turn to Tchaikovsky for special holiday celebrations: 1812 Overture for the Fourth of July and The Nutcracker at Christmas. The story of The Nutcracker, based very loosely on The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann, takes place during and after a Christmas Eve party.

In Hoffmann’s original story, the Stahlbaum family receives a nutcracker doll as a Christmas gift from the childrens’ godfather Drosselmayer. Marie especially loves it. Unfortunately, Fritz accidentally breaks it trying to crack too hard a nut. Marie bandages it with a ribbon from her dress and waits for Drosselmayer to come fix it. She dreams that some mice come, fight with her dolls, and capture the nutcracker, so she throws her slipper at the king of the mice.

So far, all of this serves merely as a prelude to the elaborate and very imaginative story Drosselmeyer tells Maria, about his feud with the Mouse Queen, her spite, and as a result, how nutcrackers came into existence and why they look as they do. Tchaikovsky loved Hoffmann’s work, and so eagerly agreed to write a ballet on his nutcracker story. Unfortunately, the choreographer Marius Petipa chose to base his work on Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation. Tchaikovsky immediately hated it for being so far removed from Hoffmann’s imaginative tale.

In Petipa’s version, the Stahlbaums have become the Silberhaus family and Maria has been renamed Clara. Fritz deliberately breaks the nutcracker out of spite at a big party. Drosselmeyer has a surprisingly small role. What’s left of the story he told Maria in the original story does nothing to explain the mice at all. The Director of the Imperial Theatres, who had commissioned it, determined that Petipa’s plan for dances and variations would not please the audience and suggested improvements to Tchaikovsky.

Tchaikovsky began composing The Nutcracker in February of 1891 and only slowly warmed up to the project. He had to interrupt work on the ballet for a tour that took him to Germany, France, and the United States. During that time, he learned of his sister’s unexpected death, which made working on happy and carefree music especially difficult for him. The premiere had been intended for that Christmas, but Tchaikovsky asked for a postponement.

The Nutcracker‘s first performance took place in December 1892. Its first audience did not greatly appreciate it. Critics did not like its unfaithfulness to Hoffmann’s original story any more than the composer had, and apparently people disliked the choreography and the appearance of some of the dancers. Most of them did praise the music, and the suite of dances Tchaikovsky had already issued before the ballet’s premiere became immediately popular. The ballet, however, had only sporadic performances for half a century

The San Francisco Ballet presented the first full-length performance of The Nutcracker in the United States in 1944. George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet began a series of annual performances of The Nutcracker ten years later. The tradition of performing the complete ballet at Christmas has since spread across the entire country.

The Nutcracker has by now gained worldwide popularity, especially at Christmas, but nowhere else does its popularity rival what it enjoys in the United States. Besides major opera companies, enough regional and college productions take place annually, or at least with some regularity, that probably every region of the country has had the opportunity to see it .

Beloved Christmas carols: Good Christian men, rejoice

Both the original text and tune of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” appeared in early fourteenth-century Germany. European conditions then were not very pleasant. Temperatures were cooling as the earth entered the so-called “Little Ice Age.” The King of France had arrested the Pope and removed the papal court from Rome to Avignon. Bubonic plague, known as the “black death,” ravaged Europe. England and France became embroiled in the Hundred Years War.

In its multiplied upheavals and catastrophes, the fourteenth-century resembles our own time. Then as now, many people dreaded what seemed likely in the future. Then as now, devout Christians found more cause to rejoice in the God than to sink into despair. One of them, a German mystic and Dominican monk named Heinrich Suso, decided that the birth of Christ deserved celebration regardless of the gloomy headlines.

One night in 1328 he had a vision of dancing angels, who commanded him to lay aside all sorrow and misery in order to keep them company. He danced with them and then wrote the poem “In  dulci jubilo” remembering his vision. The text is macaronic. That is, it combines Latin with a vernacular language, in this case German.

The familiar tune is preserved in the library of Leipzig University in a manuscript copied around 1400. It probably existed some time before then and may even be contemporaneous with Suso’s poem. Many songs and texts of the Medieval period fell into disuse and sat forgotten until rediscovery over the past two centuries. “In dulci jubilo,” on the other hand, has enjoyed unbroken popularity of the association of text and tune.

The first known English version appeared in 1540, and numerous others have followed, some maintaining the original Latin and merely substitution English for the German. John Mason Neale, who also translated “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” published  his English paraphrase, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” in 1853.

In some ways, the world has changed a lot since the Middle Ages. In other ways it has not. World conditions, which seemed grim back then, have seemed just as grim most of the time since then. People still do horrible things to each other and very often appeal to religion as justification. But the coming of Jesus is still worth celebrating, because Jesus alone brings redemption to a world the rest of the humanity has ruined.

Source: Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Gisele MacKenzie sings Papa Loves Mambo in a holiday setting. 12-18-1954

The mambo, a Cuban dance form, first became popular in the United States in the late 1940s and reached its peak of  popularity here in about 1954. Perry Como’s recording of the song “Papa Loves Mambo,” by Al Hoffman, Dick Manning, and Bix Reichner,  was released on August 31, 1954 and made it to #5 or #4 on the Billboard chart later in the year.

Nowadays most recording artists perform their own material, but in the 1950s, the fact that Como scored big did not mean that other stars regarded the song as his. Many performers sought to capitalize on the success of others by releasing other versions of their songs.

And so in December of that same year, Giselle MacKenzie, admired as both singer and dancer with beautiful legs, appeared on Your Hit Parade singing and dancing to “Papa Loves Mambo.” Since it was December, the dance features Santa Claus (Papa) dancing at the North Pole.

This and similar televised acts are important predecessors of todays music videos. It is probably only because technology did not yet permit it that such performances were not released as singles, just like the records themselves were.

Beloved Christmas carols: O come, o come Emmanuel

“O come, o come Emmanuel” is among the oldest of hymns still known, both in terms of the words and the tune. Like many old Gregorian chants, it lay forgotten for centuries before its rediscovery. Thomas Helmore published the tune in 1856 in Part II of The Hymnal Noted. He said it was found in a French missal in the Portuguese National Library in Lisbon, but no one since has found it there.

The French National Library in Paris has a fifteenth-century processional of Franciscan nuns with the identical tune, an added second voice, and words from the funeral antiphon “Libera me, Domine.” That means neither that the chant melody is from the fifteenth century nor that its original text was “Libera me, Domine.”

The Latin text of “O come, o come Emmanuel” (“Veni, veni Emmanuel”) probably originated in the twelfth century as part of one of the seven great antiphons sung at Vespers along with the Magnificat during Advent.Those seven antiphons address Jesus as Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of Nations, and Emmanuel. The first letter of each (in Latin) in reverse order yields the phrase ero cras, which means “tomorrow I come.” The original melody could even be the same one used for “Libera me, Domine” in the fifteenth century.

The text takes the viewpoint of ancient Jews, crying out to God to come and ransom them from the captivity that resulted from their sin. They can pray in faith, secure in the knowledge that the same prophecies that told of their captivity also told of God’s plan to redeem them. We, too, suffering from our own sins, can repeat their cry in the same assurance of faith.

John Mason Neale provided the English translation. One of the most prolific hymn writers of nineteenth-century England, he had no equal as a translator of ancient and medieval Latin texts. His translation of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” changes the order of the verses. Originally, it began, “Draw nigh, draw nigh Emmanuel;” Fortunately it has since become the more singable  “O come, o come Emmanuel.” Among his original poems, Neale wrote “Good King Wenceslas” on the basis of an old Bohemian story, which he loved so much he didn’t care if it was history or legend.

Toyota robot musicians

Recently someone posted four videos on Trombone-L of musical robots made  by Toyota. Someone else found them very depressing. Live musicians, he wrote, have enough  trouble without competition from yet another machine. If Toyota has already had this much success, what’s next? I have an answer, but first, here are the robot musicians:

A tuba player–to me the least impressive of the bunch but still quite amazing:

A trumpeter with pretty good sound. It plays better than a lot of human trumpeters, even if it’s stage presence is a little, shall we say, mechanical.

A small jazz combo. What, no trombone?

And finally, a brief appearance by a robot violinist. This final video reveals the reason why Toyota is working on robot musicians. The engineers have no particular interest in music. Developing these robots is no more than a means to an end.

Toyota engineers (among others) want to develop robots with more useful and practical skills. You will notice a robotic wheel chair and a robot capable of acting as a tour guide and signing its name. Ultimately, Toyota wants to produce robots capable of interacting with people in real time, robotic cars, for example. Apparently people will still drive the cars, but the robots will notice road conditions, hazards, and whether the human is too tired or otherwise impaired to continue safely.

In other words, Toyota engineers have developed the ability to build an entire orchestra of robots, but they  probably won’t. Once they learn all they can from building robot musicians, they will turn to other challenges, long before they make robot musicians for every instrument. I, for one, would love to see them build a trombonist that can play Pryor’s Blue Bells of Scotland before they move away from music.

Even though it is possible to build robots with the mechanical ability to play tunes or even ensembles, I can’t conceive of robots playing with feeling or taste. So there are at least three reasons not to worry about live musicians losing work to robots: engineers are not interested in making enough robots; they would be far too expensive to build, program, and maintain; and they can never make the jump from technological mastery to artistry.