Ten Holiday Music Bubble Bursts

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Happy Holidays to all! Following are 10 Holiday Musical Bubbles, or assumptions, worth reexamining. The intent is not to decrease anyone’s holiday cheer, rather to simply make us aware of origins, intents, or errant assumptions about the holidays that we receive through music. Plus, there are some fun facts to share at holiday parties!

Holiday Bubble Burst #1: The lyrics to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” are somewhat disturbing. While written by Frank Loesser and premiered with his wife at a holiday party, today’s sensitivity towards date rape makes the song quite troubling today.

Holiday Bubble burst #2: Frank Sinatra made “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” into a hit by slightly changing the words and recasting it as a positive, nostalgic tune. But the original version from the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” is FAR from a happy holiday song. In fact, it’s a real tear-jerker. Hear the song in the context of the original scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yudgy30Dd68

Holiday Bubble Burst #3: “Frolic and Play the Eskimo Way” may be a clever, catchy lyric, but it is also outdated and fairly offensive when you think about it. The lyricist of Winter Wonderland was a product of his era, and certainly was evoking greeting card images of rosy-cheeked happy natives in fur coats playing on sleds, having snowball fights, cuddling polar bears, etc. But, REALLY? We’ve changed other song lyrics (cough, coughStephenFoster…) because they are good songs that need updating for a variety of reasons. That line is a holdover from the “noble savage” way of looking at native peoples. Easy fix: “Frolic and play, on this snowy day….Walking in a Winter Wonderland.” Or, go realistic if you really think that true life on the frozen tundra was being depicted….”Freezing to death, as bears maul my flesh….”

Holiday Bubble Burst #4: Some of the most popular and lasting songs never mention Christmas or the holiday season in their lyrics: Jingle Bells, Let It Snow, Toyland, Frosty the Snowman, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Sleigh Ride, and the aforementioned Baby, It’s Cold Outside and Winter Wonderland. Some of them were not even written for the December holidays.

Holiday Bubble Burst #5: Pachelbel’s Canon is NOT a Christmas tune, even if the Trans Siberian Orchestra is your favorite seasonal group.

Holiday Bubble Burst #6: Several holiday standards actually began life as songs of protest, or at least as a commentary on the actions of societies or governments. These include: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear (Mexican-American War),” “Do You Hear What I Hear? (Cuban Missile Crisis)”, “Happy Xmas (The War is Over)” (Vietnam War). Existing songs, such as “Go Tell It On the Mountain”, were co-opted to support non-Christmas-specific causes, such as Civil Rights Movement. My favorite in this category is the song, “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” not originally intended for Christmas at all, but nonetheless has become a Christmas anthem expressing the sentiment of that song’s title.

Holiday Bubble Burst #7: The fifth gift in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” doesn’t mean gold rings as in jewelry. Rather, it refers a gift of five ring-necked pheasants. Also, the “four calling birds,” was originally “four colly birds.” A colly bird is an archaic term for a blackbird.

Holiday Bubble Burst #8: Though now a worldwide Christmastime phenomenon, Handel’s Messiah was originally premiered April of 1742. Although seen as a quintessentially British expression, we should remember that the work was premiered in Dublin, Ireland and composed by a German transplant, only coming to England due to the House of Hannover monarchy inheriting the throne.

 

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Holiday Bubble Burst #9: Many, if not most, of the images we assume from religious Christmas tunes are creative fictions. Some, even with biblical precedents, simply could not have happened in December. Case in point, if the Jews were truly good tenders of livestock, and there is no reason to believe otherwise, they would not have been foolish enough to have their flocks out in the fields in the cold of December. It is well known that the December date for Christmas was chosen by Pope Julius I, who desired it to coincide and perhaps replace the already established Roman traditions of the cult of Mithras and Saturnalia celebrations. Over the centuries, the traditions of the northern climes have crept into the songs and images of the traditional Christmas story, causing people to believe a reality of lifestyle and weather patterns in the Holy Land that simply were not true. And don’t get me started on the now blind acceptance to the adoption of Yule/Celtic and other pagan traditions. Pass the eggnog while I sit on the Yule Log under the Christmas tree!

Holiday Bubble Burst #10: Like many songs, the melody for Deck the Halls is found in a much earlier version, in this case, from a Welsh New Year’s Carol. The original words were bear no resemblance to the words we know today. In fact, it appears to be more fitting for a Valentine’s Day song!

 Oh! how soft my fair one’s bosom,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:

Oh! how sweet the grove in blossom,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la:

Oh! how blessed are the blisses,

[instrumental flourish]

Words of love, and mutual kisses,

fal lal lal lal lal lal lal lal la

 

May your season be filled with music, friends, family and fun facts!

Copyright, 2015. Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Context is Everything: The real meaning of a Christmas Song

Most songs that last over the years also morph over time, not only by the notes and tempos, but also by words. Slight variations were needed to transform this movie song into a Christmas classic with completely different intent from the original. Today over on the Weird Music History site.

Weird Music History

Frank Sinatra made “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” into a hit by slightly changing the words and recasting it as a positive, nostalgic tune. But the original version from the movie “Meet Me in St. Louis” is FAR from a happy holiday song. In fact, it’s a real tear-jerker. Here’s the entire scene from the film for context. And yes, this is what I think about EVERY TIME I hear this song, no matter who sings it.

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Musical Gratitude (repost)

Written in 2012. Continued relevance. Thankful to all my colleagues, readers, and patrons.

SLS Nadeau painting

Before the Downbeat

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., a tradition where Americans express gratitude for what we have in our lives.  For musicians, our “musical thanks” often lead to a specific instrument, talent or to the music of certain composers.  Some of us even express thanks for Music itself, something that has definitely shaped our lives, personalities and outlook.

I’d like to add one more that is often left off musician’s lists: Gratitude for our fellow musicians.  Music is essentially a community activity.  No one learns, creates, or performs in a vacuum.  We have all had teachers, peers, mentors and colleagues.  We interact and learn from each other.  It’s a great time to remember how closely we are all connected.

Think for a moment about a symphony orchestra.  I certainly do, as I am the only person on the stage that doesn’t make a sound (extraneous grunting aside).  I rely on each…

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Peace in Shades of Rose

As we begin Thanksgiving week in the U.S., I am heartened to see  renewed hope amidst all the rhetoric of hatred and misunderstanding that has boiled up in the wake of recent terror attacks.  Despite the closed hearts of some,  I sense new hope in many, many more, offering healing, and understanding through expressions in art, music, poetry and dance. One of my favorites so far has been this poignant tribute from Rhiannon Giddens. According to her this offering is for all, though the song is undeniably linked to Paris.

“This is for Paris, and Beirut, and Kenya, and Charleston, and so many others; for countless innocent people devastated by terrorism- which is just a word for organized hatred and inhumanity. We have to keep seeing the world in shades of rose- we have to keep hoping for peace and working for change and believing that with our art, our love, our knowledge, and most of all, our empathy and understanding for our fellow human beings, we can make a difference.” — Rhiannon Giddens

 

The abbreviated lyrics are a love story to the peoples of the entire world:

“La Vie En Rose (English)”

Hold me close and hold me fast
The magic spell you cast
This is la vie en rose

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And tho I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose

When you press me to your heart
I’m in a world apart
A world where roses bloom

And when you speak… angels sing from above
Everyday words seem… to turn into love songs

Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be
La vie en rose

A great reminder indeed to see the world more in shades of rose as we give thanks for what we have, which is the entire world.  Feeling gratitude and wishing peace for all this week and always.

Tchaiku-Haiku

Concert work for musicians often comes in clumps. Such was the case with my last few weeks. So after wrapping up 6 concerts within 16 days, I finally felt the exhaustion settling into my brain and body. But instead of merely expressing it in a blunt, factual way, I decided to have some fun with it. Creativity’s seeds are always present, and sometimes sprout when you least expect it–like at midnight on a Tuesday.

Post Rehearsal Late Night Double Haiku:

No energy left;
Perhaps I’ll lie in the snow,
For a little rest.
…..

But there was no snow;
So I just walked to the car,
And drove myself home.

 

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Healing for Paris from Salt Lake, via Tchaikovsky


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“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely,more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

There was no addition of La Marseillaise at last night’s Salt Lake Symphony concert. Nor was there any French repertoire; rather a decidedly passionate program of Rozsa, Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky. I also made the decision not to mention anything about the Paris terrorist attacks in the pre-concert lecture or from the stage. I felt personally raw and unable to talk about my own feelings on the subject. Nonetheless, the concert was a deeply personal experience for the musicians and for members of the audience, some of whom have shared how the concert helped them come to grips with their feelings about the events of the week.

Part of the effect lies in the power of Tchaikovsky’s music to touch us in different ways, particularly his Pathétique (6th Symphony). No one really knows what the symphony is about, although there are clues. Tchaikovsky suggested there was a hidden program after the premiere. He was dead only 9 days later. Some consider it Tchaikovsky’s farewell, some an actual musical suicide note, others merely a profound reflection on the journey of life. I tend to agree with the latter, and consider it the composer’s finest writing, an unrealized preview of what was never to come. But regardless of what anyone thinks the music is about, the symphony has survived as one of the most striking examples of how music can have a personal affect on the audience and musicians. It is one of those pieces that touches us to the core.

musicquote-1Music has that potential, certainly. But last night there was also a need that audience members brought to the concert. It was a need that did not exist the prior week. The events in Paris had opened a hole in all of us.

People who attend and perform concerts come from a wide variety of personal places—some happy, some sad; some successful, some struggling. But when a major tragedy touches the larger population with shock (or horror), a communal empathy emerges to rock our normally individualized space. At these times, music operates in a similar way inside all of us. It brings us out of ourselves and opens us towards healing and empathy for others.

Last night’s concert was a communal experience. There were tears after the performance. Each was shed from a different space; a different personal place. But Tchaikovsky’s music was not merely music that spoke to us individually. It became cathartic for a population, the people of the concert, both the patrons and the musicians. It was a small dose of healing amongst the chaos. A little hope for the future.

Je suis musique. Merci, Tchaikovsky

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Tchaikovsky’s Ghost and Mr. Muir

John_Muir_c1902“Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” ~ Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

I’m finishing up two incredible weeks, conducting both of Tchaikovsky’s final symphonies with different orchestras. That, along with the other repertoire for those concerts and a myriad of other programs and preparations for what lies ahead, results in a lot of music floating around in my head. It’s rather amazing that musicians can keep it all on track and prevent a musical train wreck. (Lookout! There’s a lost bass player on the tracks ahead!) Best not to think of the possible carnage.

Curious onlookers often ask how conductors learn their music, a process commonly called score study. It’s one of those types of questions where if you ask 10 conductors, you get 10 different answers. There are certainly methods and procedures, but no amount of methodology will help you truly understand the music without using the imagination. Imaginative description is the important link that moves us from form to meaning. Imaginative description is actually a combination of both the rational and creative sides of the mind in order to discover what the composer intended (what is really there), and to be able to describe it both through words and in a musical performance. Put another way, the nuts and bolts of music need to be seen through a lens of possibility. Only then can we have an informed yet creative interpretation.

It may be at first surprising as to who I emulate when studying orchestral scores. It’s not a music theorist, conductor, composer, or musicologist, although I certainly read and learn from my esteemed music colleagues. Actually, my model for score study is not a musician at all, but the 19th century American naturalist, explorer and writer, John Muir. His descriptions of nature, places and people point to spiritual insights and profound realizations. Muir both sees and describes the world in ways I hope replicate in studying music. Here is a sample of Muir’s writing that illustrates the concept:

“Some portions of the wood were almost impenetrable, but in general we found no difficulty in mazing comfortably on over fallen logs and under the spreading boughs, while here and there we came to an opening sufficiently spacious for standpoints, where the trees around their margins might be seen from top to bottom. The winter sunshine streamed through the clustered spires, glinting and breaking into a fine dust of spangles on the spiky leaves and beads of amber gum, and bringing out the reds and grays and yellows of the lichened boles which had been freshened by the late storm; while the tip of every spire looking up through the shadows was dipped in deepest blue. The ground was strewn with burs and needles and fallen trees; and, down in the dells, on the north side of the dome, where strips of aspen are imbedded in the spruces, every breeze sent the ripe leaves flying, some lodging in the spruce boughs, making them bloom again, while the fresh snow beneath looked like a fine painting.”  ~ John Muir

Notice the word, “mazing.” I love this concept of winding and twisting through musical study, turning on motives, dynamics and articulations to reveal deeper insights, new perspectives, and previously hidden questions. “To maze” in music is to journey through a musical score seeing the forest through the trees and the trees through forest. Musical notes are the trees. Entire compositions, the forests.

“Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life,

every fiber thrilling like harp strings.” ~John Muir

Viewed from this perspective, each note can be seen with endless possibilities and eventualities. Musical notes for the musicians are as raindrops were to Muir, again described beautifully in this poignant quote:

“Raindrops blossom brilliantly in the rainbow, and change to flowers in the sod, but snow comes in full flower direct from the dark, frozen sky.”

Muir may be known today for his more universal statements, insights and inspirations. However all of these big picture statements are informed by his unique way of paying attention to the details and then describing them with poetic brilliance. His descriptions of nature inspire us to look deeper ourselves, challenging us to prove Muir’s assertion: “The power of imagination makes us infinite.”

His method also works for music. The power of imagination also reveals Tchaikovsky, in all his potentialities.

Copyright, 2015 Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Photo source: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Muir#/media/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg