Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Grinch's Guide To Christmas Music

I'll be honest, I generally have an aversion to contemporary Christian music. I have nothing against people who choose to joyfully celebrate their devotion to their deity in this way; it's just that it has always grated my ears. Being raised Catholic probably has something to do with this; my father was a music professor who was violently allergic to the "intrusion" of a modern musical movement into the liturgy. As a result, I have inherited some of his anaphylactoid tendencies. Don't get me wrong, outside of the above genre, Country & Western, bad Techno and Death Metal, I have an almost universal appreciation for all genres of music. One look at my Facebook page should convince you that I gleefully listen to everything from ABBA to Dvorak to Radiohead to Led Zeppelin (with a couple of surreal detours through Disney musicals and surf rock in between). 

Things are similar when it comes to Christmas; here, my love for the music of the faith I was born into is all-encompassing. I am an avid fanboy of the twin traditions of Yuletide music: the great, moving traditional carols and the (mostly) American institution of secular holiday standards.

But I am a purist. Nothing is worse than the hideous piping of tinny muzak through shops (starting in SEPTEMBER), those horrible chimeras of panpipe "Little Drummer Boy" (Boney M is a separate matter I shall discuss below) and sugary synthesiser knock-offs of "Jingle Bells" and... well, everything you can think of.

Boney M. I have a surreal liking for, probably because it reminds me of an idyllic summer in 1982 when I was five years old; it is linked my oldest memory of the ocean. We stayed in the Oyster Box in Umhlanga and the blue-green waters of the Indian Ocean washed into my heart and have never quite left. I usually get over it by cranking up their infamous Christmas Album on the first Sunday of Advent and considering a prescription for antipsychotics.

So, let me present my unashamedly quirky Noël playlist, which does include some notable re-interpretations of classics where the subversion is rendered as a new art form. I have added clickable YouTube links for your enjoyment.

Why settle for cheap sparkling wine when Dom Perignon is freely available?!?!

1. Veni, Veni, Emmanuel. (O Come, O Come Emmanuel). A haunting, plaintive Latin hymn. It is a 19th Century reworking of an Advent antiphon dating as far back as possibly the 12th century. The text is inspired by the prophecy of Isaiah (Chapter 7) as well as the 137th Psalm reflecting the Jews' captivity in Babylon. There is something very moving about the medieval modal harmony that imparts an unusually pious and reflective mood to the Christmas season.

2. Winter Wonderland. Probably my favourite secular Christmas song. The irony that I enjoy it under a raging Southern Hemisphere summer is not lost on me. The surf-garage band Phantom Planet, of which I am a ravenous and slightly maniacal fanboy, created a lyrical and frankly heartwarming rendition for an early 2000's Christmas album. Unpretentiously sweet.

3. Once In Royal David's City. My favourite carol, here performed in the full Anglican tradition complete with pre-pubescent boy soprano, rousing organ and descant choir. Candles? Check. Incense? Check. Cathedral? Check. Okay, let's go!

4. Gaudete (Rejoice). Another Latin hymn, this one dating from the 16th century. It was made famous by the British folk band Steeleye Span. It is the only Latin song that made the UK Top 40 charts. Except Steeleye Span's  pronunciation is horrible. I present her a more accurate (and tuneful version), although they still don't get the Latin pronunciation quite right.

5. Cantique de Noël (O Holy Night) Instantly recognisable and fodder for a thousand Christmas movies, this has always been heartbreakingly beautiful to me. Few know that this was written by a real fancy-schmancy classical composer, Adolphe Adam, most famous for writing the music for the ballet Giselle. Here is the full Rolls-Royce treatment, a sumptuous version with Placido Domingo, children's choir and the late, awesome Luciano Pavarotti. Unfortunately the music is out of sync with the visuals, and Luciano's English is endearingly accented, but it is lovely. 

6. Frosty the Snowman. A cute little ditty for children, here given unusual gravitas by none other than the weird and wonderful Fiona Apple. I've never heard the usually sulky songstress happier before. (Did someone put Prozac in her mince pie, maybe?)

7. Carol of the Bells. Written by the neglected Ukrainian composer Leontovych who spent his life writing music for the Orthodox Church, here performed with full Slavic gusto. And here is the Carol of the Meows for crazy cat ladies performed by one of my favourite bands, Guster.

8. Silent Night (Stille Nacht)Gloria Estefan's version is maybe a bit cheesy for some, but I think it's beautiful, never mind the heart-wrenching imagery of the music video. Wikipedia: "Composed in 1818 by Franz Gruber to lyrics by Joseph Mohr in the small town of Obendorf bei Salzburg, Austria. It was declared an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in March 2011". .The purists will insist that this... strangely... always be performed with guitar accompaniment, following the (possibly apocryphal) story that it was written to provide music for a Christmas service when the pipe organ unexpectedly failed. 

9. Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. (Warning: this link is the COMPLETE performance, over an hour long.) The Nutcraker is archetypal Christmas music, filled with childlike wonder and joy. You'd never think the famous composer suffered from crippling depression for most of his life. His end was tragic: a kangaroo court of his "friends" and colleagues condemned him to suicide for being homosexual. But I prefer to remember him as the man who put fairy tales to music. 

10. I end my little playlist with Ella Fitzgerald's Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas: her lovely contribution to Christmas music deserves special mention. The First Lady of Jazz, in my mind, eclipses all other crooners and divas. 

So, to all of you who celebrate Jesus' birth, a blessed and happy Christmas. To all of you who don't, but enjoy the Festive Season nonetheless (Richard Dawkins is a notable Christmas celebrator!), Happy Holidays, and to all my fellow Earthlings, peace, blessings and joy.