Friday, 23 December 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 126 (Top Five): Christmas Carols

You know how things happen over the Christmas season, dear reader, so that you get interrupted in the middle of something else and end up doing some jobs twice and others you forget about entirely? I was sure I’d written this top five before on one of our other Christmas newsletters but for the life of me I can’t find it, so I presume it was just an ‘idea’ I had before coming up with something else. Anyway, bear with me if you’re having slight deja vu with this week’s newsletter...this is the top five Christmas Carols as voted for by the viewing public, err no hang on, by yours truly! And, surprise suprise, they’re hardly the obvious ones to choose (as you’ve probably gathered by now given the rest of this site!) And I doubt any of you will be able to put your hands on all five easily without being Christmas Connousiers (or having a really big record collection...) Note too that we’ve already covered several latter-day Christmas songs written or made famous by our AAA musicians on our past newsletters (nos 16, 17, 50, 84 and 85) so there’s no ‘Happy Xmas (War IS Over)’ or ‘Little Saint Nick’s on this list to avoid going over old ground (although Monkees favourite ‘Riu Chiu’ did creep back on this list because hardly anybody knows it!)

5) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (definitive version: The Muppets and ohn Denver, ‘A Christmas Together’, 1979):

There aren’t many high points in Judy Garland movies (and I say that with quite a lot of affection for her as a person, seeing as astrologically speaking she’s the only fellow Cancerian Dog I know), but the sheer treaclyness and cloying schmaltz of ‘Meet Me In St Louis’ suddenly makes perfect sense when this gloriously un-sentimental carol comes in. The song, written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane for the 1944 MGM film and fully fits the briefing of being the centrepiece of the film and a song that exists outside it, a real struggling over obstacles song that’s realistic without being depressing and  sadly seems to have fallen out of favour the past couple of decades in favour of lesser, more bouncy Christmas carols that say less per verse than this one does per line. Garland, for once given some material with depth to work with, gives the performance of her career in the film but for my purposes the greatest version is still the one with a country singer and a canine dog, voiced by Jim Henson at his most moving. Incidentally, I much prefer the original version of the song, not the ‘tidied up’ version Frank Sinatra insisted on (and copied forevermore) – the key difference is changing the line ‘we’ll just have to struggle on somehow’ to ‘hang a shining star upon the highest bough’, thus replacing the best line of the song with the worst. Singers eh? This song definitely deserves a comeback some festive season soon, not least because it seems to go in cycles of popularity every time we have a depression on...

4) Silent Night (definitive version: Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme’, 1967):

An obvious choice I know, but the pioneering use of harmonics on this piece makes it the earliest sounding piece that I know of that wouldn’t seem out of place on a 1960s LP. In fact, exactly that happened when Simon and Garfunkel added their own version of the song to my favourite of their albums (see review no 7), offering peace and hope and harmony in the right speaker while a news anchor gives out gloom and pessimism in the left. It’s the perfect trick of juxtaposing what could and be and what is – yet even without that intrusion this carol sounds pretty much perfect without it,  with a melody so perfect it sounds like one of Paul McCartney’s (perhaps it was an ancestor?!) Actually, this carol is a comparatively modern one, dating back to Salzburg, Austria, 1818, when musician Franz Gruber finally set to music a piece the local priest Father Mohr had written two years before to music. Unfortunately it’s not our music – its believed to be a jazzier piece played fast in 7/8 time, although the original manuscript is missing (legend has it the carol was forgotten until an organ repairman found a copy of the manuscript stuffed down the back of the instrument and brought it back into active service – the rumour too is that the piece was only written as a simpler alternative to the church’s normal carols when the organ broke and the service had to be conducted with as guitar, demanding much simpler chords). Whatever the story of it’s inception, this is a glorious piece, one that we’ve heard so many times it’s hard to appreciate but is nevertheless a key text for curious AAA readers who want to know where they’re favourite music was born, just as integral as anything by Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly.

3) Riu Chiu (definitive version: The Monkees, ‘Missing Links II’, 1997):

Strictly speaking this is a ‘villancico’, the Spanish equivalent of a carol – but you try coming up with four other villancico’s for a top five list! AAA fans know this as a Monkees song, perhaps the definitive recording featuring all four Monkees in harmony, heard in one version in the soundtrack of series two episode ‘The Monkees’ Christmas Show’ and in a second on the excellent rarities compilation ‘Missing Links II’. Many a fan has marvelled at the song – and pitied poor Micky Dolenz for having to learn all those Spanish words phonetically – without knowing what this carol actually means. Here, in an AAA educational moment, is a close translation (bearing in mind that ‘riu chiu itself is a nonsense phrase meant to sound like the chirp of a nightingale, a Winter bird): “Tweet, tweet, the river guards her, God kept the wolf away from our lamb, tweet tweet the raging wolf sought to bite her, but God Almighty knew how to defend her, tweet tweet he chose to make her so that she could not sin, tweet tweet this one that is born is the Great King, Christ the Patriach clothed in flesh, tweet tweet he redeemed himself when he made himself small”. OK, so the translation actually adds nothing to the Carol, but that doesn’t disguise how beautiful it is, how much room there is for improvised harmonies or explain why so few people outside Monkees (and King’s Singers – I knew this carol from their ‘Deck The Halls’ album first) fans know of it’s existence. While most sources list the author as ‘anonymous’, the writer is thought to be Mateo Flecha The Elder, a composer from Catalonia, and was written in the first half of the 16th century, although the earliest existing reference we have to it today is in a Venecian library dated 1556, simply listed as no 40 in a collection of villancicos. Like many madrigals from the period, it deserves to be far better known (our 20th and 21st century music has far more in common with 16th century madrigals than it does with renaissance and romantic era composers, with the same delightful interplay between vocalists and counterpoint harmonies based on melody rather than mathematics). 

2) In The Bleak Midwinter (definitive version: still waiting!):

One day I’m going to hear a definitive version of a Christmas Carol that should be played slowly with yearning, not at a hundred miles per hour with fancy bits stuck inside it like most arrangers keep adding! There are at least three versions of this carol, adapted from a Christina Rosetti poem submitted to a wonderfully titled periodical called ‘Scribbler’s Magazine’, though the most popular and by far the best of the ones I know is by our old friend Gustav Holst. You can read more about my Holst fixation on news and views 93 – suffice to say he’s the only classical composer I consider on a par with the geniuses we cover on this site and in his own sweet way paved the way for most of them with his experimental but deliciously listenable music. Many people know ‘The Planets’ but have a listen to some of his other works – ‘The Perfect Fool’, in particular, is as sublime as music gets, and I’ve written 237 articles for this site now so I should know sublime music when I hear it. Like many a carol, this song is there at Jesus’ birth and follows the travels and thoughts of all those who are there before putting the narrator him or herself in the action as part of the scene. Stirring, moving and full of the minor key experiments that became Holst’s key method of writing this is a clever, simple, heartbreaking piece of writing in both lyrics and melody. Now somebody please write an arrangement that gets rid of all those tootling flutes and chirpy piccolos and I’ll be happy...

1)    I Wonder As I Wander (definitive version; The King’s Singers, ‘A Little Christmas Music’, 1989):

This is another strangely modern carol, dating back only to 1933 when folk music collector John Jacob Niles adapted a fragment of music that dates back centuries earlier. The story goes that Niles was attending a meeting held at an Evangelical Church in North Carolina when a branch of refugees, ordered out of town on Christmas Eve, walked in for shelter and added their own fragments of music to the festivities. Niles looked on in wonder when the smallest, dirtiest, raggedest girl there opened her mouth, sang this song and her beauty shone out round the church (something similar to what happens to Roger Daltrey in the rising sun in the Woodstock film we reckon). Why this glorious tune and simple but moving idea was never adapted into a fullblown work (maybe even a prog rock concept album or three) earlier is beyond me, because its among the most beautiful, haunting music ever made. There aren’t actually that ma ny versions of this carol around and it seems to be somewhat out of favour with the public at large these days, but seek out the King’s Singers version (79p on Amazon, buy it through this site – just a plug folks!) and you won’t be disappointed (I hope!) The words are everything Christmas should be but so rarely is: full of peace, harmony, awe and delight in being alive and it features a lovely sighing tune that suits its sentiments well. Sadly, as ever, the story has an unhappy ending, with Niles taking part in an early music settlement court case to ‘prove’ that he had sufficiently re-written the traditional song to receive a proper credit and payment for it (all null and void now, of course, that this carol is out of copyright – some versions list Niles as the author, some just have him listed as ‘anonymous’. Anonymous is one of my favourite writers you know, he seemed to live an awfully long time and wrote in every style going...)
So then, reader, do you agree with our choices, think we’ve left something out, think we’ve gone slightly barmy because you’ve not heard of any of our choices or gone ‘bah, humbug!’ to the lot of them?! Let us know and drop us a line! Join us next week for yet more musical deliberations when we bid farewell to 2011 with our top purchases of the year...Till then, a very happy Christmas from everyone here at Alan’s Album Archives (including Max The Singing Carols Dog with mistletoe in his hat, Android ZX-34 whose about to be re-booted in time for next year’s April Fool’s edition and Philosophy Phil, whose worn out coming up with thoughts for Christmas cards) and a very music-filled new year!                                   

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