Saturday, December 24, 2011

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen ... and everyone else as well

Are we all aware that for the simple positioning of a comma, the entire meaning of one of our most beloved Christmas carols would take on an entirely different meaning?

It's true. "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" is, I'm sure, in our heart of hearts of Yuletide tidings (say that 10 times fast). But it doesn't mean what we all think it means, and it's because of where the comma goes.

You see, it's not "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen ..." it's "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."

Same words ... comma one word over.

The first version would seem to mean be at peace, merry gentlemen, as you celebrate Christmas. The second ... correct ... version leaves room for a bit of a more robust celebration. In this case, "God Rest Ye Merry" doesn't mean "be at peace" at all. It means by all means, make merry the celebration of Christmas. You know ... eat, drink, and revel in the company of your friends and families.

I have to say I like version No. 2 ... the correct ... version much better.

This is one of many Christmas carols/songs that are either misinterpreted, or that translate badly into English, or that simply make no sense at all no matter what language you're talking about.

For example. Let's discuss "The First Noel." First of all, despite the use of the word "Noel," this is actually an English carol. Which makes it even more confusing. You could excuse the obtuse lyrics if someone told you they were translated from some old French verse. But how to you explain this line: "On a Cold Winter's Night that was so deep."

OK. Are we missing a line here? What was deep? The snow? It could be, but there's no mention of snow in the song ... and if the baby Jesus was, indeed, born in Bethlehem, it doesn't snow there very often. In fact, a cursory google of Israel and weather says that it only snows regularly in Golan Heights. Bethlehem has more of a Mediterranean climate, which means generally cold and rainy winters.

So maybe the "deep" refers to the manure in the barn where the Baby Jesus was born. Who knows? Or maybe the author was trying to convey the message that the birth of Jesus was a profound event in the history of man, and, hence, very deep. But we're getting way to analytical here.

Next on the agenda to discuss is "Silent Night," which has a rather fascinating history all of its own. It was written by an Austrian priest in 1816 and set to music two years later in Oberndorf when the organ at St. Nicholas' Church broke down on Christmas Eve. It was intended to be played at Midnight Mass with a simple guitar accompaniment.

And from those humble beginnings it has become, arguably, the most beloved Christmas carols of them all.

But that's not why we're discussing it here. We're discussing it because of the line "Round Yon Virgin, Mother and Child." This has to be a case of German being translated badly into English, because I defy anyone to tell me what-all that means.

Reminds me of the story about the kid bringing home a drawing he did at school of the nativity, with the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, sheep, shepherds, the three kings, and this grotesque, hulking figure looming in the background.

"Who's that?" the kids mother asks.

"That's Round John Virgin," the kid replied.

My guess is that "Round Yon Virgin, Mother and Child," means "behold Mary and Jesus." Can't think of what else it could mean.

Let us proceed. "Away in a Manger" actually has two tunes with the same set of lyrics for both. One is written by someone named Murry, or Mueller, and is based loosely on a Strauss waltz. The second, which is also in 3/4 times, was written by William J. Kilpatrick in 1895. And while the tunes are radically different, they actually counterpoint each other quite well.

In 1865, English writer William Chatterton Dix had a near-death experience and, as a result, was confined to months of bed rest. He wrote many hymns during that period, including one in which he put lyrics to the tune of the popular folk song "Greensleeves." That became, of course, "What Child is This," which has the distinction of being covered quite eloquently in the 1970s by Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues.

A lot of these songs are steeped in history. Did you know, for example, that "Joy to the World" was based partly on a refrain from Handel's "Messiah?" Yes, indeed. Not the entire song, perhaps, but the chorus "Let heaven and nature sing ..." was taken from the refrain "Comfort Ye" from the famous oratorio ... the same one that gave us the Hallelujah Chorus."

As Casey Stengel would say, "you could look it up." I did.

Now, speaking of odd little histories, "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" is certainly unique.

It was originally written as a somber, solemn piece of music. But it was later changed to the more majestic tune we know and love today. And much of that tune was ripped off from a piece by composer Felix Mendelssohn (who brought us the traditional wedding recessional from "A Midsummer's Night's Dream," among other things). And when Mendelssohn wrote it, it was a cantata celebrating Gutenberg's invention of the printing press.

But the first time I heard it, I thought it was about some guy named Harold.

If some of the traditional carols have roundabout histories, so do our more secular songs. "Silver Bells" was ostensibly written about hearing the Salvation Army bell-ringers that are ubiquitous in New York during the holiday season (you won't find this one in Wiki ... I heard it from a Salvation Army captain during a rotary club luncheon).

The word "Christmas" never appears in "Winter Wonderland." Yet it is one of our most enduring season songs ... at least in the Northern hemisphere.

A personal favorite here is "Sleigh Ride," by Leroy Anderson, who wrote some hundreds of light concert pieces, such as "The Syncopated Clock" and "Buggler's Holiday" that were introduced by his good friend Arthur Fiedler via the Boston Pops.

"Sleigh Ride," another piece where you'll be looking all day if you seek to find the word "Christmas" in the lyrics, wasn't even written in the winter at all. It was written as an orchestral piece during a July heat wave, with lyrics, depicting a simple generic winter scene, added later. Thus, it would appear Anderson wrote "Sleigh Ride" for the same reason I might break out the DVD to "Fargo" in the middle of August ... to simulate the feeling of being able to cool off.

If you want your head to really spin, look up the origin and explanation of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Nobody's sure whether it's English or French, and the words are different depending upon which version you hear. In one there are twelve drummers drumming; and in another it's nine drummers drumming and twelve fiddlers fiddling.

This would generally speak to the belief that the song got its beginnings as one of those parlor games where everyone has to go around repeating all the stuff they'd heard prior until someone finally slips up.

And, of course, the simple scope of the gifts, and what receiving them would do to the poor person who receives them, has been the subject of many spoofs.

And then there's "We Three Kings of Orient Are." This is actually an American carol written in the mid 19th century by an Episcopalian priest in New York. And although the words are pretty ponderous (field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star ...) they make sense. They were written for a Christmas pageant, and they actually tell a story.

But I can never hear it without laughing, because I think kids of all ages, and all locales, learned to sing it this way: We three kings or orient are ... tried to smoke a rubber cigar ... it was loaded and exploded ..."

I know. I know. Dumb. But when you're 11, dumb is entertaining.

Finally, Christmas isn't Christmas without hearing certain songs. If I don't hear "Do You Hear What I Hear" at least once, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the holiday season is incomplete. But here's the caveat: I can hear any one of a hundred different versions of the song, but the only one I care about is Der Bingle's. There's something about Crosby and Christmas.

It's just a nice song, with a nice sentiment. But when you find out why it was written, it just punches you right in the stomach. It was written in 1962 as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. And its authors couldn't perform it without getting choked up because, as one of them put it, "you must realize we were under the threat of nuclear war at the time."

But when it comes to Der Bingel, his recording of "White Christmas" remains the best-selling single of all time. It was written by Irving Berlin and it pretty much symbolizes an old-fashioned Christmas the same way his "God Bless America" symbolizes patriotism (but did you know that Woody Guthrie wrote "This Land is Your Land" as a response to "God Bless America?").

What I find ironic, however, is that we all sing "White Christmas" like it's some kind of idyllic dream, yet if the weatherman even mentions the word "snow" in the days leading up to Christmas, we act as if someone snatched the Christmas pudding right out from under us.

Another "must hear:" "Father Christmas" by the Kinks, which kind of shatters the idyllic Christmas myth to smithereens and gets down to gritty reality: Leave all the toys to the little rich boys and give me money. Then there's "I Believe in Father Christmas" by Greg Lake, which speaks to a number of issues: The commercialization of the holiday and the loss of childhood innocence associated with it. Following along, we have a very eclectic selection that includes poppy pieces like "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Little St. Nick" by the Beach Boys (which Brian Wilson actually once sang during a concert in the middle of July); twisted pieces such as "Christmas Wrappings" by the Waitresses and "A Christmas Song" by Jethro Tull; and Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town."

John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Christmas, War is Over" was written and recorded in 1971, with the Harlem Boys Choir providing the backing. It was kind of a combination protest and Christmas song written as the Vietnam War was raging.

But its tune was actually taken from a traditional folk song about a racehorse called "Stewball," that was sung by, among others, Peter, Paul and Mary.

Of course, the song became an instant Christmas staple in 1980 after Lennon was shot to death in New York. The other irony: Yoko Ono sings on this record. You can hear her loud and clear. In Lennon's life, she was reviled as the "woman who broke up the Beatles," yet now, all these years later, she has emerged as an almost sympathetic figure in the group's historical dynamic.

By the time John Williams stepped down as conductor of the Boston Pops I was pretty tired of him. That's because he'd always manage to sneak one of his own compositions into just about every concert, and with such a wide and distinguished palate on which to paint, I thought he slanted his concerts with too much ego. It would be like telling Picasso he could host an art show, telling him he had access to every classic ever painted, and seeing half his cubist paintings speckle the gallery.

This doesn't mean Williams was/is a hack, or that Picasso was a bad artist. It just means that John maybe could have stepped aside once in a while and featured someone else other than himself.

Yet Williams did write one of my very favorite Christmas songs, simply called "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas." I first heard it in the closing credits of "Home Alone 2," but the Pops usually play it during their Christmas show every year (yes, even with Keith Lockhart at the podium) and it captures the spirit of the season very well.

After today, they'll all be put in a box and kept on ice until, I don't know, next October. Radio stations and department stores seem to trot them out earlier and earlier every year, which really does nothing except defeat the purpose behind what makes them special in the first place. And while I know that the never-ending debate over whether we should even acknowledge the religious aspects of Christmas at all in public seems to be more divisive each year, there's no denying that, as music, a lot of these carols are very beautiful and peaceful, and that they reconnect you to your childhood faster than any other single thing you experience.

I hope they're around to enjoy for many years to come ... and that ever-encroaching commercialism doesn't eventually blunt completely their singular purpose in our lives.

Merry Christmas to all.

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