“Fourteen is a sort of magic age for the development of musical tastes,” says Daniel J. Levitin, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for Music Perception, Cognition and Expertise at McGill University. “Pubertal growth hormones make everything we’re experiencing, including music, seem very important. We’re just reaching a point in our cognitive development when we’re developing our own tastes. And musical tastes become a badge of identity.”
Do you suppose that explains why my taste in music, especially when it comes to classical* Christmas music, is so rigidly snobby?
Around this time every year, I start scouring the internet for festive music to enjoy during the Christmas season, usually making several lists, one of which would be of classical music. And every time I practice this ritual, I find myself hating almost everything I listen to. I can only choose a few albums and tracks after hours of sighing, “ugh, gawdy,” and “TOO SLOW!” It’s like Christmas rolls around, and suddenly all these highly respected classical musicians throw all their taste out into the snow.
O Holy Night is complete garbage, and so is that dress, Dame Kiri. You are the greatest lyric soprano of your generation, I know you can do better than this.
But I digress . . .
When I was 14, I was a freshman in high school, and thus spent my first school year singing in the chorus under the direction of Cliff Thomson, a man who, for better or for worse, has had a huge influence on me as a musician.
He was a bit of a strange fellow, at least by rural Virginia’s standards. He was flamboyantly gay, smoked like a chimney, had a dark sense of humor, and a volatile personality which could be unpredictable. Occasionally he would fly into wild rages, perhaps out of stress, or nicotine deprivation, and begin cursing, insulting students, banging the piano, sometimes even throwing things. I hated these moments, but, as one of the more dedicated choral students, was rarely the target. I’d glare at the slackers whose whispered conversation in the back of the room triggered Mr. Thomson’s temper and would quickly forgive him for wasting another rehearsal.
But he was also different from the choir directors at all the other area high schools. He scoffed at the idea of “show choir,” and wouldn’t dream of having us perform cheesy arrangements of pop songs or jazz standards. I once heard him confess that when he started teaching, he would diligently audition singers and place them into three or four choral sections, chamber choir, treble choir, madrigals, etc., but he eventually got too lazy to deal with the scheduling difficulty and so every singer was now part of one choir. Advanced Choir Select was what it was called.
And our repertoire was particularly sophisticated, even if our performances of it weren’t very polished. It was in that choir room that I first discovered the soaring polyphony of Palestrina, the broad romanticism of Brahms, the precision of Mozart and Handel. And every December, I reveled in our “Holiday” program which would be almost identical to the one from the year before.
The music for the Holiday concert was mostly a mix of traditional Christmas and Advent hymns, and early music. Always Stille Nacht instead of Silent Night, always the same floaty phrasing on In the Bleak Midwinter, always the same warp-speed tempo on Ding Dong Merrily on High.
The Gloucestershire Wassail was a standard, which we the students loved, mostly because we recognized it was a drinking song, and thus vorboten. We would sing loud and boisterously,
Wassail, wassail all over the town!
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree.
With our wassailing bowl we’ll drink to thee!
In the verse about the butler, we would emphasize the word with staccato: “BUTT-ler.” When we got to final verse, we’d pull back to pianissimo, just above a whisper:
And here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tript to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tript to the door and pulled back the pin
Then crescendo on “pin” back to a full fortissimo, carrying through with no breath to
For to let these jolly wassailers in!
All this is to say that the music was fairly highbrow, (well, that particular number is kind of highbrow-lowbrow) but still really fun. It was in those high school choir classes that I learned that classical music is a real laugh, and not stiff and snobby.
When I was applying for colleges, I had a conversation with Mr. Thomson about whether I should apply as a music theater major or an opera major, as I wasn’t sure at the time. He looked at me and said, “people who can do music theater can do music theater, people who do opera can do anything.”
At the end of the year when I was getting ready to head off to conservatory to study opera, as I was saying goodbye to him, he told me another thing, “You’ll sing Turandot one day.” I didn’t realize at the time that he meant that he thought I had the potential to do this:
I’m still holding out hope on that one.
Anyway, here is my 2012 Classical Christmas Playlist, made up of a lot of pieces we used to sing in that high school choir, some that I think we could’ve sung, and some other stuff. Lots of choral music, the Choir of Kings College Cambridge is featured heavily, as is Chanticleer. There are a couple tracks from Kathleen Battle’s delightful Christmas album with guitarist Christopher Parkening. A breathtaking a capella Sweet Little Jesus Boy sung by Leontyne Price could bring tears to your eyes if you hear it at the wrong part of your menstrual cycle. Enjoy, kiddos!
*I hate this word, because it means too many things. What I mean here is, music that you might hear on the “Classical” radio station.