December 15, 2017

Deconstructing Carols

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I’ve been feeling a little wassail drunk with music this season. I usually look forward to it and don’t mind the iterations of Hark, the Herald Angel and his pals like Round John Virgin. After all, it’s only for a month out of the year, two and half if you’re a musician. The Chorale started rehearsing late October and we added the holiday songs to All Present in mid-November. I was sick of them before Halloween.

In All Present I have a cushy job: I sit at the piano, play an accompaniment, turn a page and play another. If I am feeling sociable, I do a little patter with the front people: Susan, The Other Susan and now Gail. If I’m still half asleep or feeling Grinchy, I just sit there and play.

To distract myself during this blessed holy season, I’ve been fiddling around with the accompaniments, trying out runs and flourishes and varying the rhythms in the bass. When I get tired of that I sing some of the old versions we substituted as kids. Like “God rest ye merry, Gentlemen although you’re not too bright.” When my mother heard me sing that she gave me a look that suggested I had blown my nose on Luke chapter 2 of her Bible.

Two of my piano students (Anna and Julia who now sometimes introduce me as their aunt because I objected to them calling me their “old piano teacher”) taught me these words to “O Christmas Tree:”

Oh, Todd the Toad, oh Todd the Toad,
Why did you jump into the road? (2X)
You used to eat a fly or two
But now the flies are eating you;
Oh, Todd the etc,


I’m partial to the shepherds who:

washed their socks by night all seated round the tub.
A bar of Sunlight soap came down and they began to scrub.

There are a bunch of verses elucidating what those shepherds got up to while they waited for the Messiah. And who can blame them? I sympathize with their ennui.

My friend Nina (rhymes with Dinah) let me into her crusade against how we render “Silent Night” meaningless. We sing that all is calm and all is bright. Okay. Fair enough. But then there’s this stand-alone phrase: “round yon virgin, mother and child.”  Round yon virgin, mother and child, what?

The only way to get this past an English or a singing teacher would be to punctuate and sing “All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin, mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild.” Nina and I now try to get through the line without a break.

And while I am here, there is no such thing as a mild child, especially not if he is planning to grow up to save mankind. I always sing “wild.” And virginity is a scam.

Moving on to the insipid “Away in a Manger.” (I’m sorry if you like this carol but they put me on the stage when I was three and made me sing it to Highland Covenant Church in Bellevue and I really wish they hadn’t.) Here we have two lines that people run together without a comma: “The cattle are lowing the poor baby wakes.” The cattle are lowing. That’s a thing all by itself. The kid wakes up. That’s another thing. One causes the other but they are still two separate things. Okay this isn’t a very strong complaint. I think I am still unhappy from when I was three. Christmas is for children.

“It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” has enough grammatical conundrums to keep me busy through all the verses. Take the beginning which we blithely sing as four unrelated thoughts:

It came upon the midnight clear.
That glorious song of old.
From angels bending near the earth.
To touch their harps of gold.

I believe the meaning is this: The glorious song of old (the aforementioned “it”) was sung by angels at midnight who apparently had to bend toward earth in order to get their harps out of storage.

I understand that language is used differently in verse. I don’t fault Edwin H. Sears who wrote the text in 1849. In 2017, in this Me, Too moment, I have to say the idea of angels bending and touching is a little weird.

These are some of the many thoughts I have as I sit at the piano playing Christmas carols so that other people can have warm and/or transcendental experiences. You’re welcome.






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