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Kitschmastide (with examples)

0 Robert Levine

Polyphonic has Been Absolutely Inundated (OK; a few requests on Facebook, but this is a business where self-promotion seems to require the kind of spin that would make tennis balls spiral off into the next county) with requests for examples of what I was referring to in my previous post. So here goes.

One of the worst offenders, kitsch-wise, in the Holiday Pops we just did was an arrangement by Robert Shaw of Angels We Have Heard On High. Robert Shaw was, of course, a great chorus conductor. He prepared choruses for Toscanini (who said “in Robert Shaw, I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for”). He built the Cleveland Orchestra chorus for George Szell. And, of course, he was music director of the Atlanta Symphony for many years. So his musicianship is not in question.

But this particular arrangement - part of The Many Moods of Christmas set - is a dog. It begins with a terrible modulation over a completely unnecessary fast-march obligato - which recurs far too often. And what is a march doing in here anyway?

Then it tries to work in bits of Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle, which proves very awkward indeed (especially around 2:04), before going into kitsch overdrive at 2:21 with really hokey hallelujas in the sopranos and that damned obligato everywhere else. To add insult to injury, he gives the violins a stupid scurrying figure, demonstrating one of the core characteristics of musical kitsch - excess. To top it off, he goes all Broadway on us at 2:58.

This began life as a simple French tune. Why did it need all this?

A similar example was the arrangement we did of Joy to the World. This begins with virtually the same scurrying nonsense in the violins as Shaw ended with, comprising only one element of a 30-second introduction (including just enough of an organ solo to remind us that this is, after all, very churchy music), which goes absolutely nowhere. The coda (around 2:24) contains enough hammering home of the dominant to end a very long symphony - a little much for a Christmas carol, though. It becomes “nice Handelian tune meets thermonuclear device.”

We also did a couple of pieces by John Rutter. I’m not sure they qualify as kitsch, exactly - but they come close. I’ve never quite put my finger on just why this one bothers me so much, except that it’s the kind of piece that, when it’s over, everyone goes “awwwww - it’s sooo pretty.” It is, too. It just has no depth at all.

So what isn’t kitsch at Christmas? Here are two examples I like. The first is a piece that dies in most arrangements, but in the original version is absolutely perfect - Stille Nacht. One of the problems with Christmas music illustrated by this wonderful piece is that vocal music written in one language often suffers when translated, as of course many Christmas carols are. “Silent night” is not identical in meaning to “stille nacht,” while “holy night” is missing a syllable compared to “heilige nacht,” which is unfortunate, given that the music is intended for four syllables and not three. And the far more guttural consonants of the German language create an internal rhythm completely lacking in the English translation - a rhythm the composer clearly wrote to support.

But what makes the original (or near-original) version so un-kitschy is its simplicity - two voices and the sparest possible accompaniment. Arrangers of Christmas carols often eem to forget that the events described happened in a stable and not the Taj Mahal. The composer of Stille Nacht didn’t.

Listen to it here.

My second example is by way of contrast to the John Rutter piece. It’s an a cappella movement from Hodie, Vaughan Williams’ last major work for chorus and orchestra. It benefits from a text by Martin Luther - a better writer than Robert Herrick, the 17th century English poet used by Rutter.

In many ways, the pieces sound similar; they certainly come from the same musical tradition. But they’re as dissimilar as could be in what really matters. Nothing I try to write to describe the contrast between the two seems quite right. The closest I can come is that, unlike in Rutter’s piece, Vaughan Williams captures both darkness and movement, and does so with great simplicity. It’s the difference between manipulation and communication - or between art and kitsch.

Anyway, that’s my view and I’m sticking to it.







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