Kitschmastide (with examples)

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.







About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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