Monday, December 22, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"In the Bleak Midwinter" /
Cyndi Lauper

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

All these modern pop holiday songs are fine as far as they go, but with two days left until Christmas Eve, I'm feeling the need for some honest-to-goodness Christmas carols.  Who'd have thought that the Girls Just Want to Have Fun fun girl would deliver such a thing?

Turns out that Cyndi's got a candy-cane-striped streak of Christmas love in her heart -- in fact, she released an entire holiday album (Merry Christmas . . . Have a Nice Life) in 1993, which mixes party numbers like "Christmas Conga" with a handful of deliciously sincere traditional carols.  And since this is one of my favorite carols . . .

There she is, plucking her autoharp, with an Irish tin whistle counterpoint (this well before Lords of the Dance made the pennywhistle such a pop cliché). Cyndi sings it straight, reminding us that in fact she has a pretty fine voice. After all, if you can't drop the cynical pose at Christmas, when can you?

It's a song with a great pedigree. The lyrics were written by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti in 1872;  they were set to music in 1906 by English composer Gustav Holst (he also wrote the trippy orchestral suite "The Planets").  Holst deliberately went for an English folk tune sound for this song, underscoring the Thomas Hardy vibe of the thing. 

Only a real poet could pack her images so concisely into those simple, elemental words -- "frosty wind made moan / Earth stood hard as iron / Water like a stone."  With just four words, she creates a blizzard -- "Snow had fallen / Snow on snow on snow" -- to which Cyndi adds an icy ripple of melisma. That's scene setting for you.

She sketches every actor in the traditional nativity scene -- angels and archangels in verse two, Mary "in her maiden bliss" kissing the baby. We see the shepherd and wise men too, in verse three, as she wistfully asks "What can I give him / Poor as I am?" (love that Victorian tug on the social conscience). But the answer's there all along, as she hushes tenderly, humbly: "What I can I give him? / Give my heart." Which was what the baby Jesus wanted all along -- what he came to earth for.

Our choir sings this every year for the children's Christmas pageant, and I can just about never get through that third verse without weeping. (Luckily I get lost in the alto section and no one in the audience notices.) Like I said, if you can't drop the cynical pose at Christmas, when can you?

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