Thursday, December 06, 2007

O Holy Rant

After working late tonight, I decided I would take advantage of my overtime money and treat myself to dinner at one of Beaverton's finer establishments.

This being the holiday season, they were playing Christmas pop music. Yes, I'm something of a junior curmudgeon, but I'm okay with lighter fare in public. Some of it I even like, such as Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas (is You)." Tonight, however, I heard absolutely the most wretched attempt at "O Holy Night."

I don't know who sang it. It's probably better that way; I can be meaner.

This song isn't for everyone; most people have less business attempting it than I would 50 Cent's "Wanksta." It is a true operatic aria, even if it doesn't belong to a larger theatrical work. It's operatic in scope not just because of the vocal range and volume required, but because of its drama. The lyrics cry out for a many-hued voice in the service of an artist who can deeply connect with the words and imbue them with passion and fire. It doesn't even have to be a real opera singer in classical style (Thomas Hampson and Leontyne Price are two of my favorite versions); I think Celine Dion's is pretty inspirational. It has to be a voice that can glow, float and thunder. Fall on your knees, the text commands.

Whatever gifts this young woman may possess, they aren't vocal. Transposing the key to a comfortable crooning range robs Adam's inspired melody of the thrill of a voice in full, ardent, ecstatic cry for which it was composed. One might as well kazoo it.

Even if we allow for the unnecessary accommodation of an un-special voice, there is zero excuse for the gutless, automatonic way in which this artless tartlet rendered the text. "O night divine" should conjure images of a black, star-speckled night that suddenly explodes in the silvery brilliance of a host of angels magnificently proclaiming peace and joy in awesome, celestial harmony. We're talking about nothing less than the sudden manifestation of God in human, infant flesh. This is the night the world changed. It wasn't just that her interpretive powers weren't up to the demands; it was that she sounded detached, unaware and bored.

This is not some sweet, toothless seasonal bromide that we trot out because its pretty; it's a triumphant hymn to social justice. Have you ever noticed the final stanza?
Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Hearing these powerful words "sung" by a monochromatic, adolescent choirgirl wheezing into a microphone two inches from her face filled me with rage. To think she was probably paid thousands of dollars, presumably more because she looks good on an album cover than because she has anything to say, for minimal effort and zero intellectual or emotional engagement, made me seethe with indignation.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever,
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
His power and glory evermore proclaim.
When this is the text that you're given, I don't think it's too much to ask for a voice to be, well, powerful and glorious. Proclaim it! Sing it! Power and glory! ARGH!!!!


Faustus, M.D. said...

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.

I think you should cut her some slack. I mean, our government has decided that those words are meaningless; why should anybody else believe differently?

(That said, I swoon at Leontyne Price's "O Holy Night." Though "Von Himmel Hoch" on that album is pretty spectacular too.)

Faustus, M.D. said...

And for some reason I am now thinking of the church choir I used to sing in whose conductor decided one year that our Easter mass would be Haydn in d minor.

Yes, that's right. On Easter Sunday we sang the Mass in Time of Fear.

When the service was over I went to the pay phone on the corner, called the conductor of my old choir, and screamed hysterically into the receiver until the time on his answering machine ran out.

Jarred said...

I'm inclined to agree with you on this one. And considering I'm not even Christian, what does that say for Faustus's cynicism above? ;)

Jade said...

:) What makes me smile so much about this rant is that whenever I hear "Oh Holy Night" it reminds me of you singing on stage back in high school. I'm thankful that the local radio station dedicated to Christmas music seems to be partial to the Josh Groban version.

I don't suppose we could talk you into recording it yourself and posting the audio file on your blog?

David in KC said...

As an elderly curmudgeon, I no longer enjoy hearing what used to be a favorite. It probably comes from singing in too many performances of the local symphony's holiday cash cow - The Magic of Christmas. "O Holy Night" is always on the program. After singing or hearing it six or eight times a week over the Christmas season, multiplied by 20 years, it loses its power to thrill. Sort of like porn, I guess.

little-cicero said...

I was actually disappointed in the Three Tenors' Christmas Album (Carreres in particular). The most talented, harmonic and inspired album I've heard this year was by the Irish Tenors. There's a lot of fine Irish Christmas music out there.

On the other hand, no one beats Bing. Being a bass I'm partial to hearing someone in my range. "Ba-ba-ba-boom"

Jess said...

I've heard this type of butchery in the rendering of other classic and inspirational songs. It's as if the singer not only lacks the pipes to do the song justice but also is so stupid as to lack the understanding of the meaning of the song. I'm sure I'd have been seething along with you.