Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Little Drummer Boy - A Christmas Music Countdown

My mother had a fit when I told her I bought my younger brother a $99 does-it-all blu ray player instead of the $30 cheap DVD player she wanted me to buy. My older brother asked, “What do you want with a VHS player? Nobody uses them anymore.”

The children’s TV movie, The Little Drummer Boy, was released in 1968. Quite a horrific story about a little peasant boy in the Holy Land whose family is killed. He winds up hating everyone. A traveling troupe takes him and during his travels, he’s invited to give a gift to the Baby Jesus, but all he has is his drummer, so he offers up some rhythms. The infant Jesus seems to think it’s pretty cool and smiles at the little drummer boy.

The Little Drummer Boy," also known as "Carol of the Drum," is a popular Christmas song, based on a Czech carol, written by pianist Katherine K. Davis in 1941. It was popularized by the Harry Simeon Chorale version and has been recorded by countless singers from Bing Crosby to Faith Hill.

The story is somewhat similar to an 12th century legend retold by Anatole France as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (French: Our Lady's Juggler), which was adapted into an opera in 1902 by Jules Massenet. In the French legend, however, a juggler juggles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the statue, according to which version of the legend one reads, either smiles at him or throws him a rose (or both, as in the 1984 television film, The Juggler of Notre Dame.)

In 1957, the hitherto obscure song was re-arranged by Henry Onorati for a recording by the Jack Halloran Singers on Dot Records, but was not released in time for Christmas. The following year, 20th Century Fox Records contracted Onorati's friend, Harry Simeone ,to make a Christmas album. As Simeone was looking for material, Onorati introduced him to the “Carol of the Drum.” Simeone re-arranged the song, retitled it “The Little Drummer Boy,” and recorded it with the Harry Simeone Chorale on the album, “Sing We Now of Christmas.”

A total of over 220 versions in seven languages are known, in many music genres.

• 1964 - Marlene Dietrich recorded a German version of the song ("Der Trommelmann").
• 1965 - The Supremes recorded the song for their album Merry Christmas. Vince Guaraldi did a jazz piano arrangement titled "My Little Drum," for his soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas.
• 1966 - The Crusaders, released this as a single. It was included in their November 1966 debut album, regarded as one of the first Christian rock albums.
• 1967 - Stevie Wonder recorded the song for Someday at Christmas.
• 1968 - the song was adapted into an animated television special by Rankin/Bass. The special was followed by a sequel in 1976.
• 1970 - The Brady Bunch recorded the song on their 1970 album Christmas with The Brady Bunch.
• 1977 - One of the more popular versions of this song was recorded for a Crosby Christmas special: “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” duet by the unusual pairing of Bing Crosby and David Bowie.
• 1981 - Rosemary Clooney recorded the song for her album Christmas with Rosemary Clooney.
• 1987 - Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s version very noticeably excludes all names or religious references. This version was used by Johnny Cash and Neil Young on Ben Keith's Seven Gates album (1994).
• 1988 - Mannheim Steamroller included a version on their second Christmas album, A Fresh Aire Christmas.
• 1989 - New Kids on the Block, with lead vocals by Danny Wood, recorded the song on their Christmas album, Merry Merry Christmas.
• 1991 - Al Bano & Romina Power released an Italian version titled "Il Piccolo Tamburino." The Yobs relasesd a parody titled "Rub-a-Dum-Dum."
• 1994 - Kenny G put out an acoustic version of the song on his "Miracles: The Holiday Album". A version by RuPaul was released on Tommy Boy records, and rated a No. 113 on the Hot 100 charts.
• 1998 -Alicia Keys recorded a modified version titled "Little Drummer Girl" for Jermaine Dupri Presents Twelve Soulful Nights Of Christmas. German punk band Die Toten Hosen published the album Wir warten auf's Christkind under their pseudonym Die Roten Rosen. Among other Christmas songs, there is also a version of "The Little Drummer Boy".
• 1999 - The West Wing's first Christmas episode, "In Excelsis Deo," featured a boys' choir singing the song over a funeral service. The episode went on to win multiple Emmy Awards.
• 2000 - Charlotte Church recorded the song in her Christmas album "Dream a Dream".
• 2001 - Destiny's Child covered the song in their holiday album "8 Days of Christmas". Westlife performedd the song live with Dolores O'Riordan of The Cranberries in front of the late Pope John Paul II.
• 2003 - Whitney Houston and her daughter recorded the song on Houston's album One Wish: The Holiday Album.
• 2004 - Art Paul Schlosser released a version of the song called “Kazoo Boy” on his album, The ABCs of Art Paul Schlosser World. Jessica Simpson recorded of Little Drummer Boy in her album Rejoyce: The Christmas Album. Vanessa L. Williams sang it on her album. Silver & Gold.
• 2005 - Boyz II Men recorded their rendition of "Little Drummer Boy" on their Christmas album Winter/Reflections. Bryan Duncan and the NehoSoul Band recorded the song on their A NehoSoul Christmas album. Dwight Schrute briefly performed the song in the pilot episode of The Office. In 2006, Angela performs the song as karaoke in Episode 39.
• 2006 - Christopher Lee recorded a version for his album Revelation. Gladys Knight and the Saints Unified Voices choir released a version of The Little Drummer Boy on their Grammy-Award winning album, A Christmas Celebration.
• 2007 - Jan Rot sang a Dutch version on An + Jan's christmas album Vrolijk Kerstfeest.
• 2008 - The Almost recorded a cover for their acoustic EP No Gift to Bring. Terry Wogan and Aled Jones duplicated the Crosby/Bowie's 1977 "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" duet. After a brief campaign amongst listeners of BBC Radio 2, instigated by Chris Evans to get the song released in support of the Children In Need charity, it was released as a single, reaching #3 in the UK Top 40. Doug Pinnick, George Lynch, Billy Sheehan and Simon Phillips recorded a version on the 2008 album We Wish you a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year. Faith Hill sang the song on her Joy To The World album.
• 2009 Lukas Rossi made his version available for download on his web page. Bob Dylan recorded the song for his 2009 Christmas album Christmas in the Heart. Hans-Peter Lindstrøm made a 40-minute electronic version available as a limited CD and download. Heavy Blinkers featuring Jenn Grant released an alternative look at the classic song 'The Little Drummer Boy' called "Silence Your Drum". This version is told from the perspective of Joseph and Mary, who would rather hear some lute than the barum-pah-pum-pum of the drum.
• 2010 - Mariah Carey covered The Song For Her 13th Studio Album "Merry Christmas II You". The Black Eyed Peas performed a mashup of the song with their single “The Time (Dirty Bit)” on The Oprah Winfrey Show.   * Source: Wikipedia

The song has probably been recorded so often because the gift of music has a special meaning to musicians. The little drummer, like them, has been a given a gift, and when called upon, he returns the gift. One notable omission is John Denver’s version. Denver was a gifted storyteller and even though he was a guitarist, he does quite a nice job on Little Drummer Boy

Unfortunately, our “little drummer boy” on our town band would gladly give the gift of the song back. He is also a rock drummer and enjoys nothing more than wailing away on his drum set. The Little Drummer Boy song is a simple rat-a-tat-tat rhythm. At the end, there’s more counting than rat-a-tatting and he gets bored waiting to hit that final tap.

He’ll get his chance again tonight at our town concert at The Church of The Burger King (it’s an inside joke; if you drive up our main highway and you see a church behind a Burger King, you’ve found our concert. It starts at 7:30 p.m. This Christmas concert is our present to the church for giving us someplace to play. On Dec. 12th, we’ll be playing for our town, to repay the town for allowing us to rehearse in the town’s senior citizens center.

This will also be the world premiere of my new orchestra bells. The instructions for the “glockenspiel” come in a number of languages. Glancing through it, there’s a diagram of the keyboard, with directions to the “accidental keys” (the black keys on a piano). I’ll have to consult my musician’s dictionary, but I do believe the word is “occidental,” referring to the Western half-step scale. Although we won’t be playing “Silver Bells” (this year), it’s still a fitting Christmas song for the Christmas Music Countdown, though not a headliner, since we’re not playing it this year.

"Silver Bells" was composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans. The song was first performed by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell in the motion picture The Lemon Drop Kid, which was released in March 1951. The first recorded version was by Bing Crosby and Carol Richards, released in October 1950. After the Crosby and Richards recording became popular, Hope and Maxwell were called back in late 1950 to refilm a more elaborate production of the song.[1]

Silver Bells started out as the questionable “Tinkle Bells.” Evans said, "We never thought that tinkle had a double meaning until Jay went home and his wife said, 'Are you out of your mind? Do you know what the word tinkle is? It’s child's slang for urination!”

The song was inspired by the imagery of Salvation Army bell-ringers standing outside department stores during the Christmas season. It was recorded by even more artists than “Little Drummer Boy,” including Alvin and the Chipmunks and Regis Philbin.

Friday, December 03, 2010

The Nutcracker Suite - A Christmas Music Countdown

My Christmas Music Countdown is supposed to be all about the music. But today, it’s going to be about the music, the ballet, a reportedly very strange new movie, and the original story that inspired “The Nutcracker Suite” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

A new movie version of “The Nutcracker,” in 3D, hit the movies around Thanksgiving and critics, to pardon a cliché, hit the ceiling. They were not thankful. They roundly and soundly panned the film as weird, dark, and unfit for young children. They particularly objected to its redating to 1920s Vienna, with the world on the brink of Nazi globalization. They complained that it didn’t sound very merry to them, and there’s no doubt about that.

What really troubles the critics about this version of The Nutcracker? I haven’t seen it and they may be right – it may be a visual nightmare, although the commercials I’ve seen are rather enticing. Of course, the fact that it’s a 3-D movie is a deal-breaker for me; I wouldn’t go see it even if the critics were over the moon about the movie.

They complain about the film’s dark aspect, set in a grim world where toys are burned and the villain photographs children crying. Real-world villains do much worse than that when photographing kids. This wouldn’t be the first grim or frightening Christmas story. What about The Nightmare Before Christmas? Bad Santa? The Grinch Who Stole Christmas? Or general children’s movies like The Wizard of Oz?

They also cite its weird-factor. Has anyone seen Alice in Wonderland? Or Moulin Rouge? If I could find a non-3D version of this new movie, I’d see it just to find out what the fuss is all about. I suspect the critics’ Liberal morals have been offended by the notion of a movie showing national socialism (or state capitalism) in a bad light and soldiers with guns forcing the people into forced labor. We don’t want the dear little children to get the wrong idea about their intentions, after all. So they’re soundly panning the movie.

So it’s not a version of The Nutcracker for the Under Eight set. Every version of The Nutcracker I’ve seen, either in ballet or on a recording, has made short work of the war between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker. The war accounts for perhaps a tenth of the ballet. The rest is devoted to the party, the tree, the uncle, and the romance between the ballerina and the prince (the former Nutcracker). Sugar plum fairies, dancing snowflakes, and pas de deux between the principals prevail. Good luck with dragging a boy to something like that.

Boys tend to take a destructive view of things. The more destructive the better, especially if it’s in nauseating, head-banging 3-D. And if the movie is a thin disguise for a political statement, their fathers will be more willing to take them. No, it may not be a movie for 8 year olds. But it may be just the thing for slightly older boys (and their Dads) who can’t stomach sugar plum fairies and men in tights.

It’s worth noting that men generally hate dancing, particularly ballet. They’d rather wear curlers to work than have to endure a ballet. They have only slightly more tolerance for opera. So this producer made a non-dancing, and musically-tolerable movie for guys and their little dudes. Hence, the dancing was removed. This was the warning about the film posted by a website devoted to parents with kids:

“A man is shown whacking others with a shovel. Machine gun-bearing soldiers roam the streets (you mean like in the airports?). The Rat King enjoys taking photos of kids crying after their toys are confiscated and burned (in Harry Potter, the teacher burns the hands of students who’ve broken the rules, making them cry); he hangs the pictures on the wall. The Rat Queen bites her son’s ear (that is weird, but then, she is a rat. Urbans will get it). Soldiers kidnap the Rat King’s enemies, some of whom are children, and throw them in a cage (Hansel & Gretel). A boy likes to destroy toys (What boy doesn’t?). A character uses a man’s head to crack a walnut with force (Ever hear of the Three Stooges?).”

The critics also took issue with the addition of lyrics to Tchaikovsky’s music, a libretto, if you will. Ballets generally don’t come with librettos because it’s about the dancing, not the story, although there is a story, as you’ll soon discover. So what if they did add lyrics? The critics consider these lyrics insipid? They can’t be any worse than anything else that’s out today. But they feel this classical piece is too sacred to be toyed with.

Did you know Sousa’s classical march, Stars and Stripes Forever, had lyrics added? Some notable movies had both straight, dramatic versions and musical versions, most notably, Anna and the King of Siam and its musical twin, The King and I. Anna and the King is not your happy-go-lucky, dance-it-up movie. It’s black and white and quite a grim film. In the dramatic version, Anna’s little boy is killed and the lovers are burned at the stake. My Fair Lady was a dramatic play before they added the lyrics: Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. In the dramatic version, Prof. Higgins remains a confirmed bachelor and Eliza marries Freddie Einsford-Hill.  Now there’s a truly scary thought.

Since when did Liberals become lovers of Tchaikovsky and classical music, anyway? I thought they’d rather chew their own ears off than listen to a piece of classical music.  I know from loving music. I’m surrounded by music-lovers. Who do these Liberal critics think they’re kidding?

And then there’s the story, itself.  Not to mention the story of the story, and how it was pretty much abandoned for the dancing and the accompanying music.

*The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The libretto is adapted from “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” by E. T. A. Hoffmann in 1816. The ballet premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on Dec. 18, 1892, on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky's opera, Iolanta.

The original production was not a success, but the 20-minute suite Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. Still, the complete Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity since the mid-20th century and is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season, especially in the U.S.

The Tchaikovsky score has become his most famous composition, in particular the pieces featured in the Nutcracker Suite. Among other things, the score is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic ballad The Voyevoda. Although known primarily as the featured solo instrument in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Act II of The Nutcracker, it is also employed elsewhere in the same act.

After the success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. The opera would be Iolanta. For the ballet, Tchaikovsky would again join forces with Marius Petipa, with whom he had collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty. The material Petipa chose was an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Alexandre Dumas père called The Tale of the Nutcracker. The plot of Hoffmann's story (and Dumas' adaptation) was greatly simplified for the two-act ballet. Hoffmann's tale contains a long flashback story within its main plot entitled The Tale of the Hard Nut, which explains how the Prince was turned into the Nutcracker. This had to be excised for the ballet.

Petipa gave Tchaikovsky detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. The composer did not appreciate working under such constraints and found himself reluctant to work on the ballet. The completion of the work was interrupted when Tchaikovsky visited the United States to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall.

In the premiere, the children's ballet roles, unlike many later productions, were performed by real children rather than adults (Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, and Vassily Stukolkin as Fritz), who were students of Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg. The reaction to the dancers themselves was ambivalent. While some critics praised the Sugar Plum Fairy (she allegedly received five curtain-calls), one critic called her “corpulent” and "podgy.” Olga Preobajenskaya as the Columbine doll was panned by one critic as “completely insipid” and praised as “charming” by another. One audience member described the choreography of the battle scene as confusing: “One cannot understand anything. Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards -- quite amateurish.”

The libretto was criticized for being “lopsided” and not being faithful to the Hoffmann tale. Much of the criticism focused on the featuring of children so prominently in the ballet, and many bemoaned the fact that the ballerina did not dance until the Grand Pas de Deux (in music, it would be a duet) near the end of the second act (which did not occur until nearly midnight during the program). Some found the transition between the mundane world of the first scene and the fantasy world of the second act too abrupt. Reception was better for Tchaikovsky's score. Critics called it “astonishingly rich in inspiration” and “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic.”

But even this was not unanimous as some critics found the party scene “ponderous”and the Grand Pas de Deux “insipid.” You just can’t please some people.

"The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (German: Nussknacker und Mausekönig) is a story written in 1816 by E. T. A. Hoffmann in which young Clara Stahlbaum's favorite Christmas toy, the Nutcracker, comes alive and, after defeating the evil Mouse King in battle, whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls.

The story begins on Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house. Marie, 12 years old, and her brother Fritz, 8, sit outside the parlor speculating about what kind of present their godfather Drosselmeyer, who is a clockmaker and inventor, has made for them. They are at last allowed into the parlor, where they receive many splendid gifts, including Drosselmeyer's, which turns out to be a clockwork castle with mechanical people moving about inside it. However, as the mechanical people can only do the same thing over and over without variation, the children quickly tire of it. At this point, Marie notices a Nutcracker doll, and asks whom he belongs to. Her father tells her that he belongs to all of them, but that since she is so fond of him she will be his special caretaker. Marie, her sister Louise, and her brother Fritz pass the Nutcracker among them, cracking nuts, until Fritz tries to crack a nut that is too big and hard, and the Nutcracker's jaw breaks. Marie, upset, takes the Nutcracker away and bandages him with a ribbon from her dress.

When it is time for bed, the children put their Christmas gifts away in the special cupboard where they keep their toys. Fritz and Louise go up to bed, but Marie begs to be allowed to stay with Nutcracker a while longer, and she is allowed to do so. She puts Nutcracker to bed and tells him that Drosselmeyer will fix his jaw as good as new. At this, the Nutcracker's face seems momentarily to come alive, and Marie is frightened, but she then decides it was only her imagination.

The grandfather clock begins to chime, and Marie believes she sees Drosselmeyer sitting on top of it, preventing it from striking. Mice begin to come out from beneath the floor boards, including the seven-headed Mouse King. Marie, startled, slips and puts her elbow through the glass door of the toy cupboard. The dolls in the cupboard come alive and begin to move, Nutcracker taking command and leading them into battle after putting Marie's ribbon on as a token. The battle at first goes to the dolls, but they are eventually overwhelmed by the mice. Marie, seeing Nutcracker about to be taken prisoner, takes off her shoe and throws it at the Mouse King, then faints.

Marie wakes the next morning with her arm bandaged and tries to tell her parents about the battle between the mice and the dolls, but they do not believe her, thinking that she has had a fever dream caused by the wound she sustained from the broken glass. Drosselmeyer soon arrives with the Nutcracker, whose jaw has been fixed, and tells Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat and the Queen of the Mice, which explains how Nutcrackers came to be and why they look the way they do.

The Queen of the Mice tricked Pirlipat's mother into allowing her and her children to gobble up the lard that was supposed to go into the sausage that the King was to eat at dinner that evening. The King, enraged at the Mouse Queen for spoiling his supper and upsetting his wife, had his court inventor, whose name happens to be Drosselmeyer, create traps for the Mouse Queen and her children.

The Mouse Queen, angered at the death of her children, swore that she’d take revenge on the King's daughter, Pirlipat. Pirlipat's mother surrounded her with cats which were supposed to be kept awake by being constantly stroked, however inevitably the nurses who stroke the cats fell asleep and the Mouse Queen magically turned the infant Pirlipat ugly, giving her a huge head, a wide grinning mouth and a cottony beard, like a nutcracker. The King blamed Drosselmeyer and gave him four weeks to find a cure. At the end of four weeks, Drosselmeyer had no cure and went to his friend, the court astrologer, for help.

They read Pirlipat's horoscope and told the King that the only way to cure her was to have her eat the nut Crackatook, which must be cracked and handed to her by a man who had never been shaved nor worn boots since birth, and who must, without opening his eyes hand her the kernel, then take seven steps backwards without stumbling. The King sent Drosselmeyer and the astrologer out to look for the nut and the young man, charging them on pain of death not to return until they had found them.

The two men journeyed for many years without finding either the nut or the man, until finally they returned home and found the nut in a small shop. The man who had never been shaved and never worn boots turned out to be Drosselmeyer's own nephew. The King, once the nut had been found, promised his daughter's hand to whoever could crack the nut. Many men broke their teeth on the nut before Drosselmeyer's nephew finally appeared. He cracked the nut easily and handed it to the princess, who swallowed it and immediately became beautiful again, but Drosselmeyer's nephew, on his seventh backward step, trod on the Queen of the Mice and stumbled, and the curse fell on him, giving him a large head, wide grinning mouth and cottony beard; in short, making him a Nutcracker. The ungrateful Princess, seeing how ugly Drosselmeyer's nephew had become, refused to marry him and banished him from the castle.

Marie, while she recuperates from her wound, hears the King of the Mice whispering to her in the middle of the night, threatening to bite Nutcracker to pieces unless she gives him her sweets and her dolls. For Nutcracker's sake, Marie sacrifices her things, but the Mouse king wants more and more. Finally, Nutcracker tells Marie that if she will just get him a sword, he will finish the Mouse King. Marie asks Fritz for a sword for Nutcracker, and he gives her the sword of one of his toy hussars.

The next night, Nutcracker comes into Marie's room bearing the Mouse King's seven crowns, and takes her away with him to the doll kingdom, where Marie sees many wonderful things. She eventually falls asleep in the Nutcracker's palace and is brought back home. She tries to tell her mother what happened, but again she is not believed, even when she shows her parents the seven crowns, and she is forbidden to speak of her “dreams” anymore.

As Marie sits in front of the toy cabinet one day, looking at Nutcracker and thinking about all the wondrous things that happened, she can't keep silent anymore and swears to the Nutcracker that if he were ever really real she would never behave as Princess Pirlipat behaved, and she would love him whatever he looked like. At this, there is a bang and she falls off the chair. Her mother comes in to tell her that godfather Drosselmeyer has arrived with his young nephew.

Drosselmeyer's nephew takes Marie aside and tells her that by swearing that she would love him in spite of his looks, she broke the curse on him and made him handsome again. He asks her to marry him. She accepts, and in a year and a day he comes for her and takes her away to the Doll Kingdom, where she is crowned queen.  * Source: Wikipedia

And that’s the real Nutcracker story. There’s a lot more to it than sugar plum fairies, much as we love seeing them. Much of the story was deleted from the ballet due to the story’s length and complicated structure: the nutcracker is actually a cursed princess, who then banishes the prince who saves her. The cursed prince turns out to be Marie’s godfather’s nephew, and that by declaring that she would love him no matter what he like, unlike Princess Pirlipat, that the spell was broken. He takes away to the Doll Kingdom, where she’s crowned the queen.

Doll Kingdom? No movie producer is going to sell a film about a doll kingdom to today’s young audiences. Since there are no words in the ballet, it’s difficult to understand in a live production that the Sugar Plum Fairy and all the rest are Marie’s dolls come to life. And today’s movies, even for the smaller set are so foul-mouthed, that it’s hard to believe they would accept a Kingdom of Dolls. Ever watch Spongebob Squarepants?

No; this rejection of this movie, while it may very well be technically valid, is about the war on present-day socialism. Critics can complain all they want; the original Wizard of Oz was a political and economic allegory as well. Oz is the abbreviation for ounce. Children today, thanks to Mickey Mouse, aren’t particularly fearful of mice, so the producer turned the mice into rats; that’s hardly a weird mystery.

There are three elements to the Nutcracker. If you want the shallow, but sweet, charming and imaginative Christmas ballet version, take your kids to see a performance of The Nutcracker, or rent one of the video productions. If you simply love the music (as I do) there are many variations from versions by the New York Philharmonic, the Kirov Ballet to a Glenn Miller jazz version, and everything in between.

For substance, try to find the original storybook, and find a more objective critic’s review of this movie to find out what it’s really all about. If it’s not as bad as the Liberal critics claim, go see it with your older kids. Most of all, read the original story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King to your little ones before they hum it, dance to it, or watch it.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Jingle Bells - A Christmas Music Countdown

“Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Oh what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh! Hey!”

* “Jingle Bells” was the first song broadcast from outer space. In a Christmas prank on Dec., 16, 1965, the Gemini 6 Astronauts Wally Shirra and Tom Stafford, sent this report to Mission Control: “We have an object, looks like a satellite going from north to south, probably in polar orbit. I see a command module and eight smaller modules in front. The pilot of the command module is wearing a red suit....” They then produced a smuggled harmonica and sleigh bells and broadcast a rendition of “Jingle Bells.”

I remember that Christmas flight and the astronauts’ report. “Can they really track Santa Claus,” I asked my mother. “Does he have a spacesuit on like the astronauts? Can the reindeer breathe in outer space? Do they have helmets, too? Can they tell where he is? Is he on his way to our house?!”

Santa Claus has been very good to me this year. He brought me all the bells and whistles I need to continue on as an almost-but-not-quite (thank goodness) professional musician. My sleigh bells arrived last week, along with the slapstick, and the orchestra bells arrived Monday, just in time for the concerts where we’ll be playing Sleigh Ride, Jingle Bells, and that perennial Christmas favorite, Christmas Festival.

The orchestra bells are just perfect. They’re from Yamaha. Yamaha is known for motorcycles but they originally started out making pianos, so they know their stuff when it comes to making keyboard instruments. These bells, though they were less pricey than some more expensive, professional orchestra bell sets, are made with tightly-bound steel (or so my mechanical friends, who were looking it over, tell me). Just the slightest touch brings out a beautiful ring. They’re very sensitive, dynamically. I don’t have to pound them with the mallet just to get a soft tone out of them. No wonder they sent me relatively soft (black head) mallets to test it out.

The whole thing only weighs about 19 pounds. They’re still heavy, but not as heavy as other orchestra bells I’ve played. The case is wooden, but it’s very slim. Other frames have been quite bulky. The keys aren’t screwed down on both ends, either. Only the top ends are bolted down to keep the bars in place. The bottom ends are loose, which allows the sound to ring free. I understand why they make student models that way (I’ve tried to teach other people to play the bells and they’d run out of the hall after hitting two notes).

But I wanted something better, after all these years. Santa heard me and made it possible to not only buy a set of orchestra bells, but triangles, sleigh bells, a slapstick, maracas, and whistles of various types (drum major, siren, train). Plus a mallet holder, a triangle holder, and a new gig bag to carry my mallet collection.

“Jingle Bells” is one of the best-known and widely sung winter songs in the world. Written by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893), it was published in 1857 under the title "One Horse Open Sleigh.” Although it’s considered a classic Christmas song, supposedly was written about Thanksgiving.

Pierpont originally composed his most famous song in 1850 in Medford, Mass. A plaque commemorating the “birthplace” of “Jingle Bells” adorns the side of the former Simpson Tavern, (now 19 High Street in the center of Medford Square) where he composed it. According to the Medford Historical Society, the song was inspired by the town's popular sleigh races.

“Jingle Bells” was originally copyrighted with the name "One Horse Open Sleigh.” It was reprinted in 1859 with the revised title of “Jingle Bells, or the One Horse Open Sleigh.” The song was first recorded by the Edison Male Quartette in 1898 on an Edison cylinder as part of a Christmas medley entitled “Sleigh Ride Party." In 1902, the Hayden Quartet recorded “Jingle Bells.”

• 1935 - Benny Goodman and His Orchestra reached No. 18 on the charts with their recording of “Jingle Bells.”

• 1941 - Glenn Miller and His Orchestra with Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Ernie Caceres and the Modernaires on vocals had a No. 5 hit with “Jingle Bells.”

• 1943 - Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded a jazzed-up version of the classic. It reached No. 19 on the charts and sold over a million copies.

• 1951 - Les Paul had a No. 10 hit with a multi-tracked version on guitar.

• 1955 - Don Charles, from Copenhagen, Denmark, recorded a novelty version with dogs barking to the melody of “Jingle Bells.” The RCA recording sold a million copies.

• 1966 - Dean Martin recorded the song for “The Dean Martin Christmas Album.”

• 2006 - Kimberley Locke had a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart with a recording of “Jingle Bells.”

• 2008 - A recording by Tony Bennett appeared on a special edition of “A Swingin' Christmas” exclusive to the retailer Bloomingdales.

• Unknown date - A version credited simply to “St. Nick” called “Jingle Bells (Laughing All the Way)” features someone laughing the entire song.

“Jingle Bells” has been performed and recorded by Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole. A recording by Tony Bennett appeared on a special edition of A Swingin' Christmas (2008), exclusive to the retailer Bloomingdales.

“Jingle Bell Rock,” by Bobby Helms, pays homage to “Jingle Bells,” directly referencing the source song's lyrics, but with a different melody. Originally recorded and released by Helms in a rockabilly style, “Jingle Bell Rock” has itself since become a Christmas standard. “Jingle Bell Rock” was written by Joe Beal, a Massachusetts-born public relations man, and Jim Boothe (1917–1976), a Texas writer in the advertising business. One notable version of the song was recorded by Bill Haley & His Comets in 1968 for United Artists records. Intended for a seasonal single release, it was decided not to release the recording, and was lost for nearly 30 years until it was finally issued in the mid-1990s. A long line of artists has recorded the song since, everyone from Brenda Lee to kd Lang to Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem on an episode of The Muppet Show.

The Jingle Cats began their recording career in December 1991, when a precocious kitten named “Cheesepuff” wandered into a Hollywood studio recording booth and began meowing along with the song “Jingle Bells.” The studio engineer, Mike Spalla, recorded the meows and adjusted the timing to the music to make the first cat singing in recorded history. The song was sent to Kiss-FM in Los Angeles and POWER-106 where it was played on the air the next day, Christmas Day. The following year, the “Jingle Cats” cassette was presented at the KLOS Classic Rock Expo in Los Angeles. 1,000 cassettes were distributed by City Hall Records in San Rafael, California. KNBC (Channel 4 News) in Los Angeles broke the story on Dec. 10, 1992 and the Jingle Cats sold out in about one hour.

In 1993, the album “Meowy Christmas,” by the Jingle Cats, was released on CD and cassette selling over 100,000 copies in its first four weeks of release. “Meowy Christmas” reached No. 10 on Billboard's catalog chart in 1994. All the songs on the album were arranged and adapted by Mike Spalla.

1994's follow up album, “Here Comes Santa Claws,” co-released by BMG in Canada, capitalized on the success of “Meowy Christmas” to present an assortment of 20th century Christmas compositions including “The Christmas Song" and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", and naturally, "Here Comes Santa Claus". Here Comes Santa Claws also contained a rendition of Israel's National Anthem, “Hatikvah.”

The Jingle Dogs are a singing group that began as backup singers for the Jingle Cats. The Jingle Dogs broke away to form their own group, as they and the Jingle Cats were fighting like cats and dogs. Jingle Dogs album entitled "Christmas Unleashed" was released in 1995 and featured real dogs barking holiday classics. Jingle Dogs released a second album in 2009 entitled “Puppy Holidays.” The Jingle Dogs were not the first dog group to sing the song, however….. In 1955, Don Charles, from Copenhagen, Denmark, recorded a novelty version with dogs barking to the melody of “Jingle Bells,” which sold a million copies.  * Source: Wikipedia

Now that I’m all jingled out, I have to take my marching glockenspiel down to the basement and bring up my jingle bell wreaths.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer – A Christmas Music Countdown

“Grandma got run over by a reindeer

Walking home from our house Christmas Eve.
You can say there’s no such thing as Santa,
But as for me and Grandpa, we believe.”

Today would be my maternal grandmother’s 105th birthday. She would probably have preferred playing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on the piano than this novelty song, written in 1978 by Randy Brooks for Elmo and Patsy Shropshire, and originally recorded by the Irish Rovers. She would certainly dispute who the drinker in the family was. My grandmother was a tea-totaler.

This song was originally released as a 45. Do kids today even know what records are? The next time The Nephew’s over, I’ll hand him one and see what he makes of it. I just bought a combo blu-ray/DVD/VHS/CD player for my mother’s house. It’s hard to keep up with the technology these days. She was angry when I told her it was $100. She paid $150 for her last DVD player and thought it was a bargain. When you break that $100 down, it comes to $25 per device.

My own stereo is a CD/cassette/turntable contraption. It doesn’t record, unfortunately (the recording version was too expensive), but I can record on my computer. I have a device that can record tapes to DVD in the basement. It’s just that it’s a real Rube Goldberg way of having to recapture my cassettes before they wear out and it’s just easier to buy a CD version.

But back to Grandma and the reindeer.

According to Brooks, he played the song while sitting in with Elmo and Patsy at the Hyatt Lake Tahoe in December 1978, and after the show they had him make a cassette of the song for them to learn. A year later, they were selling 45s of the song from the stage, with Elmo himself appearing in drag on the album cover as the titular Grandma.

The song was originally self-released in the San Francisco area by the Shropshires in 1979 on their own record label (“Elmo 'n' Patsy”), with the B-side called “Christmas.” By the early 1980s, the song was becoming a seasonal hit, first on country stations and then on Top 40 stations. In 1982, the “Elmo 'n' Patsy” record label changed its name to “Oink” when the song was re-recorded. Oink Records, still based in Windsor, Calif., continued distribution of the 45 rpm record in the western U.S., with Nationwide Sound Distributors of Nashville, Tenn., pressing and distributing the song on its Soundwaves Records in the eastern U.S., peaking at No. 92 on the Country singles charts.

In 1984, with the song now a big hit nationally, CBS Records was interested and signed Elmo and Patsy to Epic Records. A new recording was made with a new B-side (“Percy, the Puny Poinsettia”). By the end of 1984, it was reported that sales of “Grandma” were, by record label:

• Oink: 50,000 45s

• Soundwaves: 175,000 45s

• Epic: 150,000 45s and 90,000 LPs. The Epic Records version charted at #64 on the country charts in 1998 and #48 in 1999.

Following the Shropshires' divorce (gee, what a surprise), Elmo re-recorded it solo in 1992 and again in 2000. The song has twice been recorded by The Irish Rovers; the original version and again in 1999. Family Force 5 (in the song, the word “beer” was edited out and replaced with root beer) recorded the song, and in 1996 it was recorded by Poe. Grandma also tok a hit from Less Than Jake on their album Goodbye Blue and White. A sequel “Grandpa's Gonna Sue the Pants Offa' Santa” was released by Elmo in 2002. A rock version is on the album, “We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year.”

A parody “Grandpa Got Run Over By a Beer Truck” was released by Da Yoopers in 1993. Radio personality Bob Rivers recorded his own parody titled “Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer.” The popular song was made into an animated children’s special and a film.

For Grandma E’s sake, we’ll also give a nod to Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (it is her birthday, after all).

Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer is a character created in a story and song created by Robert L. May in 1939 as part of his employment with Montgomery Ward. The story is owned by The Rudolph Company, L.P. and has been sold in numerous forms including a popular song, a television special (done in stop-motion animation), and a feature film. Character Arts, LLC manages the licensing for the Rudolph Company, L.P. Although the story and song are not public domain, Rudolph has become a figure of Christmas folklore.

Montgomery Ward had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money. In its first year of publication, 2.4 million copies of Rudolph's story were distributed by Montgomery Ward. The story is written as a poem in the meter of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas".

Johnny Marks, May’s brother-in-law, decided to adapt the story into a song. Marks was a radio producer and wrote several popular Christmas songs. It was first sung commercially by crooner Harry Brannon on New York city radio in the late 1948 before Gene Autry recorded it formally in 1949, and has since filtered into the popular consciousness.

Autry's version of the song also holds the distinction of being the only number one hit to fall completely off the chart after hitting No. 1 the week of Christmas 1949. Nonetheless, it sold 2.5 million copies the first year, eventually selling a total of 25 million, and it remained the second best-selling record of all time until the 1980s. The Jackson Five recorded the song in 1970 on their The Jackson 5 Christmas Album.

In 1964, the song was made into an animated feature film. But Christmas movies are another story for another year.  * Source: Wikipedia

Grandma and Grandpa were an awful lot like Elmo and Patsy, although they were New Yorkers, not country bumpkins from California. If one of them was likely to get hit by Santa’s sleigh,, it would have been Grandpa, not Grandma. They didn’t get along very well. Still, Grandpa did do one thing for her.

The Academy where Grandpa taught had a recreation room for the cadets, with a collection of music and a record-player, something Grandma didn’t have. When the rec room equipment was updated, Grandpa took the old record player home and fixed it. The Academy tossed out a lot of records. Other records which have now passed on to me I believe were my Grandmother’s. One of the recording is of Enrico Caruso singing “Ave Maria.”

It’s a one-sided disc and certainly sounds old, but Caruso’s powerful voice still comes alive between the cracks. “Ave Maria” is Latin for, “Hail, Mary.” Most of the text of the Hail Mary can be found within the Gospel of Luke. The word “hail” in translation isn’t a greeting but a command: “Rejoice! Be glad! (The Lord is with thee).”

Ave Maria is more commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church and is the essential element of The Rosary. The prayer contains 150 Ave Marias, echoing the 150 psalms. The Hail Mary or Ave Maria in Latin has been set to music numerous times. Among the most famous settings is the version by Charles Gounod (1859), adding melody and words to Johann Sebastian Bach's first prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier. Antonín Dvořák's version was composed in 1877.

Another rendition of Ave Maria was written by Giuseppe Verdi for his 1887 opera, Otello. Compositions also exist by Mozart, Elgar, Verdi, Saint-Saëns, Rossini, Brahms, Stravinsky, and Schubert, as well as numerous versions by less well-known composers. In Slavonic, the text was also a popular subject for Eastern European composers, including Rachmaninov and Stravinsky.

It’s quite a leap from a children’s song, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, to a solemn hymn, Ave Maria (which is sometimes sung at Christmas, in tribute to the Virgin Mary). But then, it’s Christmas and my grandmother was a good musician with a merry laugh (except when she was with Grandpa), an eighth grade education, and an eclectic taste and talent in music.

Merry Christmas, Grandma, wherever you are. Fa la la la lah, la la la laaaah!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

O Christmas Tree - A Christmas Music Countdown

“O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Much pleasure dost thou bring me!
For ev’ry year the Christmas tree,
Brings to us all both joy and glee.
O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree,
Much pleasure dost thou bring me!”

This year’s Rockefeller Center Christmas tree is a 74-foot high, The 40-foot-wide, 18,000-pound Norway spruce from Mahopac, N.Y., in Putnam County, donated by a New York City firefighter.

Peter Acton works at Engine 79 in the Bronx and was a first responder on Sept. 11th. He first learned the soaring centerpiece of their yard was in the running when his wife received a knock on their door this Sept. 11th from a Rockefeller tree scout. At the time, Peter was at a ceremony honoring those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The lighting of the tree’s 18,000 lights will take place this evening, which will be broadcast by WNBC-TV New York (Channel 4 for you New Yorkers).

Although the official Christmas tree tradition at Rockefeller Center began in 1933 (the year the 30 Rockefeller Plaza opened),the unofficial tradition began during the Depression-era construction of Rockefeller Center, when workers decorated a small 20 foot balsam fir tree with "strings of cranberries, garlands of paper, and even a few tin cans on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1931. Some accounts have the tree decorated with the tin foil ends of blasting caps. There was no Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in 1932. The tallest Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center was a 100 foot spruce erected in 1999.

NBC promises “holiday music” and “the latest hits” from music’s hottest stars. I’ve tuned in to this broadcast to find the performers singing bland egotistical songs about sex and romance, and not much about Christmas trees. If they forget the holiday music, I have enough versions of “O Christmas Tree/O Tannenabaum” to take up the entire half hour.

According to Wikipedia, A Tannenbaum is a fir tree (German die Tanne) or Christmas tree (der Weihnachtsbaum). Its evergreen qualities have long inspired musicians to write several “Tannenbaum” songs in German.

The best-known version was written in 1824 by Leipzig organist, teacher and composer Ernst Anschütz. The melody is an old folk tune. The first known “Tannenbaum” song dates back to 1550. A similar 1615 song by Melchior Franck (1573–1639) begins:

Ach Tannenbaum, ach Tannenbaum, du bist ein edler Zweig! Du grünest uns den Winter, die liebe Sommerzeit

The state of Maryland went so far as to take the tune and turn into their state song. There are so many versions of the lyrics, but the tune is so familiar that it wouldn’t matter if they sang it in Mandarin Chinese.

One interesting instrumental version I have of the song is on an album called “Hammered Dulcimer Christmas: A Postcard Christmas.” This rendition is quite lovely and gentle. Tea Partiers ought to enjoy its old-fashioned quality and so should country music fans.

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Ray Conniff singers have recorded the song, as well as other groups, particularly The Boys Choir of Vienna. Their album is called “Christmas Voices & Bells.” The producers ought to have added alpine horns on the labels, for they’re part of the show. It seems only fitting that a boy’s choir from the Austrian Alps should be singing an old Christmas Carol about the Christmas tree.

If you want a more modern, cooler Tannenbaum, however, you can try the CD of A Charlie Brown Christmas, with the Vince Guaraldi Trio performing the song. It’s instrumental only, but very progressive jazz, as any fan of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special can attest (which is all about a Christmas tree contest).

Most of the albums list “O Tannenbaum” rather than “O Christmas Tree”. Only the Hammered Dulcimer Christmas Album lists it as “O Christmas Tree.” And no one is singing on that track…

But no one can blame the Germans and Austrians for singing O Tannenbaum instead of O Weihnachtsbaum. Somehow, the latter just doesn’t roll trippingly off the tongue. “Christmas Tree” is even easier on the tongue, but that’s just me.

Since 2003, the Rockefeller tree has been recycled to benefit Habitat for Humanity, building houses for the needy. Jesus would probably approve. I just hope the poor appreciate the sacrifice He and the Tree have made for them and not let either gift go to waste. I wouldn’t find it at all objectionable if the poor didn’t vote in great numbers for politicians whose intention is to keep them poor.

Build a house for a man and he’ll live in it for a day. Teach him to build a house, and he’ll have a home for a lifetime.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Blue Christmas - A Christmas Music Countdown

“I’ll have a blue Christmas I know, dear
I hope your white Christmas brings you cheer
And when you say your prayers on this Christmas Eve
Will you feel the same dear as when you prayed with me?”
Ernest Tubb - 1948

Elvis Presley was so well-known for “Blue Christmas” that only older country music fans know that it was actually first recorded by country music singer Ernest Tubb in 1948.  Elvis also left out the lrycis above.

Tubb was born on a cotton farm in 1914 near Crisp, Texas (now a ghost town). His father was a sharecropper. Tubb spent his spare time learning to sing, yodel, and play the guitar. When he was 19, he took a job singing at a San Antonio radio station. Tubb also dug ditches for the Works Progress Administration and clerked at a drug store. In 1939, he moved to San Angelo, Texas and was hired to do a 15-minute afternoon live show on radio station KGKL-AM. He drove a beer delivery truck in order to support himself during this time. That same year, he had tonsillectomy which affected his singing style (he often remarked that half the men in the bars he sang at could sing better than he could) and he turned to songwriting.

Tubb didn’t write “Blue Christmas,” however; it was written by Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson. In 1957, Elvis Presley effectively made "Blue Christmas" a steadfast rock-and-roll holiday classic by recording it in his signature style. The song has since been recorded by a host of rock and country artists alike, as well as those of other genres.   * Source: Wikipedia

Elvis would have been 75 this year. Perhaps he would have sung a song such as “Blue-Light Christmas.” Today is Cyber Monday; why they didn’t hold it on Saturday, I’ll never understand when people are home and less likely to abuse their work computers and take a chance on losing their jobs.

Here are a few CD tips for your Cyber Monday holiday music shopping:

 Encore Christmas with the Boston Pops – a must-have for any Christmas music collection.

 The Sound of Christmas – The Sound of Music was a marvelous movie; it’s always been my favorite. But “The Sound of Christmas” is an album by the real Trapp Family Singers. In their time, music festivals were common in Europe, particularly the famous Salzburg Music Festival. The Von Trapps won for a very good reason. Even Hitler wanted to meet them but Baron Von Trapp declined the invitation and shortly after that, the family left Europe. Many of the songs are in German; a few are in English. “Silent Night” is sung in German and then in English and they sing a capella – with no accompaniment. Buy this album and find out for yourselves why the Von Trapp Family Singers were famous long before the musical or the movie ever came out. This is the ultimate Christmas Eve song. But more about that on Christmas Eve.

 Jim Nabors’ Christmas – The present generation hardly knows who Jim Nabors is (he’s still alive). If they ever see The Andy Griffith Show or Gomer Pyle, USMC, on reruns on Nickelodeon, they would never guess the goofy gas station attendant had such a powerful voice (although he did occasionally sing on the shows). He hid his rich, baritone voice behind the high-pitched, goofy character he played deliberately. But more on that on Christmas Eve, too. All I can say is, it serves humanity right. This is the other must-listen for a perfect, musical Christmas Eve.

 Any Christmas album by the Canadian Brass. “Christmas with the Canadian Brass” features the Great Organ of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The CB are all superb musicians and the perform with style, flair, and humor (they’ve been known to do concerts in tuxedos and sneakers). With the CB, you get the best traditional brass quintet, with a modern twist or two.

Good luck with your Cyber Monday shopping.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Holy City - A Christmas Music Countdown

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem!
Sing for the night is o'er
Hosanna in the highest
Hosanna forevermore!"

Since it’s Sunday, let’s think about the reason for the season and the reason we play the songs we do. We don’t like Christmas to come too early, we say; that premature celebration destroys the “magic.”

For devout Christians, the “magic” is year-round. There are hundreds and hundreds of hymns praising Jesus and God. There are certain hymns, like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” that specifically deal with the birth of Christ and the celebration of Christmas (which some say, in truth, occurred in the early Spring, and others, in the Fall). We adopted the early Christians’ practice of celebrating The Lord’s birth on Dec. 25th, on the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia. The Roman soldiers drank and caroused. Being drunk, they were too inebriated to harass the Christians on that night.

For the early Christians, it was a solemn holiday, even though it was a birthday celebration. There were still Christians who remembered how he died. In any case, they didn’t dare make a lot of noise, blowing trumpets and so forth, or they’d alert those drunken Romans that something was going on.

One hymn that made it onto the Mormon Tabernacle’s Choir’s song list on one Christmas album, “The Spirit of Christmas” was “The Holy City.” Once considered a Christmas favorite, the entire album is out of print, one of the MoTAB albums that is out of print. You can even still buy vinyl records of their music, but not this album.

Did politics play a role in forcing this album off the market? MoTAB was not the only group to record it; the Robert Shaw chorale also sang it. I found it, but had to go through 25 pages of Google before I got to it, and then it was on a general worship album, not a Christmas album. There is a download verion of MoTAB’s “The Holy City.” Originally, I had a cassette tape version, which wore out. Even the copy I made wore out. By the time I realized there was a CD version, it was too late; it was out of print.

“The Holy City” is not your typical Christmas hymn, and certainly not a Christmas carol. Only by intimation does it refer to Jesus, and that reference is to His death, not His birth. The song talks about the New Jersualem promised in the Book of Revelations. The singer dreams he is standing in the Old City beside the now-vanished Temple. Everything is dark and dreary; no one is singing. The shadow of the Cross starts to loom over Jerusalem. Then in a burst of light, the Old City passes away and the dreamer sees the New Jerusalem.

The New Jerusalem is Christ’s gift to us; our Christmas present, if you will. That’s the reason it should be a staple of every Christian music-lover’s Christmas music collection. If you can find it or download it.

It says something about our times that this song is no longer available in solid form. At best, you must order it singly. The present Jerusalem is a beleaguered city, indeed. Jerusalem stands at the crossroads of a holy war that is on the brink of erupting, whether politicians would have it so or not. The decision is not theirs to make. But it is not the physical city that is at issue; it’s the city’s soul that is in danger, and ours. When the clouds of doubt are removed and all is revealed, those who are worthy will see Jerusalem as it was meant to be, but couldn’t be on Earth. Only God could make such a city and only those who believe in Him will see it and be able to enter.

We often wonder what Heaven is like, and “The Holy City” gives us a musical vision of what it’s like. The tension in this march-like song builds to a stirring crescendo, evoking the sorrow and then the Christmas-like wonder as the gift – the eternal city – is revealed.

The Robert Shaw Chorale version features an operatic choir and an orchestra. RSC tones down the march-like quality and gives the song feeling and wonder. This is a very credible version, available on “The Heritage of Hymns” CD by Sony Classic. This CD also contains some other very familiar hymns such as “Rock of Ages,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and my childhood favorite, “Bless This House.” Although it’s not a Christmas album, if you believe in the reason for the season, definitely seek this CD out.

Still, I miss the MoTAB’s version of “The Holy City.” There are no soloists; the baritone section serves as the main voice of the narrator. The star of this show, though, is the Tabernacle organ. This instrument is a marvelous piece of machinery. If you ever get out to Salt Lake City, you should try to hear the Choir in performance. Their Tabernacle is said to be acoustically perfect. The choir’s singing and the organ work are the reason I wore out all my tapes and have searched (in vain) for a replacement.

This problem also speaks to the difficulty of MP3 downloads. Sometimes, in searching for only what you already know, you can miss an incredible gem. MoTAB included such Christmas chestnuts as Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and O Come All Ye Faithful. Had I only wanted those numbers I’d have missed “The Holy City” and some other treasures in their store like “Shepherd Maids.”

Whichever version you select (and can find), it will be an early musical Christmas present.