Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Variety of Holiday Songs, With Interesting Origins

The Windy City Performing Arts' "Holiday Express" (see yesterday's post, Friday Journal #2) combined deep emotion with freewheeling humor.  I'll be back for the Sunday Matinee, and later will provide a lighthearted review.

The show offered a perfectly blended variety of songs from around the world.  Learning about the meaning and origins of many of them provided additional enjoyment to the show.

With the help of the Program Notes, here are some of the more intriguing brief stories behind a few of the numbers:

The show kicked off with "Harambee", a Kwanzaa tune performed by the Women's Chorus.  The word means "let's pull together" in Swahili.  There are seven core principles of Kwanzaa: Unity; Self-determination; Collective work and responsibility; Cooperative economics; Purpose; Creativity; and Faith.  The song was layered in seven sets to honor these principles.

"Salvation is Created" was a somber, gorgeous Russian Orthodox liturgical song.  As performed by the Men's Choir, it recalled "The Deer Hunter's"  sense of community and strength.  Composer Pavel Tschesnokoff created over 400 of these sacred choral works as well as 100 secular pieces.

From Spain, "Riu Riu Chiu" refers to the sound of the nightingale, in a song about Christ's bringing atonement to humanity through his humility.

"Noel Nouvelet" has lyrics that may have appeared around 1492 and Columbus' voyage, but the melody was not discovered until hundreds of years later.  The words Nouvelet and noel both refer to "news", and it's likely that Nouvelet was shortened from "nouvel ans", or New Year, when carols were traditionally sung most frequently.

"Do You Hear What I Hear" is an established seasonal classic, with one of the most beautiful and hopeful melodies I have heard.  As the chorus built in intensity and made the song soar, I was fascinated by its genesis.  Although assumed to be a sentimental song to the baby Jesus, lyricist Noel Regney (who wrote the song with his wife Gloria Shayne Baker) explained the the song was a prayer for peace, written in 1962 at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Mel Torme and Bob Wells wrote "The Christmas Song" (Chestnusts roasting on an open fire...) during a blistering hot summer in 1944!  Lyricist Wells simply jotted down some words (Jack Frost nipping, Yuletide carols, dressed like eskimos) to try to keep cool.  He never realized he was beginning a lyric to what is considered to be the most-performed Christmas song.  They completed the carol in forty minutes.

Wild comic relief (filled with campy double entendre) was provided by "The Krampus", a song about the lesser-known companion to Saint Nicholas, an evil counterpart, a devil-like character.  Krampus is  a mythological being popular in Austria, Hungary, and nearby areas.  The narrator invited us all to Google "Krampus"!  His image is popular on greeting cards.

Perhaps the most famous, and beautiful, of the holiday songs is "Silent Night".  The first time it was performed, in Germany, it was played on a guitar, as the local church organ was rumored to have broken down.  Tonight's version was specially arranged for Windy City Performing Arts by Lanny Allen.

To paraphrase a memorable phrase from "Howard's End", I wish you all a season filled with "music and meaning".

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