Christmas is the most musical season. Melodies embedded in the memory are reanimated to light the fires of commerce, Christian devotion, and the family romance, packaging the Christmas Experience in song.
It is impossible to avoid music and music making this time of year. Fueled by the Christmas punch, once-a-year singers gather round the piano to cavort with those Maids-A-Milking and to demand their figgy pudding. As I make my way to the party on the other side of the door, its wreath and Merry Christmas welcome mat, I feel the shadow of Schwellenangst — one of the great German words, which means fear of the threshold, and therefore of entering — sapping my confidence. To combat the dread, I anthropomorphize the central musical genre of the season, indeed of our lives: Christmas Carol. There she is waiting inside to greet me. She’s got big hair, dangling Christmas ornament earrings, and a wide vibrato. When she presses me to her red cashmere sweater and I inhale her spiced perfume, I know everything is going to be more than alright …
As an organist I’ve long trafficked in Kristmas Kitsch, from the Come-and-Cuddle-Kiddie Sing-Along-Jamboree (a banner that would now raise child abuse warning flags) I used to have to play every December 24th at my church job in suburban San Francisco, to that strangest of winter ceremonies, the Christmas wedding.
Two weeks ago I received a frantic email request for an organist for a wedding to take place five days later. These nuptials, being organized by the groom’s mother from distant Arizona to take place in the snows of upstate New York, had one of the most unusual request lists I’ve seen in all my years “on the bench.” I use this last phrase purposefully: there is no better place from which to judge the folly of human desire and ritual than from the organ console.
Many, if not most, “serious” organists have standards when it comes to weddings. They will not play pop, and steadfastly refuse such humiliations as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “All I Ask of You” from the Phantom of the Opera.
Whereas the arbitrary divide between high and low culture is breached with increasing ease and fervor, many a church organist continues to retreat to higher ground, however soggy it may already be. Not so yours truly, the Musical Patriot, who happily rolls up his trousers to run barefoot through the surging surf of schlock!
Besides, the current standards of “serious” organ music for weddings are pretty appalling, with any musical value of this core repertory of modern nuptials utterly depleted by overuse. An historical study of this “traditional” music would doubtless show that this hodgepodge is mostly of recent origins. The default recessional, the Wedding March from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, is probably the oldest pillar of the wedding pergola, having become a mainstay a century-and-a-half ago, when it ushered newlyweds Princess Victoria and the future Emperor Frederick III of Prussia out of Westminster Abbey. Wagner’s Wedding March from Lohengrin is as overbearing a bit of bombast as one is ever likely to be subjected to, even when it’s shorn to the short time it takes the bride and her father to get down the aisle.
A good enough piece when allowed its natural verve, Pachelbel’s Canon inevitably gets mired in glacial tempos for weddings. It was in this mangled form that the piece rose to prominence after the 1980 film Ordinary People gave it a dreadful boost. Since then countless are the number of Unity Candles that have been lit to this maudlin soundtrack, the vitality of the original music converted into dreary sentimentality.
The High Horse of the serious wedding organist is really a maudlin old nag.
So when the frantic email with its eclectic musical requests came in, I immediately declared myself ready to enlist: “The bride would like to walk in to Palladio by Karl Jenkins.” The groom’s mother wrote this as if referring to a classic, but I admitted my ignorance. She referred me to YouTube. I had a look at what turned out to be part of an old DeBeers campaign for their 25th Anniversary Diamond. The ad chronicles in black-and-white the first 25 years of a storybook marriage in 30 powerhouse seconds, moving from the carrying-over-the-threshold (Schwellenangst?) moment, through the kids being born, raised and graduated from college, and then, in the last ten seconds, races down the homestretch of the 25th-year and thunders past the post to claim the prize of a diamond-laden necklace.
This segment is part of what purports to be a famous series of commercials accompanied by Jenkins’ music, neo-baroque strings that are all frantic energy — sawing violins and pounding basses, that for the most part mimics the simplest harmonic syntax of early 18th-century composers but then flails wildly at ungrammatical chords that give the piece its modern sound, its hyper-intense, amphetamine-addled character. It sounds like Corelli on Benzedrine.
The tub-thumping pedal points, the full-throttle strings and oddly barren harmony all give this 30-second spot an impressive epic reach, like shoving the 15-minutes of the first movement of Brahms’ First Symphony into a trash compactor, and transposing it up a half-step. The ad is not a honeymoon, it’s a nightmare. But like most bad dreams it has real energy, and that makes it a man-sight better than the Bridal Chorus. My enthusiasm for this gig was growing.
At thirty seconds, the ad’s length is just about perfect for a walk down the aisle, and could be augmented in the necessary moments with a loop or two through one of its many careening patterns. In all my years as a wedding organist it’s the only piece in a minor key I’ve ever played for the processional. Powered by full organ, and as the lovely bride progressed down the aisle, I too saw the milestones of married life screened in the congregation’s collective imaginations, mine included — another Madison-Avenue miracle of mass manipulation. Here’s betting there’s going to be a diamond under the Christmas tree.
The bride wanted what she called “mingle” music before the actual start of the service, to begin with “The Heart Asks Pleasure First.” This was another title I didn’t recognize, but it turned out to be Michael Nyman’s theme to Jane Campion’s film, The Piano, another bit of apparently aimless high-energy oscillating meant to suggest, in the context of the movie, release from confining Victorian ladies’ garments and an embrace of the heroine’s unconstricted sexuality. I loved the illogic of playing The Piano on the organ.
After The Piano, the “mingle music” stuck to the classical top-40: “Other than that, can you do Nutcracker sugarplum suite, bolero and fleur de lis?” You bet I can! — assuming that “fleur de lis” was in fact Beethoven’s music-box favorite Für Elise, another piano piece. I like the idea, too, of this halting and chaste theme rubbing shoulders with Bizet’s tarty heroine, Carmen, and the effervescent tiptoeing of gay Tchaikovsky’s fairies.
Does this all sound condescending on my part? I don’t mean it to be. This was fun stuff to play, not only as a salute to classical music’s commando survivors in the jungle of pop culture, but also because people like it. And the tableau vivant of Carmen, Elise, and those ballerinas marching down the aisle and prancing around the tree is itself a classic.
I have to admit — and not just as a defense tactic — that I suspected healthy doses of irony behind this foray beyond the confines of the basic wedding playbook on the part of the couple. A bit of tongue-in-cheek for the wedding kiss.
Before the bride and her father were to march down the aisle, the groom asked to process with his grandmother to a “fancy-fied version of the Imperial March from Star Wars. Can you play this? Can you make it flowery vs. hard and deep?” The idea of making Darth Vader’s menacing theme flowery seemed to challenge not only the intrinsic quality of John William’s fascist anthem, but also my meager, if oft-deployed, abilities for adaptation and distortion. The thing doesn’t work by switching the mode to major, and would be unrecognizable to the listeners and therefore lose its impact. At the rehearsal the couple and I discussed what to do about this problem, until finally the groom came up with the brilliant idea to play the opening of Für Elise on full organ, letting Beethoven’s maiden let down her hair and loosen her corset, and then segue directly into the Imperial March. At the wedding this got a huge laugh out of the entire congregation, and proved the fundamental truth about weddings and Christmas: never take them too seriously. ¥¥
(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)