Posts Tagged ‘Messiah’

(Dear Readers: You’re in trouble now. I figured out how to republish my old posts! This unsparing survey of holiday music originally appeared on 22 December 2011. To quote the sign that hangs in the window of the Blue Moon Tavern in Seattle, “Sorry, we’re open.”) 

One night this week I powered up the radio in the Run-DMStevemobile and there was Perry Como singing “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays.” I punched Scan and immediately got Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health”: “Bang! Your! HEAD!” I stuck with it. When I walked in the door here at the Bureau, Special D was celebrating a surf Christmas courtesy of Los Straitjackets and their perspective on “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Later in the evening I heard Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which as far as I’m concerned was the last straw in the manger.

Yes, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” when Quiet Riot, the poor man’s Judas Priest, provides an island of serenity in a sea of Christmas music, most of it written by my fellow Jews. (I haven’t mentioned one Christmas song yet that wasn’t.) This is why I’ve decided to have a few words with you today about the black hole that is Hanukkah music. Why, you may ask, have the Jews written “White Christmas” for the Christians but no equivalent blockbuster for their own people? Why are we stuck with Adam Sandler rhyming “Hanukkah” with “gin and tonica” and a pre-schooler’s tune about a spinning top made out of clay?

“O Come All Ye Schnorrers”
I know this question has been keeping you awake at night. Fortunately, there’s a simple answer: When it comes to Hanukkah, there’s not much to hang your muse on. The “Festival of Lights” is of so little Judaic significance that it doesn’t even appear in the Bible. (Note to my pagan readers: The Bible is what you charmingly call the “Old Testament.”) In Israel, Hanukkah is celebrated as a military holiday something like our Memorial Day, which probably means they take that opportunity to sell mattresses at a steep discount. Here in the USA, Hanukkah appears at approximately the same time as Christmas, and so has absorbed some of that glory without actually earning it.

About the only Hanukkah activity of my childhood was lighting candles, but my parents often fell asleep in front of the TV before we could get to the ceremony. We always ended up missing nights. You need 44 candles for one Festival of Lights. What are you going to do with the 13 you didn’t use last year? There are Hanukkah candles in colors they don’t make anymore quietly fossilizing in closets all over my parents’ house.

I don’t want to imply that my old man was overly concerned with workplace safety, but he did view a menorah with all nine candles in action as possessing about the same thermonuclear potential as a Saturn V rocket. Only when our cast iron menorah had been set within an aluminum pie plate and positioned atop the steel oven, in the wide nonflammable space between the four burners, would Dad ignite the Hanukkah candles. If he was awake. He might’ve nodded off in the middle of Gunsmoke.

“I’m Dreaming of a Fine Purim”
Jewish kids today expect a present every night. Stupid Jewish kids today! Things were very different when I was a boy and the Southern states were threatening to leave the Union. Wait, that’s still happening. My siblings and I were generally issued small mesh bags of chocolate coins in gold foil. They weren’t as good as Oreos. One year, through a mistake no one could explain, I received a model of the battleship North Carolina (“The Showboat”). On weekends my mother made latkes (potato pancakes) and everyone had heartburn.

As for playing the dreidel game, even when my friends and I were old enough to responsibly enjoy recreational drugs, spinning a dreidel was still insufficient to hold the attention of a teenager. Though I can see that adults willing to take a walk on the wild side might make a whole different game out of it.

“God Rest Ye Feisty Deli Men”
I’ve established that Hanukkah is basically boring. To further illustrate the difficulty of making music out of this odd little festival, consider Christmas music. What are Christmas songs about, and how do these subjects compare with Hanukkah? I’ve divided popular Yuletide tunes into three thematic areas:

1) Jesus. Christmas powers the American economy, but it also stars Jesus, and that’s kinda sacred for you guys with the cross there. What’s sacred in Hanukkah? Sure, the oil in the menorah in the liberated temple in Jerusalem burned for eight nights instead of the one night the rebel alliance thought they were entitled to. But remember, the first Hanukkah took place in the 2nd century B.C. There was no Food & Drug Administration back then, meaning no government inspectors checking for impurities. My theory is that when the Jews liberated the Temple from their Greek oppressors, what they found in the oil room was some really good shit.

2) Santas, saints, snowmen, drummer boys, reindeer, elves, orcs, and other RPG characters. There’s none of that noise at Hanukkah. All we have are the Maccabees (Hebrew for “Hammer”), who led the revolt against the Greeks. The Maccabees are the perfect example of having the right people in the right place at the right time, though most times you’d rather have the Gypsy Jokers as neighbors than these violence-loving religious enthusiasts.

3) Home. I agree that there’s no place like it, but you don’t go home for Hanukkah, you go home for Passover! Passover – now that’s a holiday. You can get something done on a holiday like that. The only thing you’re doing at Hanukkah is burning up a box of 44 candles so you don’t end up sticking orphan candles in birthday cakes years later.

It’s easy to see why there are so few songs about Hanukkah. What is not so clear is why I don’t get more gifts. Hanukkah is in fact such a simple affair that our dogs mastered it on the first try. We haven’t had a dog yet who didn’t know to report to the menorah as soon as it was fired up to receive my blessing and an Alpo Snap.

“It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Succos”
I leave you now with good wishes for a happy holiday, whichever one you downloaded the app for, and this link to one of the few Christmas songs not penned by one of my co-religionists. I tackled Handel and his Messiah last year, but I have to bow to these awesome kids in Alaska. Hallelujah, and don’t forget, tonight is the third night of Hanukkah so you’ll need four candles. Dad says to check that your fire extinguisher is fully charged.

(Headline and subheads this evening come from a fake SCTV commercial for “Jewish holiday hits.” I’ll be back in January with still more musical snobbery. Happy New Year, everybody!)

Messiah
George Frideric Handel
1741

Since today is Christmas I’d like to have a few words with you about Christmas music. And of course when you’re rummaging around in the Christmas music cornucopia you’ll straightaway find that only one character can go the distance for you, and that would be Mr. George Frideric Handel.

Now you’re probably asking yourself, and rightly so in my view, what are my credentials for dissecting Christmas music? I am, after all, Jewish. And if you’re not asking this you’re probably asking yourself how you ended up here.

Let me reassure you and the rest of the reading public that I am extensively credentialed in this area. I was born before diversity was invented, which meant that I was forced to sing Christmas carols in the public schools. I could’ve refused, but if I had they would’ve beaten me up on the playground immediately after we were done with our Yuletide yodeling. And by “they” I am referring of course to the teachers.

As a young adult I was able to give the whole business of Christmas music a swerve, but then I married one of you pagans. Special D enjoys a healthy diet of holiday musical cheer, beginning December 1 and galloping on full-tilt over the fence until New Year’s. Being the classy little number that she is, one of her chief delights is that happy-go-lucky juggernaut known as the Messiah. So let’s have a crack at Handel’s masterwork and see what we might turn up.

S’wonderful! S’marvelous!
Handel, who was of German and British extraction, was a composer of the Starbucks Baroque Blend era. He’s probably dead today – he was a very old man when I knew him – but one thing I remember him going on about was how he invented the show-stopper. In Handel’s case, that would be the “Hallelujah” chorus. And quite smug he was about it too.

Rolling Stone ranks Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus third on their list of the “100 Super Explosive Classical Music Smash Hit Show-stopper Explosions,” behind Rossini’s “Lone Ranger Theme” and Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” but ahead of Khachaturian’s “Sabre Dance” and Men Without Hats’ “Safety Dance.”

The “Hallelujah” chorus is, of course, staggeringly popular at sing-alongs, probably because it can be learned by any moderately talented bumpkin with a spare afternoon up his sleeve. 17% of the total wordage in the “Hallelujah” chorus is “Hallelujah” and the rest is mostly kings and lords.

This mighty hymn was given a significant boost in the public consciousness in 1967, when the Red Sox won the American League pennant and their left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski, won the Triple Crown. The result you will no doubt remember was this Handel/Yastrzemski mashup:

Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
The man they call Yaz. We love him!
Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski! Carl Yastrzemski!
What power he has!

Yaz played baseball for 23 years, which is worth a brag or two but still short of biblical prophecy: “And he shall bat for ever and ever.”

His Yoke Is Easy (like Sunday morning)
You could never accuse Handel of being subtle and so the thundering hooves of the “Hallelujah” chorus fit right in with the story he tells in the Messiah, which involves martyrs, prophets, a miraculous birth, persecution, resurrection, and other burning issues of the day. The Messiah is a ripping yarn and though it has sometimes been mistaken for Tommy with the odd bassoon moonlighting in the string section it is probably the most often performed choral work in Western music. However, I’ve encountered a problem with the Messiah that has hindered my total assimilation by all things Handelian and that would be my lifelong tendency to mishear lyrics.

For example, and this is only one example, I can produce more if it pleases the court, I only recently discovered that the line our man Handel jotted down was “Every valley shall be exalted.” I thought it was “Everybody shall be exalted.” I should’ve known better, as “everybody” knows that only Normie said “Everybody!” when he walked into the bar on Cheers and I’m willing to bet that Handel never saw this program. He was probably watching the Three Tenors.

Other aural miscues on the part of your current correspondent have led to fractures in the sacred institution of marriage, as you can glean from the following illustration:

A Jew Copes With Christmas
By Run-DMSteve
Act I, Scene 1
(The setting: A suburban living room in December. Snow is falling outside. A corgi is shedding inside. Special D is playing guess what on the stereo. Run-DMSteve is puzzled.)

Run-DMSteve:  What does cheese have to do with the birth of Christ?
Special D:  What?
Run-DMSteve:  Cheese. What did the Wise Men bring baby Jesus, a cheese wheel?
Special D:  What are you talking about?
Run-DMSteve:  They’re singing, “And we like cheese.”
Special D:  Are not.
Run-DMSteve:  Are too.
Special D:  They’re not singing “And we like cheese,” they’re singing “And we like sheep.”
Run-DMSteve:  (Pause.) They like sheep?
Special D:  They don’t LIKE sheep, they ARE LIKE sheep!
Run-DMSteve:  They don’t like sheep even a little?
Special D:  I’ve got a gun.

Ready or not, the Messiah has become an inextricable part of Christmas hereabouts. I would miss it if Special D stopped playing it. I would especially miss it if she replaced the Messiah with The Grateful Dead Go Caroling. So when I catch myself wondering if I can listen to the Messiah shake the shack yet again this season or should I find something to do on the other side of the Moon, I remember what my good friend Rudi once wrote me: “Keep singing the Messiah. Builds fiber.”

Wide world of Christmas
Next year at this time we’ll give some thought to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which was composed by the one melody-maker who can give Handel some headaches in the 100-yard dash: Vince Guaraldi. Until then, enjoy your holiday, whichever one you subscribe to, there are plenty to go around, and here’s hoping that Santa, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, or Molly Ivins, Patron Saint of Secular Humanism, brought you everything you desired. Hallelujah.