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Melisma: Find the Pitch, Stay There

November 28, 2007

’tis the season…. fill in the blank with whatever season you like.  It could be baseball, football, opera, Spring, Duck Season (or Wabbit season, for you Daffy Duck fans) and if you’re in southwestern Pennsylvania right now, it’s hunting season!  For this installment of “this terrestrial ball”  I’d like to talk about the holiday season, Christmas in particular.  ‘Tis the season when radio stations play the worst renditions of Christmas songs recorded by shallow pop stars.

 Let’s look at two categories:  Good Songs/Bad Versions, and Bad Songs/No Cover could ever be good. 

 Good Songs/Bad Versions first:  The classic, and semi-classical song, O Holy Night.  This is a dead giveaway to anyone who has studied voice.  A singer breathes with the phrases, and the phrases in music tend to fall naturally with the way we speak.  When we speak, we do not take a breath between syllables.  When we sing, it is improper, and the sign of a poor singer, to breathe mid-word.  Destiny’s Child, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, take note:  Don’t breathe in the middle of a word.  If you need a breath at that point in the song, you need to do some more work.   The melody:  there are definite pitches in this song.  There were written down by Adolphe Adam in 1847.  Trained musicians expect to hear something relatively close to those pitches that Adolphe put on paper.  Singers who need to take a look at the music:  Christina Aguilera, Michael Bolton, David Hasselhoff, LeAnn Rimes, Jessica Simpson, and others too numerous to mention.  One final piece of advice:  the word divine is sung with a short i sound in the first syllable in order to produce a pure vowel sound’  please do not sing “dee-vine.”

Anything said about “O Holy Night” can be said about the following list of songs and carols:

  • Silent Night
  • Joy to the World
  • Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
  • O Come All Ye Faithful
  • O Little Town of Bethlehem

I guess I should mention that I really do enjoy a good gospel song, and that I know that the gospel genre employs a liberal use of melodic ornamentation.  These songs do not need that kind of enhancement; the melodies are beautiful on their own.  If G.F. Handel had wanted more pitches on each syllable of Joy to the World he would have written it that way.  He was, afterall, a master of melisma ( a group of notes or tones sung on one syllable) but he didn’t write them into the melody of Joy to the World.  Find the pitches, stay there.  If you’ve got a decent voice, the song will be lovely. 

That is just a brief cover of the traditional/sacred holiday music.  Some secular songs suffer just as severely as the sacred ones.  The Christmas Song, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas come to mind.  White Christmas is reported to be the most recorded Christmas song, so we can imagine how many of them are just plain bad. Other versions are mediocre, and there are very few that are good. 

 On to the songs that are just bad and could never be good, no matter who attempts the cover.  Let’s start with Christmas Shoes.  What a blatant attempt to pull at the heart strings!   Here are a few more that just don’t do it for me:

  • Last Christmas
  • Celebrate Me Home  (this is a Christmas song???)
  • Same Old Lang Syne (again, it mentions Christmas Eve, so that makes it a Christmas song?  NO!)
  • All I Want for Christmas is You (put your sex drive aside for one night)
  • Snoopy’s Christmas (are we talking about the dog, or some WWI pilot?)
  • Wonderful Christmastime (we get it, you’re having a good time)
  • Where are You, Christmas?(pre-adolescent girls who think they are Faith Hill have murdered this song in countless middle school concerts.)

One last thing:  some pop stars just don’t seem to be able to pull off the Christmas album.  Sorry Carly Simon, I love you, but that holiday album is weak.  Neil Diamond, something just isn’t right about your cover of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Stevie Wonder, Twisted Sister, Britney Spears, I’m just not feeling the holiday spirit from your tunes.  Ella Fitzgerald, you’re a great crooner, but who arranged your charts for Jingle Bells and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  You’re worthy of better.  Babs, I love your Ave Maria, and have even been thrilled by your Jingle Bells? up to the point where you remind me that you don’t really care to celebrate Christmas the same way I do. It’s where the music pauses and you let out a nasally “upsought?”  Then I just feel patronized, which is the point of this rant;  it seems that most of these Christmas albums are more of an attempt to capitalize on a sacred holiday without considering the cost to the beautiful songs that are being sacrificed. 

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One comment

  1. Michael Bolton was on Regis and Kelly this morning promoting his Christmas “classics” album. I about barfed up my English muffin.



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