by DARKO BUTORAC
It’s that time of year again. The shopping (holiday) season is upon us, and everywhere we go we’re surrounded by Santas, lights and of course, the ubiquitous music repertoire. On one hand, I love holiday music. On the other, too much repetition and I’m tired of it long before the real St. Nick makes his appearance. (Note to box stores – please don’t play the stuff before Halloween).
December is also a good time to spend in the kitchen – from reworking Thanksgiving leftovers to baking shortbread cookies. Could we combine the two together? Is there such a thing as a perfect holiday music recipe?
First, we need to look at the status quo – are there common threads that connect the dots between works a disparate as the “Nutcracker,” “Jingle Bells,” “Baby it’s Cold Outside” and the “Christmas Song?” Is there a musical theme that permeates this repertoire once the sappy lyrics and movie associations are removed?
If we take a step back, we can broadly generalize that Christmas music makes us generally feel either happy and elated, or warm and reflective (think “Hallelujah Chorus” vs. “Silent Night”). This, after all, is very much the essence of the spirit of the holiday itself. And so, to construct our musical recipe, we’ll need some major chords, an upbeat tempo, high registers, and bright instrumentation to create a musical sugar high (“Sleigh Ride,” “Joy to the World,” “Feliz Navidad”). But then we’ll want to add a little reflection to our masterpiece, by peppering our song with minor chords and dissonances in key places (imagine the line “fall on your knees” from O Holy Night – gives me goose bumps just to think of it). And let’s finish with a side dish of melancholy by sticking to the darkness of string instruments, low registers and slow pacing.
Since we’re now well on our way to producing the next holiday smash hit, let’s not forget the importance of percussion. Take the lyrics out of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You,” and you just have a pretty average 90’s pop song. But if you pay closer attention, you’ll notice three essential ingredients for a Christmas tune: the celesta, bells, and sleigh bells. The celesta is a keyboard instrument which produces a very high, pure, heavenly sound (hence the name) – it was first used by Tchaikovsky in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” The bells add a hint of solemnity and the sleigh bells make the snow begin to fall. Bam – we’re ready for the big time – serve with a generous glug of eggnog and side of Santa cookies!
Darko Butorac is music director of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra. For the “perfect holiday musical recipe,” the Missoula Symphony Orchestra and Chorale perform their ever-popular Holiday Pops concert December 1 at 7:30 p.m. and December 2 at 3 p.m.