Tastefulness. It has no place when celebrating the holiday season, but some people just can’t fucking help themselves. Look at this Spotify playlist:
A shameful procession of familiar songs, defanged and plucked out on acoustic guitars, Christmas music that is manifestly ashamed of what it is. “We know you like Christmas,” the playlist seems to say, “But you are an adult, now, and adults like peppermint tea, gentle fires, the indoors. All you need… is to relax, baby.”
I am here to tell you, today, that you don’t have to put up with this milquetoast Christmas For Middlebrow Adults nonsense. You are a grown person, you compromise all day in the ways adulthood makes you compromise, and so you must not compromise when it comes to Christmas music. You deserve to bathe in pure audio luxury. You deserve, and so you must demand, to listen to the collaboration between Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. You deserve The Joy of Christmas.
Bernstein was classical music’s towering figure during the very brief period when people somehow thought that television and mass media were going to be good for the dissemination of high culture. He was a wild and omnivorous musical polymath, a dude who wrote showtunes and symphonies; he gave lectures, at various points, to children, middlebrow-aligned adults, hardened Chomsky-familiar intellectuals, and whoever else would listen to him talk about music. He helped canonize the work of Charles Ives, probably the first great American modernist composer, and promoted the notion of jazz as serious American art. And he led the fucking New York Philharmonic, America’s most prodigious symphony orchestra, for more than a decade.
Sticklers will point out that Bernstein’s work as a conductor occasionally breezes some through textures and details that a more formalist and old-fashioned conductor would nail. This is honestly pretty true, but his work also courses with a populist energy that makes it immediate and immediately accessible. A less annoying way to say this is that he believed in classical music and wanted to make other people feel the same way. More germane to our purposes here is that he lived that belief fearlessly enough that, in 1963, he brought his energy and craftsmanship to bear on the most deservedly be-loathed of all art forms: the Christmas Album.
That an extremely Jewish composer and conductor paired his New York Philharmonic with the massive and definitively not-Jewish Mormon Tabernacle Choir, on a Christmas album, might seem a little strange at first. It isn’t, and for the most American of reasons: Jewish people wrote a shit ton of the best Christmas music we have, and even great artists who thirst for the widespread acceptance of their esoteric leaning art forms gotta eat.
The Joy of Christmas is a Christmas-Music-For-Adults listening experience that successfully yanks on the feeling-strings deep inside listeners who grew up listening to Christmas tunes every year. It approaches the music of the holidays without assuming that it somehow needs to be respectable in doing so, and as a result the album wears its lack of subtlety like a resplendent golden robe. This is blown-out, big-ass Holiday music, a record enamored with its own shamelessness—in short, the ultimate in unapologetic Christmas luxury.
Take, for instance, our opening track, a version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” that has never once heard of restraint. A timpani rolls, then everything is broken apart by the brazenly massive vocal presence of the Tabernacle Choir. All this is framed by a jaunty arrangement that sticks plucking, jovial strings behind the Tabernacle Univoice Blob. It’s as if the spirit of Christmas itself, in all its bloated, ridiculous glory, is being slowly pulled through the snow on a sled by a thousand cheery raccoons, every one of them sporting a fine red and green scarf.
After our first chorus, though, everything transmutes behind the blob, reframing it as a something more recognizable. Some swooping wee-wee-wee-wees and timpanis hit and our raccoons sprout wings and, while still kind of ridiculous looking, somehow now take flight. It is all so utterly convinced of its own beauty that it takes the audience along with it, even against its better instincts and suspicions—suspicions against Christmas music, against pomp, against whatever baggage we bring to the holiday. It is corny and overstated, yes, but it also disarms you with its jaunty plucking, then it spirits you away to heaven in a grandiose swoop.
If this album has even one problem, and I am not really prepared to admit that it does, it’s that the the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is just so gigantic. It is so gigantic that the very idea of an individual voice—something with definition, and something definitively human—invariably becomes obscure. The issue is not a lack of voices, plural, but a lack of any singular voice. Bernstein’s version of “The Twelfth Night Song,” which ideally moves along with a Deck-The-Halls snappiness, winds up distended because 32,500 Mormons are singing it in unison. “The Animal Carol,” an obscurity about myriad animals present and celebrating the birth of Jesus, has similar problems with muddling, but is not undone by it—if you don’t get a good smile out of like 20 deep bass voices singing “I, said the cow all white and red/I gave Him my manager fo-ooor His bed,” I suspect you’re allergic to fun. And the version of the Spanish carol “La Virgen Lava Pañales” is ambitious, but the song is just clearly built for a smaller ensemble, and those virtuous Mormon tongues unsurprisingly miss the curvature of the vowels and the beauty of the language. It all sounds much more American than it probably should.
But I am not here to give the Tabernacle Choir shit. Their soaring soaring-ness is a blunt instrument, but a powerful one when wielded the right way. Their “Away in a Manger,” performed without the aid of the orchestra, is perfect, with basses and baritones singing that second verse while the higher voices create a wall of “oohs.” The effect is to take a song about the bizarre circumstances of the Christ’s birth and imbue it with a kind of ultimate serenity, a whole universe whispering to a perfect lil’ baby. “Deck the Halls,” appearing here in a weird minor-key arrangement, sounds better than it has any right to. The choir’s take on “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” is unbelievably silky smooth. That second verse, in particular, with the choir coming into communion with high, quiet violins, is it, pure crystalline Christmastime perfection. For a perfect second, there, you feel like a sheep, in that barn, looking down at that peaceful lil’ baby.
Bernstein dispenses with the choir altogether for “Carol Of the Bells.” I sang Carol of the Bells in choir class back in middle school, and remember stretching my 11-year old voice to maximum deepness, just because I thought it was a fun part to sing; I was an enthusiastic, and fairly bad, choir student. As a result, I have always thought this song was a blast. Here, without the context or novelty of the rounding and the voices, the song plays as an anxious blast of energy, the nervousness of a 20th Century Materialist Holiday Season made manifest. It’s hard not to think of this version of the song as an outsider’s gesture, or even Bernstein’s perspective at seeing people just lose their fucking minds in tinsel-draped department stores across the city. Read it this way and it’s an authentically subversive statement: a conductor hired to do a bit of weird hackwork for his record company telling us what he really thinks of this bizarre all-devouring gentile seasonal ritual.
There’s even a little honest to goodness classical music on this thing. Every version of the album released on a non-vinyl format has featured a workmanlike version of the “Nutcracker Suite,” a greatest hits collection from Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet, which is by pretty much any objective measurement the dopest possible Christmas music. A lovely, orchestra-augmented version of Holst’s choral arrangement of “Lullay, Mine Liking,” also appears on those albums, in a goth-y arrangement courtesy of Eddie Saunier and Robert DeComier.
DeComier, who does a ton of the arrangements here, is a mostly obscure musical figure whose work with Mary, Paul, and Peter and Harry Belafonte did a lot to establish the Orchestral-blowup-of-folky-friends vibe that Bernstein goes about juicing up. There is a pleasing symmetry to this collaboration. On one side, there’s Bernstein, who promoted a populist and inclusive version of classical music. On the other is DeComier and his whimsically folksome arrangements, the art and act of making little things big. The synthesis between the two defines Christmas music as we know it—pomp and pop in one package.
But, for all their shared populism, DeComier and Bernstein are also a pair of totally obsessive classical musicians, and fascinated with the ways songs and tunes grow and morph and break down and reform. There’s no better manifestation of that spirit then their truly absurdly colossal version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
“The Twelve Days of Christmas” is almost certainly the strangest song in the Christmas canon and, at this point, stands out mostly as a kind of strange endurance test for children, who sing through it with a kind of exhausted madness. Whether you’re singing it or listening to it, the song plays like a weird, never-ending joke that is basically nonsense to anyone not born in the 19th century. Bernstein doesn’t recapture the original meaning of the piece, whatever that might be. Instead, Bernstein takes all that space in the song—the recursive repetition that gets young eyes rolling and bored—and just fills it with flourish after flourish after flourish. It’s still exhausting, but in a very different way. A song that treats repetition as a joke changes, in Bernstein’s rendering, into one that refuses to repeat itself at all—no verse is the same, with approaches and backing instruments changing constantly. From the second the “On the second day of Christmas” is lit up by the DINGDINGDINGDING of bells, you know you’re in the presence of a truly, deeply fussy version of this song, one that won’t let an honest moment go by without flashing some musicianship or other. It’s a virtuosic chunk of classico-pop, charmy and nostalgic but it’s also garish as hell.
The epitome of this shit comes as the song begins to ramp up towards the fifth day’s first set of gifts. The jaunty rhythms of the song drop away, a swell of stings begins to caress your mind, the choir swoons, “On the fifth/day of Christmas/my true love/gave to meeee…” And then the flutes and the strings stir and rise, and then the choir and the orchestra together belt out in unison, rich and luxurious, extravagantly just bathing in the pure ecstasy of “FIIIIIIVE GOOOOOOOOLD RIIIIIIIINGS.” My God, it’s amazing. I’ve never wanted five gold rings as much as I do when I listen to this version of this song. It makes me look down at my bare hands and lament that I have not even one set of five gold rings, much less the eight sets of five gold rings the song’s narrator gets from their extremely weird and apparently very rich true love.
And, hey, have you ever wondered what 10 lords-a-leaping sounds like? Well then, get over to 3:38 in this song, because those scraping violins that accompany the second occurance of that strangest and presumably most expensive of gifts in this menagerie are exactly what ten lords a leaping sounds like. It’s discordant and weird, but those leaping lords have an energy you can’t even imagine. Gotta love those guys!
Before the last day of Christmas, the song makes one last mutation. It’s a weird, pretty little march, stuck in there for no reason but fun and good cheer. This song, this album, this time of year, is so weird and suffused with overage. But as Bernstein has his orchestra pimp those last, not terribly Christmas-y notes into the song before the Mormon Tabernacle Choir starts in about those drummers and sends it to the end, at that moment, the listener begins to really get why we do all this, and why we still listen to these songs. We do it because it’s fun, because it’s cold outside, and because it’s nice to hear voices and songs we know.