Encores & Curtain Calls: Melody — the key that unlocks the human heart.
“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!”
— Charles Dickens
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas again — the Pioneer Valley Symphony’s annual Family Holiday Concert returns Saturday, Dec. 15, at 7 p.m., at the Greenfield High School Auditorium, with the Pioneer Valley Symphony Chorus and Greenfield High School chorus in tow.
The PVS Christmas stocking is richly stuffed with a cornucopia of melodious goodies, including perennial chestnuts from the recent and distant past, medleys from classic Christmas films, hors d’oeuvres from a beloved Christmas opera and others works of deeper hue, likely to be new to many ears.
But no matter what the choice of music, lighthearted or soulful, one thing is certain — the deep, almost aromatic beauty of Christmas music from all cultures and traditions throughout the ages proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that what drives its respective creators is neither aesthetic invention or bravura music-making as such, but rather the profound longings of the human heart.
Even as a boy I always felt that the music of Christmas — quite apart from its popular or religious iconography — contained a quality which all the music of the other seasons, however beautiful and brilliant, did not possess: a special glow, poignancy and heartrending tenderness that disarmed all pretense and which returned us to the simple landscape of our souls and the nearly forgotten innocence of childhood.
The music of Christmas, has, even from the most ancient times, been born out of humanity’s profound reaching out for the light and the spiritual nourishment that light provides.
What the many varied cultures of the world presume to call that light — love, God, Christ — is, in a sense, unimportant, and varies greatly from culture to culture, continent to continent, even person-to-person. But, few there are who — in the midst of the descent into the deepening darkness of the winter equinox — don’t feel that impulse, even if reluctant to admit it.
It announces itself as an almost terminal aloneness, a growing sense of isolation from the outer world and the simultaneous kindling of an inner fire that becomes more brilliant even as the outer darkness approaches its peak.
What the music of the season emphatically seems to be saying, on an aesthetic level, is that the ultimate musical language of the human heart is melody; clear, pure, passionate melody, illuminated, ideally, with radiant, evocative hues of harmony. There will, to be sure, always be compelling rhythms and intriguing textures and coloristic nuances of all kinds, but all, ultimately, must bow to the soul’s hunger for melody — the key that unlocks the human heart.
Eavesdropping, then, beside the bulging, yet to be unwrapped PVS musical stocking, we fancy we can hear ethereal strains of heartfelt tunes from celluloid tales such as “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” “The Polar Express,” “Home Alone” and “’Miracle on 34th Street.”
Beyond the fading wisps of these we imagine we can hear the lyrical and exotic colors of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” a gem of a television opera that made its premiere on Christmas Eve, 1951, and which was annually telecast through 1962, just at the right time to capture the hearts of millions of young baby boomers everywhere
And, deeper down, we can hear echoes of contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen’s 1980 work for chorus and piano, “Midwinter Songs,” based upon poems by Robert Graves. These, while often darkly lyrical, are underlit with percussive fire and sometimes pained declamation, a common tack with composers who seek to frame, through music, the edgier sides of human existence, particularly, as in this case, when overtones of Greek mythology are present, such as here.
Further back in time, we can hear echoes of “The Feast of Lights,” by German composer Samuel Adler, commemorating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates the re-consecration of the holy temple in Jerusalem in 154 B.C.
Then sounds “Christmas in the Air,” a wreath of Christmas songs including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” made famous by Judy Garland in 1944’s “Meet Me in St. Louis,” as well as a tribute to famed film composer Henry Mancini, creator of such unforgettable melodies as “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “Moon River,” and the theme to “The Pink Panther.”
Then, before the PVS’s last opportunity to honor French genius Claude Debussy in 2012 — the 150th anniversary of his birth year — vanishes, it will give us a rare orchestral rendering of his absolutely exquisite piano work, “Claire de Lune,” (“Light of the Moon”).
But wait, don’t leave yet — our Christmas stocking is far from empty — listen further, for the poetic voice of Robert Frost, due to make an appearance through a setting of his poems titled “Frostiana,” by American composer Randall Thompson; my colleagues Zeke Hecker’s program notes inform us that Frost, who was present for the premiere, stood up after its performance and shouted enthusiastically, “Play it again!”
Underneath that is stuffed a perennial favorite by American genius of light musical classics, Leroy Anderson, “A Christmas Festival,” in which we are challenged to spot lots of disguised Christmas tunes.
And, if you manage to get an ear deeply enough into the stocking, you may be able to detect a final mysterious bulge, described by the elves at PVS as “A Surprise” — to be unwrapped and delighted in — during the performance.
Surprise indeed! What would Christmas be without one?
Tickets are available at
www.pvso.org/tickets. Adults, $20, students and seniors, $17, children $6. 413-773-3664
Greenfield High School is located at 1 Lenox St., Greenfield. 413-772-1350.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at