I said in a posting the other week that there were only two-and-a-half pieces of so-called ‘Christmas Music’ that I liked. This statement was — and is — absolutely true; and in case anyone is wondering what I meant, I’ll explain now — it is Christmas Day, after all (though, to be honest, now that I live out in the country, it actually looks exactly like any other day…)
The first item in my collection of ‘Two-And-A-Half Xmas Hits’ is, of course, one that I’ve posted on here already: it’s the charming little piece of Weihnachtsmusik for 2 violins, cello, harmonium and piano that Schoenberg wrote in 1921 for his family to play. There are three or four things I still want to say about that piece, actually; but not right now: if you’d like to hear it, you can click this link and do so without any interference from me.
Next on my list comes the ‘half a piece’. This is Jona Lewie’s Stop the Cavalry (1980) — and much as I’m tempted to like 8 out of 10 things about it, it still suffers (as does everything I’ve heard from Jona Lewie) from being only half-realised (if I may arrogantly say so). So: enjoy; but don’t expect the truly fulfilling experience the song could so easily — oh, all right then, not that easily — have constituted. (Getting away from A major would have been a start, though…)
(Don’t misunderstand me: with all its failings and its fallings-short, that’s still miles ahead of entire heaps of the other junk we hear every Christmas — especially that godawful thing that seems to incorporate a married couple yelling at each other in 12/8, which I’m sad to say I heard being played in a supermarket yesterday. If you know what it’s called, don’t tell me.)
(As another aside: why not come back later; listen to this song again — and then click this.)
So what’s my other Xmas Hit? People will probably be surprised to hear me say this — and, just as probably, a friend or two will eventually confess to actually being disappointed in me — but it’s this one … all the way from 1973 (I was there!) … and which I think is absolutely super…
(Sorry for what you have to see at the beginning and the end of this clip: try and think of it as the price of the ticket — and, indeed, the price of only being wise after the event…)
Naturally, I wouldn’t be bothering anyone with this song — me least of all! — unless there was something in it I considered musically meaningful (which, of course, is just a way of saying expressively meaningful); and in this case it’s that chord of B flat major that they keep using in a G major context. If you cut school the day the teacher covered ‘the major triad built on the flattened mediant degree and used as a chromatic, third-related approach to the dominant’, then you won’t have a clue what any of that’s about — but fear not: all you have to do now is use your ears and pay attention to the effect of the harmony when you hear:
So here it is Merry Christmas, everyBODY’S HAVING fun
D G b Bb D
Look to the future now: it’s ONLY JUST BEGU – U -un.
G b Bb D
That’s what I was talking about.
As it happens, though, B flat chords then come back in a different (non-chromatic) context:
What will your daddy DO WHEN HE SEES YER Mama kissin’ SANTA CLAUS? A – haa – ah…!
Your ear has probably never associated those harmonies with the ones in the chorus — and, if so, your ear is right: when they arrive here (in the little interlude that’s written out in full above) the B flat chords are perfectly normal VI (in D minor), not ‘foreign’ bIII (in G major). What matters, you see, is not the ‘chords’ as such, but the harmonic function they have — and that depends on the context. Actually, that ‘normal variety’ Bb chord almost immediately gets some of its previous power back when the ‘A – haa – ah…!‘ uses it as the first of three forceful steps (Bb – C – D) that wrench us back to the dominant of G.
But there is another use of B flat harmony that’s worth noting — as it occupies a rather significant position. If you’ve never noticed it, go right back to the beginning of the song and listen again: yes, the whole song actually starts with a B flat chord (the bass part marching down underneath it), before the music turns towards G major for the entry of the voice and the start of the first verse. In other words, the B flat major chord that (in a G major context) creates the most audacious harmony in the entire song was actually the first sound you heard, as it was used to preface the G major within which it is never quite going to fit.
One final thing. In the chorus, the B flat harmony is actually used to harmonise an F natural that’s not part of the G major scale — think of ‘ONLY JUST BEGU – u -un‘. If you can keep that F natural in your mind (or have an instrument handy), compare it with that famous moment of the song (if I was an idiot, I’d have said ‘iconic’) when we hear Noddy Holder’s throaty shout of ‘It’s Chriiiiiiiist-maaaaaaaas!‘: isn’t the second of his three shouted syllables some kind of approximation to F? Something that in some way reflects the importance of F, harmonized as the fifth of a ‘foreign’ B flat major chord?
I could actually go on for another couple of hours about this song — which to me is not only a lovable little number but also in most respects a pretty solid piece of musical and verbal carpentry (and I was once a teacher of songwriting, after all). But that’s enough for now. My good net buddy Stephen Soderberg — all the way over in Virginia, USA! — has very kindly found a way to give me a rather nice bottle of red wine in (I think) recognition of what goes on in these postings. So I think it’s only fair that I now give that bottle my full and careful attention. Thanks, Steve! Merry Christmas Everybody!
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