War Time Christmas Carols

War time Christmas carols seems like an oxymoron. Peace on earth, goodwill toward men…and war? Doesn’t make sense, does it? Did you know that two of our favorite Christmas carols are associated with three different wars? Keep reading to find out these two carols and how they are related to war.

White Christmas

How does a Russian-born, Jewish immigrant, with no musical training, manage to write the best-selling Christmas song of all time?

What does this Christmas carol have to do with the end of the Vietnam War?

What makes a great song?

  •         Memorable melody
  •         Meaningful lyrics
  •         Resonance, relevance, mood, empathy
  •         Timing – Timing is everything!

Have you ever heard of Israel Baline?

Israel Baline, originally from western Siberia, emigrated to the US with his Jewish family when he was quite young.  Jobs were hard to find; everyone in the family needed to work to earn money to survive. Young Israel (Izzy) tried to earn some extra money by singing new songs in taverns, vaudeville theaters, and even on street corners. Yes, Israel had a good ear for music and could sing well but he had no real musical training. He taught himself some basics of playing piano but never learned to write music. He did learn, though, what made a good song, and what his audiences liked to hear in a song. That may have been the most important thing he learned about music.

But who is this Israel Baline? Why have you never heard of him? Blame it on the publisher of his first song. When Israel’s first song was published, the printer made a mistake. Instead of printing I. Baline on the music, the composer was listed as I. Berlin – Irving Berlin. Have you heard of him? I think so – In addition to “White Christmas,” he also wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” and “God Bless America.”

“Holiday Inn”

In 1940 Irving Berlin agreed to write the musical “Holiday Inn” for Paramount Films. “White Christmas” was one of many songs Berlin wrote for the musical. But he never thought that song would be the favorite song of the show. “White Christmas” contains all the characteristics of a great song. The melody is easy to sing, easy to remember. The lyrics have meaning. The song  was relevant to the listeners, expressed a certain mood, resonated with the audience – but all for a reason different from what Berlin intended. That’s where timing comes in.

History meets new Christmas Song

December 7, 1941 – An important date in US history – the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Soon America was at war. Americans were signing up for the armed forces and heading off to war. December 24, 1941 – just a few weeks later, Bing Crosby sang “White Christmas” on his well-known radio show. Although originally written as satire, when Crosby san “White Christmas” his audience took an entirely different meaning from the song. To the listeners at the time, the song expressed a sense of nostalgia, a yearning for home, a longing for the way things used to be.  

Listen to the original version, sung by Bing Crosby.

Christmas Carols as Secret Code

What does “White Christmas” have to do with the end of the Vietnam War? In March and April of 1975 the US military was preparing for the final evacuations of embassy personnel from Saigon. The evacuation instructions contained the text of a secret code that would be broadcast to notify personnel of the timing of the evacuation. The code broadcast over Armed Forces Radio read like this: “The temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising.” This announcement was followed by the playing of “White Christmas.” Several non-US personnel had others sing the song for them in advance of the announcement to be sure they would recognize the song when it was played.

“White Christmas,” originally written as a satire in a musical, went on to become one of America’s most-loved Christmas songs. Although it was written by a Jewish Russian immigrant with no musical training, the song causes us to reflect on Christmases past, and remember family and friends when we are separated from them. And snow – don’t forget the beautiful snow! At least at Christmas we can fondly remember snow.

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

White Christmas

The sun is shining, the grass is green
The orange and palm trees sway
There’s never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A
But it’s December the twenty-fourth
And I am longing to be up North  [Not all versions contain these lyrics]

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten and children listen
To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Did you know that one of America’s famous poets wrote a Christmas carol?

Or was it an anti-war protest piece?

Or was it just a longing for peace after several personal tragedies?

Personal peace, spiritual peace, or national peace?

One of America’s Famous Poets

The poet who wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride,” “The Song of Hiawatha,” “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” “Evangeline,” and “The Cross of Snow” also wrote a poem entitled “Christmas Bells.” This famous American poet – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow lived during the 1800s and suffered several personal tragedies. His first wife died after they had been married only six months. After several years Longfellow remarried and had 18 wonderful years with his wife Fanny. A tragic fire in their home in 1861 cost Fanny her life. Longfellow himself was so injured in the fire that he was unable to attend his wife’s funeral. His poem “The Cross of Snow” was written to commemorate her life – 18 years after her death.

Holidays become Difficult

Longfellow fell into a depressed state after Fanny’s death. Christmas was especially difficult for him. His journal entries reflected his thoughts. In 1862 he wrote the following: “A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” A year after Fanny’s death his journal reflected, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” He also wrote “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

War becomes Personal

In 1863 Longfellow’s son Charley joined the Massachusetts Artillery and went off to fight in the Civil War. By November of that same year Charley was severely injured and Longfellow brought him home to begin the long process of healing. That Christmas (1863) Longfellow wrote the poem “Christmas Bells,” which later became the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Longfellow had a difficult time listening to the Christmas bells chiming about peace on earth and goodwill among men while at the same time dealing with his own despair, tragedy, and his nation being at war with itself. Where is the peace? He looked around and saw hate, despair, all mocking the idea of peace. But as the bells continued to ring, he was reminded that God is not dead or asleep, and that there was still hope for both personal and national peace. The poem he wrote included two or three verses directly referencing the Civil War. When the poem was set to music several years later those verses were omitted from the carol.

What about the Melody?

Speaking of the music…Sometime in the 1870s a melody written by John Baptiste Calkin was paired with Longfellow’s poem to give us the carol we know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” This is probably the most familiar version of the carol. In the 1950s Johnny Marks (famous for “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) wrote another melody for the same carol. You have probably heard them both. Here are links to both of them:

Calkin Melody

Johnny Marks Melody

Which one do you prefer?  

Image by Krishan Michael from Pixabay

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace of earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
*(Stanza directly relating to Civil War – omitted in the Christmas Carol)

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn the households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
*(Stanza directly relating to Civil War – omitted in the Christmas Carol)

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Two wartime Christmas carols. One reminding us of memories and home, the other offering hope in the midst of despair. Both familiar parts of our Christmas celebrations. Which is your favorite?

Interested in more of the stories behind Christmas carols? Check these other posts :

The Stories behind the Christmas Carols

Christmas Carols – The Stories You May not Know

Christmas Carols – Questions and Controversy

More Carols, More Questions

What is a Clarinet?

What is a clarinet, and why should anyone want to play the one? If your impression of the instrument is that it looks like those recorders you had to play in grade school, and it sounds too much like sick birds squawking, then you need to rethink your ideas.

Things you need to know about the Clarinet

Definition

The clarinet is a single-reed member of the woodwind family of instruments. It has four body parts, a reed, and a ligature – the piece that holds the reed in place. The instrumentis a member of the clarinet family – a group of similar instruments including the piccolo, the soprano, the alto, the bass, and the contrabass clarinets, and the basset horn.

Construction

While some student models may be made of plastic, better models of clarinets are primarily made of Grenadilla or African Blackwood (same thing, different names). Manufacturers like this wood for instruments because it is easy to use in the manufacturing process, there is less waste, and this wood does not tend to crack easily, as other woods do.

Name

Where did they get the name “clarinet” from? The word comes from the Italian word “clarinetto” which means “little trumpet.” Why name a woodwind instrument after the trumpet, a brass instrument? From a distance the sound of the instrument was similar to the sound of a trumpet.

Sound

What does a clarinet sound like? “Squeaks” is not the right answer! The instrument has a rich sound throughout all its registers, meaning it has a nice sound whether it is playing low notes, high notes, or the notes in between. Some have said that the sound is sweet and expressive, “emotion melted in love.” (Chr. Fr. D. Schubart)

The instrument’s sound is made by vibrations of the reed against the mouthpiece. The player inserts the end of the mouthpiece and reed into his mouth. As the player blows air, the reed vibrates against the mouthpiece and produces the sound.

Registers

The clarinet is the only instrument which has a specific name for each of its different registers.

      Lowest Register – Claumeau (based on an early version of the instrument which only produced good sound in the low notes.

      Middle Register – Clarion or Clarino (contains the “throat tones” – G, G♯, A♭, A, B♭)

      Highest Register – Altissimo (extremely high)

Important Dates in the Life History of the Clarinet

  • 3000 B.C. – Memet or Chalumeau in use in ancient Egypt
  • 1690 – marks the “invention” of the clarinet
  • 1716 – earliest known written music for the instrument
  • 1720 – addition of a short bell to the bottom of the instrument
  • 1780 – by this time the instrument was in use in most large orchestras
  • 1800-1850 – development of the “modern” clarinet – like the ones we see in use today
  • 1812 – improved keypads which caused less air leaks and fewer squeaks; 13 keys on the instrument
  • 1843 – Boehm key system (similar to the one designed for flutes) adapted for the instrument; made fingering much easier

Important People in the Development of the Clarinet

People involved in the development of the instrument

  • Johann Christoph Denner – credited with the invention of the instrument, added two keys, which increased the range by over two octaves, improved the mouthpiece, improved the shape of the bell
  • Hyacinth Klosé – created a model of the instrument called Klosé-Buffet still widely used today, with 17 keys
  • Theobald Boehm – German mathematician and flute maker, discovered the perfect arrangement of tone holes for the instrument.
  • Estienne Roger of Amsterdam – music publisher, published earliest known music for clarinet
  • Auguste Buffet – added the “needle springs” to the instrument’s key system, helped to patent the Boehm system for the clarinet
  • Iwan Müller – clarinet player, developed leak-proof keypads, changed playing position of reed so it rested on the lower lip
  • Adolfe Sax – inventor of the saxophone, did work on improving bass clarinets

Early composers who wrote music for the clarinet

  • J. C. Bach – first composer to introduce the instrument to the London music scene
  • Antonio Vivaldi – wrote three concertos for clarinet around the 1730s
  • Georg Friedrich Handel – Along with Vivaldi, wrote some of the first music to use this instrument
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – composed several challenging pieces for this instrument

Interesting Information about the Clarinet

  • The clarinet was the last instrument to be included in a standard symphony orchestra.
  • The Baroque-era instrument was made so either hand could be in the lower position.
  • The most popular clarinet today is tuned in B♭. That means that the notes sound one step lower than the notes that are written. In order to play a “concert B♭,” a B-flat instrument must play a C.
  • This is the only beginning woodwind instrument whose keys do not cover the entire hole. The main reason clarinets squeak is because air leaks from the hole.
  • Clarinet reeds are rated in terms of strength: 1-5. The lower the number, the softer the reed. Most beginners start with a #2 reed.
  • The most famous period for this instrument was the big band jazz era – the 1940s.
  • George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” is one of the most popular solos for the instrument.

Looking for more information about this fascinating instrument? Check these sites.

https://www.vsl.co.at/en/Clarinet_in_Bb/History

http://www.1st-clarinet-music.com/Articles/clarinet-sound.htm

https://www.niu.edu/gbarrett/resources/history.shtml

https://www.Britannica.com/art/clarinet

Want to read about different instruments? Check out our posts about other instruments.

Viola – The Unsung Hero of the Orchestra

Have you ever heard of a viola? Do you play viola? Are you tired of always having to explain to people what a viola is, and how it is not just a larger violin? Let’s take a look at the this instrument today – the unsung hero of the orchestra.

Did You Know?

The viola was developed about the same time as the violin – in the first half of the 1500s, in northern Italy.

Once upon a time (in the 16th and 17th centuries) the viola section consisted of three different kinds of violas. They were different sizes, had different ranges, and played different parts – alto, higher tenor, and lower tenor. By 1750 the lower tenor viola morphed into the cello of today. The higher tenor disappeared from the scene, and the alto tenor became the viola in use today.

Violas use the same four strings that the cellos use – C, G, D, A. But no, you cannot just put cello strings on a viola.

Unlike violins and cellos, there is no standard size for a full-size viola. Full-size violas can be anywhere from 14 to 17 inches long. Choosing the right size is a matter of the size, strength, and preference of each individual violist.

Stradivarius violas are worth more than Stradivari violins. There were not as many violists as violinists, so not as many violas were made. Fewer great violas = greater value!

What does a viola sound like? How would you describe its sound? People have described the sound as being mellow, rich, dark, intense, melancholy, and chocolatey. And who doesn’t like chocolate! Does that make violas the favorite candy of the orchestra world?

Making the Viola Popular

The poor viola was never as popular as the violin. Part of the reason for that was that there wasn’t much music written for solo viola. Nobody knew how great the instrument could sound on its own! The first known viola sonatas were written in England in 1770 by William Flackton. He thought it was a shame that very little solo music was written for the great sound of the viola, so he wrote some himself.

Two other people who helped to focus the spotlight on the this instrument were Lionel Tertis and William Primrose. Lionel Tertis (1876-1075), known as the “father of viola playing”, was one of the first internationally famous violists. He performed as a soloist and a chamber musician, and he also taught viola. He wrote and arranged several pieces for the instrument. In 1980 the Lionel Tertis International Viola Competition was formed in his honor.

William Primrose lived from 1904 to 1982. He started as a violin soloist, but later switched over to viola. He has been called a 20th century virtuoso. (That means he was really good!) He also devoted time to teaching and writing viola technique books. The Primrose International Viola Competition began in 1979 – the first international music competition for viola.  

What’s the Difference between a Viola and a Violin?

In many ways the two instruments are quite similar. But there are some important differences you should know.

Similarities Differences
Both instruments are held the same way Violas are larger than violins
They are very similar
in the way they look
The strings are different – Violins use G, D, A, E for strings, while violas have C, G, D, A
Both are members of
the string family
Range of viola is lower than that of violin
Both are played with a bow Size of violins is standardized, but not violas
  Strings on a viola are thicker than those of a
violin

Starring Role for Viola – Supporting Actor

The viola does not usually get the lead role in an orchestra, a string quartet, or any chamber music group. Its main role is as a supporting sound. The viola part may never stand out, but if it were missing, everyone would know! Usually the instrument plays counter-melodies or harmonies. If you are familiar with choir voices, the viola part would be comparable to the alto part. Not usually the melody, but still very important.

Violists are a Step Above

Violists are a special group of people. They are unique! Many people claim that it takes more skill to play viola well than violin. Why would that be?

Violas are larger, so the fingers must spread out more on the fingerboard when playing. This requires greater technical skill.

The viola is heavier than a violin, so it takes more effort and strength to play the instrument. Even the bow is heavier than a violin bow, so a violist needs more strength in both arms and shoulders. (Daily arm workout, anyone?)

Viola strings are thicker than violin strings. In order to get a great sound, the violist must use more bow speed and more weight on the bow.

Not only that, viola players must know how to read alto clef! (Superior intelligence required?) How many violinists do you know who can read both treble clef and alto clef?

There are far fewer violists than there are violinists. Viola players rule! Your importance is underrated. Great demand for great viola players!

Violas are not just super-sized violins. They are unique instruments that have a special sound and play an important role in any orchestra or chamber group. No other instrument has a sound compared to chocolate! Love your viola and love your violist!

If you want to read more about violas, check out these links.

Read Here

And Here

Also Here

And Here

And if you want to read about some other instruments, you can read about Flutes, Violins, Trumpets, and Marimba.