Composed in the 1690s while Charpentier worked at the Église Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis in Paris (above), the Messe minuit de Noël is based on 11 French noëls—popular monophonic songs associated with Christmas—which are used as the structural basis of several sections of the Mass, and are integrated alongside newly composed musical material.
Several of the eleven noëls are themselves derived from secular chansons and are linked to Renaissance and early-Baroque dances, especially the branle, the basse danse, and the menuet. The rhythmic organization of the noël-based sections of the Mass reflects the roots of each noël in dance.
Interestingly, this type of rhythmic organization often conflicts with the metrical organization implied by the time signature. Charpentier’s Mass is fascinating due to the distinction and the interaction between the borrowed non-metrical noëls and his newly composed music, and the competing layers of stress and accent that emerge in performance.
This according to “Dance rhythms in Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Messe minuit de Noël” by Steven Grives (Choral journal XLIX/6 [December 2008] pp. 36–44).
Bing Crosby, on the other hand, was the “water” in this formula—bland, familiar, seemingly safe and comforting to older, more conservative viewers. The two apparently had very little familiarity with one another’s work. David reportedly accepted the musical cameo because of his mother’s affection for Crosby, while Bing and the show’s producers sought to infuse their special—in the hoary variety show format complete with a convoluted overarching “plot”—with some young blood (even though David Bowie was 30 years old by this point in time). The producers intended for the duet to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” an oddly martial song celebrating the earthly inception of “the newborn king,” composed by classical pianist and pedagogue Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1940 and first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951—none others than the Nazi-evading inspiration for The Sound of Music.
But Bowie wanted no part of singing one of the more staid tunes in the already-staid Christmas music repertoire and nearly backed out from the special. A last-minute emergency songwriting session with the show’s producer, scriptwriter, and songwriter-for-hire produced the contrapuntal “Peace on Earth,” whose wide-ranging melody and dovish lyrics served as a more passionate and pacifistic counterpoint to “Little Drummer Boy.” About midway through, Bing and Bowie snap into a sudden unison on the refrain: “Every child must be made aware / Every child must be made to care / Care enough for his fellow man / To give all the love that he can.”
Bing Crosby and David Bowie Perform “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” 1977
An oddly heartwarming moment in the midst of an otherwise stilted television special, legend has it that the newly-penned musical mashup was rehearsed for no more than an hour and captured on tape in only three takes. Following some charmingly awkward scripted banter, the performance proper gets underway with David Bowie’s keening vocals and hopeful lyrics, soaring over the musical anchor of Crosby’s rich baritone—singing the familiar Christmas standard—and a new Christmas classic was born (even if it took years, and really decades, to reach such an exalted status, helped along by a UK single release in 1982 that went to #3 on the charts). After their brief contact during taping, Bing pronounced that Bowie was “a clean-cut kid and a real asset to the show” who “sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well.” With Bowie getting ready to enter the most commercially-successful phase of his career after the song’s 1982 re-release—especially in the States, complete with a newly clean-cut, blue-eyed-soul image and a clutch of Nile Rodgers-produced post-disco pop megahits on the 1983 album Let’s Dance—the song suddenly resonated more deeply than it likely did during Bowie’s experimental Berlin period when the song was original recorded. Adding extra pathos to the broadcast of the original Christmas special, Crosby died before its 1977 airing, turning it into an unintended posthumous tribute.
So far, so familiar—the song’s oil-and-water formula, however accidental, created a magical musical moment. But what’s more intriguing, one could argue, are the unexpected parallels between Bing and Bowie—at least if one goes back to the place Crosby inhabited in the cultural imagination when he was just around 30 years old himself. Just as Bowie was widely praised and/or condemned for kaleidoscopic role-playing and musical ventriloquism, Crosby was likewise viewed as a “master of artifice” in his day. Beginning in the mid-1930s, just as he was entering his late 20s and early 30s, Bing turned himself into one of the first truly multimedia stars—an icon on record, on the radio, on film, and on television—creating a total, medium-spanning image that may not have been equaled until David Bowie came along, especially with the advent of the glam rock era and its emphasis on theatricality and storytelling.
Technological shifts in the recording studio were a key aspect of this transition in Crosby’s career, just as David Bowie benefitted from the advent of new sound processing technologies—and the rise of the music studio conceived as a musical instrument in its own right—starting in the late 1960s and coming to full fruition in the 1970s. In the early decades of the 20th century, sound recording was very much built on the established vaudeville norm for popular vocalists, with singers reaching for the “back row seats” of the auditorium even in the recording studio; and in fact, singing forcefully into a megaphone was well-nigh necessary to adequately capture vocals recorded onto a wax cylinder. With the transition from mechanical to electrical sound recording in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the great strides that were made in microphone technology—specifically the condenser microphones that were developed during the same time—the act of singing was transformed in the space of a handful of years.
Suddenly, the era of the vaudeville shouter gave way to the age of the crooner, whose intimate, hushed vocals—with microphones picking up every subtle nuance, every vocal inflection and emotional shading—were criticized by some at the time as overly “feminized” (another parallel with the gender-bending rise of the glamsters). The singer-songwriter and popular music critic Ian Whitcomb describes the controversy generated by the rise of the crooners: “The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the ‘crooning boom’ by moral authorities. In January 1932 they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: ‘Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes’.” The New York Singing Teachers’ Association chimed in, “Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation.” Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of “golden argosies of tome” had become “a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk.”
Still, despite Lee de Forest’s protestations, crooning took over the airwaves. And with radio’s shift from relying on live broadcasting as its sole practice to embracing the opportunities offered by magnetic tape—a technology developed by Nazis to spread propaganda—the new crooner-recordists such as Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby could further manipulate and theatricalize their music and image. This was accomplished, at least in part, through the use of splicing and other sound editing techniques facilitated by tape (these recorded “performances” no longer needed to be approached as equivalent to a linear live performance, but instead could be edited and otherwise manipulated after the fact). But, much like David Bowie, Bing Crosby was a master of the medium—using the latest in high-technology and cutting-edge aesthetics to create deeply human portraits, aching and hyperemotional one moment, uplifting and utterly transcendent the next (no surprise then that David Bowie’s singing style was strongly influenced by the crooner-throwback style of English actor and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley). With the Christmas season largely perceived and encountered, especially in the modern secular imagination, as a time of new beginnings and personal transformations—all the while returning “home for the holidays”—a period suffused with both nostalgic regression and hopeful projection, it makes a great deal of sense that the duo of Bing Crosby and David Bowie would create a Christmas classic that taps into many of the same psychological dynamics, the tangled jumble of hopes and anxieties that likewise animate the crooner-glam musical continuum and its developments over the decades.
Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Dempsey, John Mark. “Bing Crosby: Rock ‘n’ roll godfather”, Going my way: Bing Crosby and American culture, ed. by Ruth Prigozy and Walter Raubicheck. (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007) 67–78. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2007-26943]
Considers the reputation of Bing Crosby for contemporary audiences, having moved from the “epitome of cool” to being considered somewhat of a relic. This trajectory overlooks how Crosby played a major role in the technological revolution that aided in the development of rock music, specifically when it came to the emotional intimacy and sonic fidelity made possible by (then) modern-day microphones and audio engineering that led to the rise of the “crooners”—an influence that made its way to David Bowie via Anthony Newley. The Bowie/Crosby duet on Peace on Earth/Little drummer boy (1982) has taken on legendary status over the years, marking Crosby’s newfound relevance among younger audiences and Bowie’s movement into the commercial mainstream leading up to Let’s dance in 1983.
The nineteen-forties Bing Crosby hit White Christmas is a key part of the national emotional regression that occurs every Christmas. Between Christmases, Crosby is most often remembered as a sometimes-brutal father, thanks to a memoir by his son Gary. Less remarked upon is Crosby’s role as a popularizer of jazz, first with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, and later as a collaborator with, disciple to, and champion of Louis Armstrong. Hardly remarked upon at all is that Crosby, by accident, is a grandfather to the computer hard drive and an angel investor in one of the firms that created Silicon Valley; and that Crosby, quite deliberately, took full advantage of new sound recording technologies that were developed relatively early in his career—from electrical recording to the development of condenser microphones to the advent of magnetic tape. His use of these technologies placed Crosby at the forefront of the crooner movement, which was considered quite daring and controversial at the time.
Giddins, Gary. Bing Crosby: A pocketful of dreams—The early years (1903–1940) (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 2001-13056]
Part I of a biography of Bing Crosby (1904–77). The author argues that Crosby was the first white vocalist to appreciate and assimilate the genius of Louis Armstrong: his rhythm, his emotion, his comedy, and his spontaneity. Louis and Bing recorded their first important vocals, respectively, in 1926 (Heebie jeebies) and 1927 (Muddy water) and were the only singers of that era still thriving at the times of their deaths, in the 1970s. When Crosby came of age, most successful male singers were effeminate tenors, and recording artists were encouraged to be bland, the better to sell sheet music. The term pop singer didn’t exist; it was coined in large measure to describe a breed he invented. Bing perfected the use of the microphone, which transfigured concerts, records, radio, movies—even the nature of social intercourse. As vocal styles became more intimate and talking pictures replaced pantomime, private discourse itself grew more casual and provocative. Bing was the first to render the lyrics of a modern ballad with purpose, the first to suggest an erotic undercurrent. Part II in this series is abstracted as RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6672. (publisher)
Hoskyns, Barney. Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the glitter rock revolution (New York: Pocket Books, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1999-35073]
Glam rock was prefab, anti-craft, allied to artifice and the trash aesthetic. From 1970 to 1974 glam rockers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan and T. Rex, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, and Iggy Pop injected life into the pop-cultural landscape. With glitz artistry, they were the gender-bending, trendsetting performers of the music movement that was centered in London but spread around the world. Glam rock’s progenitors are discussed, from Oscar Wilde to Liberace, as is the continued influence of glam on diverse artists, including Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, The Smiths, Adam Ant, the New Romantic movement, glam metal (e.g., Poison), and Suede. (publisher)
The apex of the crooner is traced—including the technological transformations they helped usher into the music industry and the criticism they faced in some quarters. In some cases, male crooners were criticized as not being “real men” and for “sapping the national virility”. The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the “crooning boom” by moral authorities. In January 1932, they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: “Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes”. The New York Singing Teachers’ Association chimed in, “Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation”. Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of “golden argosies of tome” had become “a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk”. The story begins in the 19th century, where the world of drawing rooms and minstrel shows propelled American vernacular singing into the 20th century. Modern technology—most notably, the phonograph, radio, and the cinema—transformed pop music into a commodity, which still retained the musical and lyrical sentiments of the Victorian romantic tradition. With the microphone becoming a totem pole of the early crooners, the crooning phenomenon would become international in scope. The natural American voice, conversational in tone with a touch of gentility, would become lingua franca of popular music.
Jones, David Robert (David Bowie) and Bing Crosby. Peace on Earth/Little drummer boy. 45-rpm record (RCA Records JV13400; PH13400, 1982). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature, 1982-45536]
Comments Off on The Smithsonian Institution’s Object of the Day, December 14, 2019: David Bowie and Bing Crosby Christmas Single
In an experiment, 44 undergraduate students were asked to listen to white noise and instructed to press a button when they believed that they were hearing a recording of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas without this recording actually being presented.
Fourteen participants (32%) pressed the button at least once. These participants had higher scores on fantasy proneness and the Launay–Slade Hallucination Scale (LSHS) compared to participants without hallucinatory reports. Both groups did not differ in terms of imagery vividness or sensitivity to social demands.
Logistic regression suggested that fantasy proneness is a better predictor of hallucinatory reports than are LSHS scores. This might imply that hallucinatory reports obtained during the White Christmas test reflect a non-specific preference for odd items rather than schizophrenia-like internal experiences.
This according to “Another White Christmas: Fantasy proneness and reports of hallucinatory experiences in undergraduate students” by Harald Merckelbach and Vincent van de Ven (Journal of behavior therapy and experimental psychiatry XXXII/3 [September 2001] pp. 137–44). Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this study to our attention!
Below, White Christmas and fantasy proneness in Hollywood; wait for the dialogue around 2:00!
Every year from Christmas to Epiphany, the communities descended from the African slaves who mined gold for the Spaniards celebrate the Adoraciones al Niño-Diós in the Andean valleys of Cauca in southwestern Colombia.
The celebrants sing and dance until dawn in front of a creche set up in one of the village houses. A group of six musicians, unusual because it includes violins, accompanies the women who are the singers and the leaders of the ritual.
The tradition is documented on the CD Colombie: Adoration à l’enfant-Dieu (Département du Cauca) (VDE-Gallo 1349 ). Below, a brief documentary on Auroras al Amanecer, the group featured in the recordings.
A previously unknown work by Bruna—A de la casa, a villancico for soprano and tenor with unfigured bass—was discovered in 1990 in the musical archive of Barbastro Cathedral. The text stems from the custom of giving food to the poor, which in Bruna’s work is given a Eucharistic interpretation. Only three other vocal works by Bruna have survived: two other villancicos and a Benedicamus Domino.
This according to “A de la casa: Duo de Pablo Bruna—Una obra inedita del Ciego de Daroca” by Pedro Calahorra Martínez (Nassarre: Revista aragonesa de musicología VII/1 , pp. 9–20). Below, Saskia Roures performs Bruna’s Tiento de falsas de 2º tono.
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