Thanksgiving hasn’t even passed and I am seeing the first Christmas trees pop-up – ’tis the season – a time to focus on the holidays, accompanied by rich food, a splash of red and green, and of course the holiday playlist.
It is my 10th year as music director in Missoula, and as a result, the orchestra, chorale and I have played quite a few holiday tunes together. We have roasted many chestnuts, seen a few drummer boys, jingled many bells and shared a few “Hallelujah” choruses in between.
Still, one ubiquitous carol remains largely unperformed in our repertoire. On the first day of Christmas ... you’re welcome, enjoy the earworm for the next week! “The 12 Days of Christmas” remains my concert nemesis – or should I say, radio nemesis. I was overexposed while working at Dick's Drive-In as a teenager in Seattle, and have never recovered.
Repetition is a key ingredient to success in composition, especially a longer work. A composer introduces ideas, develops them, but it is their repetitions that tickle the inner ear and give rise to emotion. I show you something beautiful, take it away, hide it and when it reappears – boom! – goose bumps on the neck. Think how powerful the aforementioned “Hallelujah” gets each time the chorus returns.
The key to this is, of course, not repeating incessantly, rather introducing, varying and bringing an idea back. And this is where “The 12 Days of Christmas” fails. A cumulative tune, it has of course 12 repetitions, each one being longer than the previous – mathematically speaking: n(n+1)/2 or 78 statements. Thankfully we have five gold rings to divert our attention for a moment, but really, it is just not cool.
So what is one to do? How can we ignore this piece any longer? Luckily for us, there is a delightfully cheeky arrangement called “12 Musicological Days of Christmas.” The composer Craig Courtney took the lyrics and motives of the carol and interspersed each variation with a different period in music – so one can begin in Gregorian chant and end up with a little bit of Americana by the time we meet the 12 drummers drumming.