Sunday, December 30, 2018

Tropes of Soul in a Christmas song: comparing versions of "Silent Night" as a short consideration of principles of ornamentation in vocal performance

Today we're going to take a relatively short stroll through different performances of one of the staples of Christmas music, "Silent Night".  I'll start with versions I love or like a great deal and then move toward versions I ... don't ... quite ... like so much.

Mahalia Jackson

A few observations about what Jackson does with this song.  Jackson definitely decorates the melody all over the performance but as she begins, going through the first few minutes she adds ornaments at the start of the note, the end of the note, and sometimes in the middle of the note, but the duration of the note in a "plain" version of the melody is respected.  She'll ornament the start or end of a sustained and, this part might be easy to miss if you're not listening for the foreground and background, she leaves enough space for the chorus singing in the background to have its role.

Let's take her flourish on "Christ the Savior is born" that you can hear about 3:00. She puts in quite a flourish but you'll hear that the foundational note in the tune for "born" is where she stars and where she ends.

Aretha Franklin

There's a similar dynamic going on in Franklin's approach to ornamentation.  What she does that Jackson doesn't is play with the rhythmic durations of the text in its setting.  There's a nice antiphonal approach to verse 2 where a chorus intones the start of verse 2 and Franklin enters in on "shepherds quake ... ".  The chorus takes half the declamation of the second verse, with Franklin adding soloist commentary in the second half of each of the phrases.  This provides a context for her increasingly florid decorations of the melody--there's a chorus intoning the plainer, simpler version of the song and a call and response dynamic that allows Franklin the liberty to add more ornate decorations.  It's a setting that is still pretty restrained in its way.

then ...

Michael Bolton

Let me just say I've never particularly enjoyed his music.  Even Bolton, though, takes the melody in a pretty straightforward way, adding flourishes at a few strategic phrase endings.  "sleep in heavenly PEEACE" or "our Savior is BOOOOOOORN".  The ornamentation gets fancier and fancier with each verse.  This is moving more in the direction of soul that I confess I have less sympathy for.

but as overcooking the Christmas dinner goes ...  Christina Aguilera might be one of the champions

Now I'm not complaining about her tone, her tone production and intonation are really good.  It's just that she throws decorative flourishes that are extraneous to the tune itself and, by way of contrast to Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, introduces the decorations even before the first verse is completed.  By verse 2 Aguilera has a ... slightly more restrained take on the melody but this whole approach is, I confess, more ornate than I happen to like, and it's more baroque (in a bad way, for me) than even the Michael Bolton performance.  If you're into Aguilera's music then I don't want to say you're wrong, I just have found with this season's holiday musical marathon I've felt that Aguilera's approach to "Silent Night" is an example of the kind of florid soul singing that I think can obscure a melody.  Doing a verse in Spanish is cool, though.  Had there been less decoration the linguistic contrast could have been more prominent.

Not even Mariah Carey started off with so florid an introduction.

and she left the organist room to hit that Leslie speaker effect.  Gotta give her props for that.  It might seem a bit obvious but the soloist/chorus dynamic is in effect here.  It's an important arranging element to keep in mind for settings of songs like this.  You can let the soloist go to town provided the chorus and ensemble are there to anchor the overall performance.

Because I'm a Mahalia Jackson admirer I want to bring this back to one of her performances of a Christmas song to try to explain what I admire about her approach. I've been reading a couple of Bruce Haynes books on Baroque era treatises on ornamentation and performance style.  Back in the Baroque era as we'd know it there were treatises on what was considered good and bad form for decorating melodic passages.  A good performer would decorate a melody in a way that added expressiveness to the material without obscuring it past the point that a person could recognize the phrases of the musical material.    So ... if you're a soloist decorating a melody you want to have a text-based or theme-based reason for doing so.

now I love this version

Jackson takes the majority of the melody and text verse by verse in a straightforward way.  Where she cuts loose and does whatever she feels inspired to do is when she gets to "over the hills and EVERYWHERE!"  She soars and dives away from the notes of "everywhere" in the traditional melody to show that she's going everywhere.  It's a simple text-painting conceit for a song setting like this, but it works gorgeously ... because Mahalia Jackson was a musical genius.  Even when she decorates the final verse it's the final verse.  She's respected the structural integrity of the verse and chorus enough times in the performance that you can hear it underneath her modifications.  The term that's useful here is "reification" but in the Gestalt sense of the term rather than the Marxist sense of the term.  If you don't already have the melody at the back of your mind as the foundation against which built-up variations can be heard then you're less in a position to appreciate the variations.

 So, yes, I admit I'm negatively comparing Michael Bolton and Christina Aguilera to Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin and even ... to some extent ... to Mariah Carey.  Trust me, twenty years ago I never would have imagined I would one day write about Carey displaying any kind of vocal restraint!

To show that the more things change the more they stay the same, there were folks in the Baroque era complaining about soloists interpolating the same over-used florid ornaments into performances centuries ago.

Music in the Baroque Era: From Monteverdi to Bach
Manfred Bukofzer location 7203 Kindle edition

It must also be remembered that the distinctions for extensive ornamentation apply only to music for soloists, especially castrati and the exceptional female singers. Both Tosi and Mancini compared the individual virtues of the two most famous prima donnas of Handel's day: Cuzzoni and Faustina. The first excelled in the cantabile style, in portamento and legato singing, and was praised for her sweet tone quality and for her ability to extemporize affective ornaments, which strikingly contrasted with the often ridiculed habit of singers always inserting the same divisions in different arias. Faustina, the wife of Hasse, distinguished herself in the amazing agility of her divisions, a "granitic" firmness in the execution of trills, perfect intonation, and a breath control that enabled her to phrase and articulate superbly. .. 

I have been thinking for years now we have been living in a new kind of Baroque era, in the wake of the collapse of a refined and perfected ars perfecta (the Romantic era, which any number of musicians and pundits are still committed to in concert music life and not without cause, mind you) we live in an era in which an explosion of different styles and forms have developed and in the wake of an era of instrumental music songs have re-emerged. If theorizing and writing about music keeps anchoring thought about music to instrumental music, particularly autonomous music as it was defined in 19th century debates, then a whole sea of musical thought and writing will get cast off to the side as somehow irrelevant when the history of Renaissance and Baroque era treatises on music could get ignored.

My polemic point at the end of 2018 is to suggest that when we listen to different versions of a popular Christmas carol we can hear that the women I regard as the real masters of soul singing such as Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin, provide lessons in what they did as much as by what they didn't do as by what they did do, and that there's a sense in which soul as a popular mode of song performance has new generations learning as though brand new lessons that were being formulated in polemics and treatises from the Baroque era.  Soloists were overcooking well-known songs past the point of either recognition of savored enjoyment back in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, too.

So, yeah, I think Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin handled "Silent Night" brilliantly while Bolton and Aguilera represent more of what I would prefer people not do with a Christmas carol.


Bryan Townsend said...

I think the problem with artists like Christina Aguilera is that she has a breathy, groany, maudlin approach to vocal ornamentation. The effect is like pouring corn syrup over Wienerschnitzel. This is not to demean gospel versions, but to point out that there is a reasonable aesthetic limit to what the basic structure of the song will support.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

agreed. I think there are any number of gospel versions of "Silent Night" that work very well by considering what the basic structure of a song will support. Mahalia Jackson's a great example to listen to for the ways she tailors what kinds of ornamentation she added to different songs based on what made sense for text-setting and structural phrases.

Aguilera has some moments where her style works (she's got a cover of "Lady Marmalade", for instance, that works pretty well) but she seems determined to use the same approach to vocal ornamentation in more or less every song regardless of whether or not the structure of the song will bear that. A singer needs formidable technique to have the kind of bad taste Aguilera has about ornamentation but it's like a heavy metal guitarist or a jazz player who makes the mistake of assuming that there's no reason to play five notes in a phrase if you can play fifty. :)