National Commentary

‘Stardust’ & a Midnight Mass

The kind of music that evokes the truest of holiday sentiments isn’t always the usual drinking song-derived carols that clog the radio airwaves and virtually everything else this time of year.

While I have unscientifically observed more colorful light displays in my neighborhood’s windows and yards than I recall as usual for this season, due I can only guess to an elevated sense of joy at having our holidays back, relatively speaking, after a year of lockdowns (this being a very wonderful and heartwarming thing), too-oft repeated popular holiday music can incline one to reach for the mute button more than once. Ah, the holy gift of silence!

But I refuse to be the least bit of a grinch about this, instead seeing an opportunity to wax on about the great beauty of humanly created veritably angelic music, in general, even as a lot of it centers on the magical themes of this season.

I am more for promoting love instead of its mythical particularities or cases commonly evoked this season, although done properly the two are not at all in conflict. On the contrary. It’s only that one involves a more universal language, perhaps, than the other. There don’t have to be a manger, wise men or sleigh bells to make the point, even if warm memories from earlier days associated with some of the carols, or other works of the season, films from the era of the nation’s most optimistic period from 60 years past like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” or “White Christmas,” themselves speak to a more grand context.

Thus, as I wrote in this space last week, to me the magnificent remake of the timeless “West Side Story,” out this season, is a true holiday masterpiece.

There is plenty of music from the masters that breaks the monotony of those more popular drinking songs or other carols, and without a doubt for me, Handel’s “Messiah” is truly in a class by itself. But as I reflect on that great work, it is not its Biblical themes or narratives where its decisive features are found, but rather in the very music itself. (It is almost impossible to imagine that G.F. Handel could have written the whole 53-movement composition in 24 days).

By today’s standards, the work strikes me like a huge and amazing “jam” of pure musical genius, if struck between pen and paper rather than performer and instrument, and that may have been kind of the way it was seen in its own era.

It’s a context in which it can be understood as a most brilliant example of what Leonard Bernstein and Steven Sondheim brought out in the music of “West Side Story” or, in an exemplary case for me, what Hoagy Carmichael composed in the finest love song ever, “Stardust,” as it was performed in an extended version at my newspaper’s annual community-wide holiday party last week by the amazing young jazz guitarist Huck Browne and his accompanists. That was holiday music at its absolute finest.

Little doubt why the great Beethoven considered Handel, in particular, the “greatest and ablest composer that ever lived.” 

No less than Abba in the historic new album just released, is ascribed by a Variety critic, a “Schubert lilt” in “Ode to Freedom, a majestic orchestral ballad…so stately it almost could be…a national anthem.”

It’s as columnist Catherine Rampell wrote in this week’s Washington Post in a column entitled, “My Hopes for Broadway’s Recovery Are Dimming” amid the newest and most aggressive Covid surge, “In the face of continuing death and desperation, the fate of live theater may strike some as frivolous…Not for those of us whose spirits are buoyed and psyches are nurtured by their craft. Theater is about being in a room together, among friends and strangers, reflecting and refracting our common values and committing feats of empathy. I can think of few experiences more healing in this dark time – and right now, more elusive.”

Her allusion, described as so mystical and reverent as in a midnight mass, speaks to the universal love that finds profound expression in the many forms of humanity’s truly creative rhymes, rhythms, discourses and artist strokes.