Friday, 11 November 2016

White Christmas - a look at possibly the most famous tune of all

White Christmas

Irving Berlin's biggest selling record of all time has now amassed more than 100 million sales. It’s pertinent to speculate why.

There are not so many songs where the lyrics are bonded to the melody in such an undetachable manner. Few can hum this tune without the words coming to mind. The melody becomes a delivery mechanism for a lyric full of longing, pathos, faded romantic memories and (if we recall its release was shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbour ) tragedy.

In an analysis of most melodies, there can be a successful separation of the musical and lyrical content, but the resonance of the words lingers here and I believe it influences our emotional response to the musical content. That noted, and in consideration that it is a very pretty tune, it’s worth trying to see what makes it so special.

For ease of comprehension I have moved Bing Crosby’s tonal centre from its original A to C. It’s simpler for a non musical person to follow if we do, and since the intent is to de-mystify Irving Berlin's thinking, it makes sense to do so.

Rudiment revison

You should recall from earlier discussions, that the order of notes, letter names and numbers starts at C. We can go through the musical alphabet from C many times; Irving just goes past the 1st repetition, to note 9.

D = 9
C = 8
B = 7
A = 6
G = 5
F = 4
E = 3
D = 2
C = 1 …..the bottom or lowest note.

It is also possible for a composer to stretch his tonality chromatically by writing notes outside of this spectrum, and he does so by playing some of the ‘black’ notes on a piano, known as sharps and flats. Irving uses 2 such notes:

G = 5
F sharp - half way in pitch between the notes F and G
F = 4
E = 3
D sharp - half way in pitch between D and E
D = 2
C = 1 …..the bottom or lowest note.

Irving’s Melody

Irving brings in chromaticism, very early. Notes 4 and 7 which occur at 16” and 19”. The D sharp (note 4)  “pinches” the tune closer to the opening note and the F sharp has a similar effect to the following note G.

Unfortunately, this page doesn’t support mp3 so I cant let you hear it. But we can see it. If you know someone with a piano, ask them to play these 2 slightly different versions of the opening. Removing the sharp chromaticism is striking, especially on the syllable “Christ.” It renders a spine-tingling moment ineffectual.  I think the short note value of the F sharp on “Christ” also imparts a springiness and bounce which draws us into the note.

Up to this point Irving’s melody has been hovering around the mid point, going no higher than note 5 G. Now his melody soars past the octave ( note 8 ) to note 9. The move outside the octave provides an early climax and a response to the hovering of the 1st phrase. Movement is always noticed in stillness.

Compare these two diagrams - in the one there is still until there isn’t, in the other there is chaos. 

Stillness is a wonderfully powerful device for a melodist and Irving Berlin’s take on it makes the 2nd phrase flower - but notice also where it comes to rest on G…a mid point between the height he has just reached and the final note, which we will see, is C.

The next line continues the contrast between stability and movement. Look in the extract at “tree tops glist” and “children lis” and you will see each phrase has a single note dedicated to it. So the move on the syllables “en” in “tree tops glisten”and “ten” in “children listen” is much noticeable because of the absence of pitch movement before hand. In an earlier discussion we covered syncopation, which is where a note occurs NOT on a beat. That is exactly what Irving does with these 2 syllables. He leaps up a 4th ( from E to A ) in the first instance and a 5th ( from C to G ) in the 2nd instance, both times syncopating. 

His descending on “sleigh bells in the snow” comes to rest on note 2, NOT on note 1. We can all feel that this is inconclusive - the most final and solid ending would be note 1- it is no accident that he avoids it, because he hasn’t finished what he wants to say. 

Now he repeats his original melody, but with slightly altered words.

We are approaching the climax of the song, and as with “glisten” and “listen” , Irving using two leaps ( of the interval of a 4th ) and 2 syncopations to point up the word “merry” and the phrase “and bright” . This though time, the second leap continues the rise all the way up to the 8th note. 

All that remains is to find a way back to the tonic note 1 to stabilise and terminate the song. “all your” is static, and as before he uses it as launching pad, this time for the widest leap in the song (a descending 7th ) on the word “Christ-mas-es” which takes him just underneath his tonic 1st note. It’s now a simple matter to rise up a small increment to the conclusion. 

This is a syllabic song. At no point does he use more than one note for a syllable. But that word “Christ-mas-es”, which has a jagged rhythmical quality if you say it, is treated with a jagged rhythm - which in turn helps provide focus to the large descending 7th leap.

This is a wonderfully crafted melody and it should be no surprise that, when re-united with the word’s pathos, it remains one of the most indelible songs of all time.

If you are not already there, visit and listen to some new additions to the genre.

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