Lesson #331: Lucia Popp Was a Mezzo. WHUT?

It’s probably not a secret, if you’ve been reading his blog for a while, that music is something that exists in my life in more than just a passing capacity.

So…Lucia Popp. She was a famous Slovak opera singer who played a whole slew of leading roles, including the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Now, I’m sure you’ve heard the Queen of the Night’s aria before. Because you exist. But just in case you don’t exist, this is it. In fact, that is it sung by Lucia Popp. 

Who was a natural mezzo-soprano.

A mezzo who hit an F6 with perfect clarity.  In one of the most famous roles in opera. At the Met. At 28.

Learning things like this kind of makes me want to throw myself from the highest bridge I can find.

Anyway, here she is performing one of my favourite pieces of music, Solvejg’s Song from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. Which is much more mezzo.

Her obit (she died of brain cancer in 1993 at the age of 54) is here.

Lesson #330: The Red Cross Donut Wagon

I was out running errands today and when I got back in the car after one of my stops, there was a radio report on from WWII, talking to people serving overseas who were from the city I live in and the surrounding areas. It was so, so odd to listen to, but kind of fascinating. From what I gather, this was done at a base in England on Christmas day, but I don’t know what year, and they couldn’t say what base.

Anyway, one of the women they interviewed was with the Red Cross and stated her position was, “I work the donut wagon.” I figured this was some sort of nickname for some vehicle, so came home and looked it up.

The donut wagon to which she was referring to is…a donut wagon.

Literally, a vehicle that women with the Red Cross drove around, delivering coffee and donuts to the troops.

Sometimes, a donut wagon is just a donut wagon.

There’s one “donut girl”‘s story here and some video from the Netherlands in 1944 here.

Lesson #329: Burn the Yule Goat

I love random traditions, mostly because they encourage fun.  My undergraduate school had a Friday every spring where the administration rang the chapel bells at ten to signal the cancellation of classes and brought in carnival games and rides and pig races to encourage us to “get into” our college.* There’s a university in the midwest that spectates a basketball game in complete silence until their team scores 10 points and then it’s a student body/boosters dance party on the court for a few minutes. A village in Scotland plays a new year’s ballgame that doesn’t exist anywhere else.** And in Gävle, Sweden, they burn a 40-foot yule goat to the ground. Half the time.

The yule goat isn’t meant to be burned, but roughly half (26 or 28, depending on what you read) of the 57 total goats, which are built of straw, have been torched. One was hit by a car. Five more were vandalized. One was subject to a botched theft-by-helicopter attempt.

The first Gävle goat was erected in 1966, and, despite the frequent incineration, there has been a giant yule goat in Gävle every  year since, with the exceptions of 1973, 1975, and 1977.

The yule goat is one of the oldest Scandinavian Christmas traditions, but its roots — and purpose — are somewhat hard to nail down. It’s likely origin is paganism — either Germanic or from the Norse God, Thor, whose sky chariot was drawn by a pair of goats. The yule goat’s purpose has changed drastically over the centuries. It was at one time an animal that traveled with carolers and demanded gifts at people’s homes. And it has been a figure to be hidden in one’s neighbour’s house without their noticing. And it has been a giver of gifts. These days, it’s mostly a tree ornament.

But it’s also a 40-foot straw figure in the centre of Gävle that often ends up a pile of ash before the new year.

As of this writing, the 2013 yule goat is unscathed; firemen doused it in fire-retardant chemicals before its December 1st unveiling.

For more information see here, here, and here.

*It was colloquially known as “get intoxicated.” It was also meant to be a surprise, but everyone always knew when it was going to be because it was a small school and everyone knew someone who sat in student government.

**The history of that game is cool. I thought I’d written about it here before, but it seems I didn’t. That’s a failure on my part. There’s a very, very good article about it here that you should take the time to read.

Lesson #328: The Huron Carol

I mentioned in my last lesson that The Huron Carol is my favourite Christmas carol ever. Until just now, this was both true and untrue. Musically, I love it. But historically speaking, I had a bit of a hard time with it in that it’s a blatant attempt to subvert the native culture and religion and replace it with the western ideal of Christianity. But at the same time, it exists in three languages (English, French, and the Huron language of Wendat). So I was torn…

The Huron Carol is Canada’s — and, by extension, North America’s — oldest Christmas carol. Its lyrics were written in Wendat in 1642 or 1643 by the Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf,* and are set to an adaptation of the traditional French tune of “Une jeune pucelle,”** (1557), which is itself an alteration of a slightly earlier folk song, “Une jeune fillette.” 

Until 1926, there were no English lyrics to this carol, which I actually find very, very interesting. How did it take nearly 300 years to record this? And…it turns out that the English version of the lyrics that are at the root of my “subversion of the Huron culture” qualms about this hymn aren’t even remotely close to the literal translation from the Wendat. The literal translation are far less “ACCEPT JESUS AS YOUR LORD AND SAVIOUR!” than the lyrics I know. Which makes me happy.*** I can (mostly) appreciate that the missionaries who were immersed in the culture were able to compose lyrics that maintained a connection with the culture the Hurons knew while simultaneously weaving in the Christian narrative we all know. It’s an impressive skill to have, being able to merge cultures without seeming like a condescending douche.

Musically, I find the piece interesting in that it’s not interesting at all; its range is only an octave. I imagine it’s the simplicity that attracts me, and I find that kind of funny given my great love of Wagner. It amuses me that I can simultaneously have a deep love something as simple as this carol and something as complex as Wagner, but I suppose those two things are ingrained in different parts of my psyche. It’s okay for Christmas to be simple, but opera is much less forgiving.

For more information, see here, here (this link has the literal translation of the Wendat lyrics), here, and here.

*who is, incidentally, one of the eight Canadian martyrs. That there are eight Canadian martyrs — all of whom were Jesuits working among the Huron who were tortured and killed by the Iroquois in the Huron-Iroquois war in the mid 17th century — is a piece of information I’ve been carrying in my pocket for ages. It is one of the literal handful of parts of my poor grasp of Canadian history. But I can’t tell you why I know anything about the Huron-Iroquois war at all. I probably picked up a thread of related information years ago and followed it until I wound up with a relatively deep knowledge thereof. That seems like my style. Honestly, I’d be hard pressed to name you someone I know other than my mother — with whom I like to share random information because I didn’t just wake up one day with a thirst for random knowledge — who knows that there ever was a war between the Huron and the Iroquois.

**There’s a recording here.

***I grew up Anglican, and Anglicans are poor prosthelytizers. For more on this, see Eddie Izzard’s brilliant take on Anglicanism. Bonus points to Izzard for addressing the fact that the Anglicans are part of the Catholic church, not the Protestant movement. When this routine was released, I was 19 or 20 and just out from under living with my parents — and therefore being forced to attend church — and his take on “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” had me howling. Cake or death is phenomenal. The whole routine is gold, but the religious aspects are absolutely brilliant.

I’m not here…

I have headed a couple hours north to visit a friend for his annual side dish holiday party and, more importantly, to watch the Liverpool/Spurs match with him tomorrow morning.

Before he moved away, we used to spend our weekend mornings at the pub watching the footie, but since he’s left, I don’t bother to go anymore. It’s way cheaper and way less douche-y at my house. And my house doesn’t require pants. Or getting out of bed. Technology!

But I really miss watching with my friend, so the fact that his party is tonight and our teams are playing each other tomorrow morning is just perfect timing.

I’ll be back with a new lesson on Monday.

Lesson #327: In the Bleak Midwinter

There are times I learn something and feel I should already have known it. This is one of those times.

I’m a notorious night owl, so there it is, 3:30 in the morning, and I have managed to get myself from an a cappella rendition of Life is a Highway in which the bass blew my mind* to a bunch of English choir boys singing Christmas carols. In four perfectly logical steps.**

Anyway, for those of you who didn’t grow up in the Anglican/Catholic tradition, there are two different versions of In the Bleak Midwinter. There’s the one I like and the one I don’t. Not that that’s particularly helpful to anyone. It’s not even particularly helpful to me. But…I do know which one I like when I hear it. I particularly like the tenor line. It turns out, the tune to the one I like was written by Gustav Holst. I really feel like at some point in my a. years of singing in the church choir when I was a kid and b. years of music education as a whole, I should have learned that.

Then again, the first time I heard the German national anthem, I was completely baffled because the tune is also the tune to the hymn Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. At least that gap in my knowledge made some sense. And besides that, Haydn composed the tune to back a poem written to rival England’s God Save the King not to be an Anglican hymn.

Back to the topic at hand, I went and did some digging just to see what I could find, and it turns out that the hymn is a relatively new one. Holst composed the music in 1906 to accompany the 1872 poem In the Bleak Midwinter, which was written by Christina Rossetti. Her poem remains unchanged in the lyrics of the hymn.

For the record, my favourite Christmas carol is The Huron Carol, which really couldn’t be more Canadian of me.***

For more see here and here. To hear (the Holst version of) In the Bleak Midwinter sung by delightful English choir boys, see here — and see if you can pick out the tenor line…it’s the best part.

*see last night’s episode of The Sing-Off. Seriously, their bass hit a note I didn’t know was humanly possible (according to my piano, it’s a G#…two octaves below middle C) and turned me into a giggling pile of mush. Chicks dig the bass.

**I am nothing if not my mother’s daughter in my ability to get from one thing to another seemingly unrelated thing in fewer steps than should be possible. If you were wondering, it went: super bass, Avi Kaplan (who is amazing!), Pentatonix’s cover of O Holy Night, Cantique de Noel, In the Bleak Midwinter.

***In case you were wondering how a girl who has no faith (in the liturgical sense) can have favourite Christmas carols — or hymns/anthems at all — the Church has a lot of good music. And I’m partial to good music. Besides, you hear something for 18 years of your life, it tends to stick with you whether you believe the words or not. For example, John Rutter’s For the Beauty of the Earth is one of my favourite pieces of choral music ever, and I can still sing it by heart.