John Sieger
Sieger On Songs

Dionne Warwick’s Christmas Classic

Her beautifully pure version of “O Holy Night” has no diva dramatics.

By - Dec 15th, 2017 02:07 pm
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Dionne Warwick. Photo from Facebook.

Dionne Warwick. Photo from Facebook.

Dionne Warwick knows from catalogs. She was the voice of one of the greatest, the songs of Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Their catalog is second only to Sears in quantity and far better when it comes to quality. Often burdened with pernicious handle “soft rock,” their songs were so much more than that. This week we talk about another collection of songs that gets overlooked most of the year. It contains melodies as stirring as any, ones that have inspired many a diva to reach for that highest note. I’m talking about traditional Christmas Carols.

Unlike popular Christmas songs, a whole other wonderful category where there’s more Santa than Jesus, these more traditional hymns have come down through the ages, winners in a Darwinian fight for survival. The ones we know and love must have something — they’re still here! A type of classical music for the masses, they are ripe with drama and perfect candidates for sweeping symphonic treatments. They are as close as most of us get to the orchestral canon of the great composers.

Divas love drama. The center of the stage, which is their birthright, is where they are most comfortable. If you’re like me, you often wonder where the line is drawn that separates exaggerated emotion from out-and-out grandstanding. The line has been crossed many times and frankly obliterated, thanks to shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice.” Too bad. We seem to have lost our way, if only just a little.

A good tonic for the woes of excess is melody: it is the first thing that gets tossed when the dramatic thermostat is set on high. Of course divas are going to color outside the lines and when the great ones do, we’re thankful. I was thinking of this last week as I watched my dear friend, Julia Prescott stand and deliver on a song I had been obsessing about, “O Holy Night.” I think the word “earworm’ applies; it was playing endlessly but pleasantly in my head for about a week afterwards. Her performance was at Gospel Brunch at Colectivo on Prospect, one of the best ways this side of their caffeinated treats to get revved up on a Sunday morning. Julia sang the song a cappella, an act of unthinkable courage for most. But being a licensed diva loaded with confidence and charm, it was just another day at the office for her. She stuck very close to the melody, which I appreciated.

As I searched Youtube for another version to write about, I was surprised to see many of my favorite singers ignore the melody. I don’t mind at all, I could spend hours watching Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, Florence Ballard, Gladys Knight, and Patti Labelle deliver soul-stirring renditions of the song. Still, in this particular case, I wanted to hear an honest reading from a more transparent singer, one who was at the service of the song and saw it as more than a showcase for their talent.

I was surprised to see Dionne singing it. She always showed such restraint on the Bacharach/David songs, banking the fire and keeping the scale human. It seemed an unlikely choice for her, but of course she did what she was always good at — sticking to the script and delivering an honest and touching reading of this classic. Here she is singing it in a lush symphonic setting provided by The Chicago Sinfonietta Orchestra.

O Holy Night” was written before the “h” was added to the word “oh.” Like 170 years ago. It started as a poem by a Frenchman, Placide Cappeau, and then set to music by his countryman, the composer Adam Adolphe. It was first sung, appropriately enough, by what passed for a diva in those days, opera singer Emily Laurey. This was, of course, long before music was recorded, so those versions are lost in the mists of time. They did have sheet music and the sales on this one have been steady ever since. The lyrics, as one would expect, are full of arcane expressions that once weren’t. Here is the English translation by John Sullivan Bright:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees!
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine
O night when Christ was born;
O night divine, O night,
O night Divine.

© Public Domain (One has to assume after 170 years)

I skipped the two rarely sung extra verses. They feature clumsy constructions that always seem to end in a verb, like “Before Him lowly bend!” Some lyrics submitted to internet sites seem to come from obsessive grammarians. Lots of punctuation on this one, so someone gets an A. Beyond these only slightly off-putting anachronisms is a song with more sweep and power than anything in recent memory that wasn’t sung by Roy Orbison. (I checked — there are no videos of him singing it, alas). The similarities between Roy and his classical ancestors lie in the long arc of development that takes you through a shifting landscape, foothills first, before finally delivering you to a towering climax. No need for verses and choruses here, just follow the thread of melody and you will be rewarded greatly.

It would be very limiting to come down with a judgement on how much drama is enough. There is something wonderful about operatic excess and I reserve the right to swept away by it. But sometimes it can be like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. Hard as it is to see sometimes, there is also value in control.

Christmas carols serve an important function — they make the tricky path to full seasonal joy a little straighter. They bring back memories and warm the innards like a hot toddy. You may or may not be religious, but we can all be awestruck by other-worldly beauty. Songs like this can give us all hope and joy. Happy Holidays!

4 thoughts on “Sieger On Songs: Dionne Warwick’s Christmas Classic”

  1. MH Plummer says:

    It is possible to improve on perfection. Dionne delivered an even more stunning version of O Holy Night when she performed at Christmas in Vienna in 1993 with Placido Domingo, released by Sony Classical in 1994. In this performance, the lush symphonic setting was provided by the Vienna Symphony Orchestra! The two performances are nearly identical save for the fact that Dionne was truer to the line “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother” which I believe she altered in error in this performance. Not one to quibble over trifles, the two best performances of this hymn belong to Dionne Warwick.

  2. 2fs says:

    I know you’re joking…but “O” and “oh” are entirely separate words…and speaking of obsessive grammarians, it bugs me when people write “oh” (indifference or, with an exclamation mark, surprise) for “O” (just the opposite: it’s an emphatic). Maybe I blame the Shins with ‘Oh Inverted World” (which makes more sense as “O Inverted World’…)

  3. Dean says:

    As a former Catholic I admit that the greatest joy of attending church was the music. The power and sweep of the grandeur was always incredibly moving. I have collected early music, both secular and religious, and I have always appreciated the commissions that church leaders awarded to musicians to create great works. It is comforting that songs like “O Holy Night” continue to be written and performed through the years.

  4. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    A wonderful Christmas song, and who could sing it more splendidly?

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