BY SIRI BARDARSON
Dec. 27, 2013
“Seasons and Soundtracks”
It’s almost done ─ 365 days stitched together by the miracle of morning and the relief of evening. Days like knitting, nights like purling, some stitches ragged, some stitches even and, in the end, the irrevocable creation of a year.
I cooked Christmas dinner last night and it was very good! The house still smells like a feast, and the dishwasher hums and gurgles. The linen tablecloth was left on the table, its starched, smooth complexion blotched and splotched with food spills and candle wax. Leading up to last night, I slept with cookbooks and piles of ancient Gourmet magazines, one side of my bed indented by the sleeping form of 50 pounds of recipes. My inspiration for dinner came to me in my dreams.
There was a soundtrack to all of this! Wow, if there ever was a season with a soundtrack, it is the winter holidays.
It starts with my double CD, “Soulful Christmas,” that I found at the thrift store. Otis Redding singing “Merry Christmas Baby” makes me dance all by myself around the living room with energy that’s great for cookie baking and vacuuming. Then, there’s Nat King Cole singing, “The Christmas Song”, this seasonal favorite is forever connected by a promise to an old boyfriend that we would always stop and dance together when we heard it.
That song gets played a lot this time of year.
Finally, it’s Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” This opera was the first opera to be commissioned for television in the early 1950s. It was featured on a debut Hallmark Hall of Fame program in December of 1952. “Amahl and the Night Visitors” is the big gun in my holiday arsenal; a fixture from my childhood that it is nothing short of Dickensian, holding all of Christmases past, present … but perhaps not the future.
I learned the music on Wednesday nights when I was 11, sitting around the periphery of the Seattle Oddfellows Hall on the backside of Capitol Hill. There my Mom had her weekly rehearsal with the Thalia Symphony. My sisters and I, driven in the family station wagon to music lessons at Cornish and a rushed dinner at Dicks Drive-in, would sit at the edge of the big ballroom on wooden benches among piles of music cases and coats, and do our homework. One season we listened to the orchestra rehearsals for Menotti’s opera.
If you have ever listened to a beautiful piece of music being deconstructed you will never get it out of your head. I remember looking up from a page of homework and listening to something that went well, and being interrupted by the conductor’s loud rap on his desk when something didn’t go well. I know every note of that work.
Later, my parents bought the original recording, and my grandma bought the piano score (devilishly difficult to play, but she was a fabulous pianist), and every Christmas Day we would sing it.
Or try to.
I can see my dad, uncle and grandfather with bath towels wrapped around their heads standing behind the piano bench, and singing the parts of the three wise men. My many sisters and I would simultaneously sing the part of Amahl, the poor shepherd boy, who sees the “star as large as a window” that is leading the three wise men to his door somewhere in the deserts of the Middle East.
My mother or grandmother would sing the beautiful solo that Amahl’s mother sings, about her jealous longing for the riches that the wise men bring to a child they haven’t yet met, when her own child stands before them so horribly in need. The local shepherds bring what they have, which is nothing, and honor the guests with their humor and a beautiful dance. It is all there ─ the message, the music, the meaning.
My twin sent me an online link to the original TV show. There is a short prologue with the composer in the video that I had never seen before. Menotti tells how, lacking inspiration for the commissioned piece, he took a stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and stopped in front of a painting by Hieronymous Bosch ─ “The Adoration of the Magi,” with the Madonna and child, and the three wise men. He was reminded of his childhood Christmases in Italy, and the role that the three wise men played in his memories. And so he created his perfect story. I have included the link; it’s well worth a watch.
Now Christmas 2013 has passed. What will the soundtrack to the New Year be?
First, I will put away my party dress. I am as tired of excess as the tablecloth out in the dining room. I, too, am in need of a good washing with bleach and spot remover to reveal a clean slate. The tablecloth will be folded and put away un-ironed to hibernate in the old pillowcase on the low shelf of the linen closet. But I will be awake to the New Year.
How about you? I hope we remain open to the inspiration necessary to write the music for our 2014 soundtrack. Drawing on our personal memories and our collective experiences, I hope we each find the new spark necessary to re-configure it all, and forge something new and different and uniquely ours.
Here is the link to the original TV cast and production. It’s well worth a listen.
Happy Holidays and a very Happy New Year!
Siri Bardarson is a musician who writes a lot. She is ecstatically happy when she makes stuff!