Stokowski for Christmas

Last night I put on Leopold Stokowski’s 1926 recording of the Nutcracker Suite while I was cooking dinner. The Nutcracker went over better with the kids than the food. (Too spicy!) Here’s the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. I love how the bass clarinet plays that little downward figure with a little bit of attitude — what Frank Zappa called “putting the eyebrows on it.” Hanging onto the note at the top a little long, like the windup to a pitch or pulling a slingshot back, and then letting go and sliding down the scale.

The same recording, I think, was used in Disney’s Fantasia some years later. But even before I had figured this out, I thought, there’s something cartoony about that musical gesture. Like cartoons, this recording is . . . gestural. Imbued with gesturosity. Saturated in gesturicity. It’s no accident that Stokowski ended up working on Fantasia — his interpretive style is the natural complement of pirouetting hippos and furious battling dinosaurs.

Which is why he’s the greatest conductor ever. Of course, like Horowitz, he was a safe target of critical loathing when he was alive, even though no-one was more venerated by musicians and the public. Something of Stokowski’s godlike standing is captured in the great Bugs Bunny cartoon “Long-Haired Hare”, where Bugs delivers the coup de grace to an obnoxious opera singer by impersonating Stokowski. (When Bugs walks into the orchestra pit and takes over, the musicians whisper “Leopold!” in awed tones, their faces wide with wonder.)

My wife and I have a few other Christmas records. Her childhood favorite is the Joan Baez Noel album, with twinkly modal arrangements by Peter Schickele of P.D.Q. Bach fame. My contribution to our family holiday traditions is Christmas with Mario Lanza. My parents had a 12″ record of this stuff, which someone had given them. When I was a kid they played it each year with a certain divided attitude of affection and mockery — what I now recognize as camp. (And what childhood is complete without arch ironic humor about mass culture?) I guess this music is pretty dreadful, but having grown up listening to it every Christmas it’s musical comfort food to me.

So, readers: what are your holiday musical traditions? What Christmas music do you haul out every year?

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Stokowski for Christmas

  1. Without a doubt, my favorite recording is the Sir Thomas Beecham re-re-re-orchestration of Messiah, from the l950s. It’s tacky. It’s huge. It has crash cymbals and clarinets. To a baroque geek like me, it should be horrifying. But I love it for its exuberance.
    I also like the Julie Andrews Christmas recording (can’t think of the title offhand), because some of the carol arrangements/orchestrations are quite good. And I’m a sucker for John Rutter at Christmas. (My pedestrian roots are showing…)

  2. Tom says:

    Louvin Brothers, Motown, Robert Shaw, along with Joan Baez.

  3. Erin McGann says:

    The cassette has long since disintegrated so I have no idea who originally recorded it, but it was also The Nutcracker Suite. I actually used to listen to it all year, usually under the covers when I was supposed have gone to bed already. But it was brilliant when we listened to it in the light of day, as it were, around Christmas time.

  4. Kip W says:

    I just have to mention my favorite moment from that cartoon. Bugs/Leopold stalks up to the podium. Without looking to either side, he holds one gloved hand out imperiously. The terrified conductor (who stepped down to make room for him) hands him the baton “Leopold” immediately snaps it in two and tosses it away and commences to *C*O*N*D*U*C*T*!* with his hands, leading the orchestra into its first notes, quivering with the drama of it all.
    Today, of course, we have CG features about farting animals.

  5. Peter Alexander says:

    Gregg Miner’s “Christmas Collection” Vols. 1 & 2, :featuring Te Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just PLain Unusual Musical Instruments,” all the stringed instruments played by Miner. You have such things as “The Christmas Song” playedon Gibson 5-string banjo & rare Gibson instruments; “Whits Christmas” on Knutsen Harp_guitars; “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Twon” on assorted ukeleles; “I Wonder as a I Wader” in the style of Ennio Morricone’s scores for the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns; “Oc Cone, O Come Emmanuel” played on Koto; “We THree Kings” played on Oud, Saz, various middle-eastern drums; and so forth. Miner has so much fun doing all this that it becomes irressistable.

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