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?