Operation Just-For-Nice: A little dancing

Today in Operation Just For Nice, my on-again-off-again project that attempts to make at least one little bit of one little day in at least our little house a little bit better instead of worse, we have been putting on dance music in the evenings.

Not dance music like club music, but music that the five-year-old and the two-year-old want to dance to, which I am happy to have them hear. We usually start evening chores at 7 p.m, but the little guys don’t have regular jobs yet, so they dance in the living room while the bigger kids work around them. Or sometimes I just put music on, and that’s pleasant, too.

One of the great disappointments of the last few decades is that I’ve never managed to get more than one or two of my kids listening to classical music. I wanted them to be able to say “Ah, Chopin!” or “Whoa, Mahler” while listening to the radio, and I wanted them to be able to identify whether they were hearing baroque, classical, romantic, or modern music. I wanted them to hum themes from Die schöne Müllerin while washing the dishes. This was how I grew up, and it may not have made me a better person, but I’m sure glad to have all that music in my head.

Anyway, that’s not how it worked out. We don’t get to concerts, and while my kids don’t resist classical music and are even kinda into opera, they never turn it on by themselves. Well, so I turn it on, in the car, and now in the evenings. I haven’t been pushy about naming composers or styles or form (although I recommend the delightful and accessible Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin, if you’re looking for that). Instead, I ask the five-year-old what kind of music she wants to dance to, and then I pick something good and readily interesting that fits that description.

(That’s an invaluable parenting secret: Kids are 9,000% more receptive to things when they get to pick.)

If she says she wants ballet music, I feel like they will definitely come across The Nutcracker and probably Swan Lake on their own without help, so here instead is Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”:

Princess-at-a-ball music? You could do worse than “Wiener Blut” by Strauss, or just about anything by Strauss:

She asked for tap dancing music, so I did a search for tap dance music, and she danced along (not bad for her first time!)

but just about anything big band would do. Try Cab Calloway, unless you’re allergic to corn.

She requests fighting music? Here’s Aram Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance:

or you could go with some Hungarian Dances by Brahms. Here’s #5, which has a lot of back-and-forth for two dancers:

Jazzy dancing music, you say? Here’s Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt being delicious with “Minor Swing”:

Maybe someone wants to be a lonely butterfly. Here is a little Chopin for that:

Forgive me, Bach, but I told my children you wrote vampire music:

We’ll get the Well Tempered Clavier later.

The other day she requested Ninja music, and I was at kind of a loss. What can you suggest?

Blessed are the ungifted. Everything’s a gift.

The music of Bach is not something that, say, Barry Manilow could have achieved if he simply put in more hours. You can gather tinder all day and stack it like an expert, but without a spark, there will be no flame.

I used to fret over this problem a lot as a child. I obsessed over a book of saints, where the common thread seemed to be that these people had been different from the very beginning. Tiny Ludwiga could lisp the Pater Noster long before she even learned to say her own name; pious Edelbert would toddle away from his nurse every chance he got, only to be found once again sound asleep under his favourite spot, the tabernacle in the village church.

“How the heck can I compete with that?” I used to think.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

The perfect version of this work

Today, I wanted to put together a collection of music for Holy Week. Music posts always take far, far longer than I expect, because I know exactly what I want the music to sound like, but it takes forever to find the best version — if it even exists anywhere besides in my head.

I was looking for a recording of “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” under the impression that the words were composed by Bernard of Clairvaux. Not so, according to some quick research:

The hymn is based on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare,[1] with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ‘s body hanging on the Cross. The last part of the poem, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ’s head, and begins “Salve caput cruentatum.” The poem is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but is now attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Leuven (died 1250).

I also thought the melody and harmony were by Bach. Also more complicated than that:

The music for the German and English versions of the hymn is by Hans Leo Hassler, written around 1600 for a secular love song, “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret“, which first appeared in print in the 1601 Lustgarten Neuer Teutscher Gesäng. The tune was appropriated and rhythmically simplified for Gerhardt’s German hymn in 1656 by Johann Crüger. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in the St Matthew Passion ... Franz Liszt included an arrangement of this hymn in the sixth station, Saint Veronica, of his Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross), S. 504a. The Danish composer Rued Langgaard composed a set of variations for string quartet on this tune. It is also employed in the final chorus of “Sinfonia Sacra”, the 9th symphony of the English composer Edmund Rubbra.

And so, overwhelmed with information that made it harder, not easier, to narrow down exactly the version I wanted, I tried video after video. It seems I’m not the only one who adores this hymn. It’s been recorded a lot, by just about every group, in just about every style and level of skill imaginable. I even found an ASL version, recorded in the shadows of somebody’s kitchen.

I listened to dozens of versions. “That one’s pretty!” my daughter called out from the other room, maybe hoping to help me settle on something and quit hopping from one video to the next.

When I got to this earnest, nasal rendition

I started to cry like an idiot, and not out of frustration.

This is the week when the whole world is looking to grab ahold of the right version — the whole world, in and out of various translations, deleting some stanzas, ruminating over and expanding others, practicing and training with different assemblies of people, harmonizing, re-harmonizing, simplifying, making it garish, making it sentimental, making it florid, making it pale.

There were versions by small groups of women, huge choruses of highly trained choir boys, struggling teenage girls who want to be Amy Grant, overambitious tenors who titled their rendition “O Sacred Head Surrounded Barbershop Style,” and dozens and dozens of isolated tracks — just the bass, just the alto, and so on, because it is a difficult work. A difficult work.

There was a Filipino choir belting it out in a strangely baroque basilica, their voices fighting with the tropical birdsong coming through the windows. In some recordings, there was a persistent buzz from a mishandled mic; in some recordings, the camera man wanted to sing along, and rattled the pages of his hymnal, too.

Stupidly, I cried and cried. I stopped looking for the perfect rendition.

Everyone is trying to grapple with what is going to happen on that terrible hilltop. Everyone is trying to make sense of it, to locate the perfect version that satisfies, to comprehend it completely.

It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, how well you have prepared. It cannot be done. It is too difficult a work.