I’ve got a sampling of different television versions of today’s carol: Renée Fleming covers the televised musical performance genre in the 2005 Mormon Tabernacle Choir Christmas special aired on PBS, the Vince Guaraldi Trio provides background soundtrack to the 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on CBS, and Jimmy Stewart dramatizes another performance of the carol in short 1980 film broadcast on NBC, Mr. Krueger’s Christmas.
The carol “What Child Is This?” was written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865 and was originally called “The Manger Throne.” Dix was an insurance manager who became suddenly, life-threateningly ill and fell into a deep depression. This experience led him to a spiritual awakening, and the hymn seems to have been written around this time. It’s not clear when the words were put to the old English tune “Greensleeves,” but John Stainer, a well-loved organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and professor and organist at Oxford was involved in printing the carol in 1871 and may have set and harmonized it.
Renée Fleming’s rendition showcases the elegance and mystique of this carol that come together so well in both the words and the music. Plus, that gown. Gorgeous.
To be honest, I’m a little conflicted about the Vince Guaraldi Trio version. I find it more interesting than compelling. Normally the song has two beats per measure, each beat divided into triple or compound meter for a total of six pulses per measure–6/8 time. Guaraldi keeps the six pulses but divides the measure into three beats instead of two, so the effect is that the normally lilting, floating piece takes on a more angular, cerebral feel. Try it. Count a slow 1, 2, 1, 2 to the Renée Fleming version, and then count 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 to the Vince Guaraldi. It is interesting though.
In this film Jimmy Stewart plays Willy Krueger, a lonely janitor whose wife has died, who is prone to elaborate imagination, and who finds himself alone at Christmas. In this scene, as he arranges a nativity scene, he imagines himself present at the scene. And Jimmy Stewart, in his old age, brings the force of sincerity that makes his acting so memorable.
Day 5, 2103