Bach Is Out

“About 10 years ago, these school events [celebrating Christmas on public property] were completely stripped of any religious symbolism and rebranded as ‘winter concerts,’ most likely because ‘holiday’ was just too close for comfort to the original ‘holy day.’” Paul H. Tice

“Much of the music is simply bad; mindless melodies and meaningless lyrics, whether saccharine and syncopated or somber and staccato.  To ignore the significant body of church music composed to celebrate Christmas—from English carols to Bach cantatas to the full oratorio of Handel—borders on musical malpractice, even if it is motivated by fear of the ACLU.” Ibid

The Christmas Pageant as a GapKids Ad

‘Silent Night’ has been silenced. There’s no room for religion at the school ‘winter concert.’

Paul H. Tice, The Wall Street Journal, December 6, 2013, p. A 17

‘Tis the season for “the war on Christmas” stories, with widely reported fights over the placement of manger scenes on public property and legal wrangling over other aspects of the national holiday that dares not speak its name. Less attention will be paid to one of the war’s major casualties: what used to be known as the school Christmas concert. Parents, though, are all too familiar with the silencing of “Silent Night.”

Over the past 20 years as my children have progressed through the local New Jersey public-school system, my wife and I have attended our share of such concerts. We’ve watched as these performances have slowly declined, arriving at the current phase: denial. It has now been several years since the word “Christmas” has even been spoken, let alone sung, at any of these school events.

In the 1990s, it was still considered safe to celebrate Christmas on public-school property, but even then only as part of a cavalcade of year-end holidays. A sort of holiday fairness doctrine was employed to give equal airtime to Christmas and any other proximate holiday falling between Thanksgiving Day and Groundhog Day, whether religious in nature (Hanukkah) or not. While administratively challenging, during this period of relative calm it was still possible to hear the occasional “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or “Away in a Manger” at these holiday concerts.

Gradually, the balanced approach gave way to frivolity. A greater emphasis was placed on the commercial and materialistic side of Christmas and the other holidays, with Santa, Rudolph and Frosty receiving top billing. Sacred Christmas music was still allowed, but only if sung in a dead foreign language (such as Latin or French Creole), with the meaning of the words safely obscured.

Not surprisingly, singing incomprehensible lyrics in front of a large audience tends to bring out the adolescent in most middle schoolers. The trivializing techniques, applied to songs from any religion, included performing the selections in nursery-rhyme fashion or at breakneck speed. For the record, there is no earthly (or heavenly) reason why every song about Hanukkah must be sung as fast as a spinning dreidel.

About 10 years ago, these school events were completely stripped of any religious symbolism and rebranded as “winter concerts,” most likely because “holiday” was just too close for comfort to the original “holy day.” Christmas trees and wreathes were phased out and replaced with generic candles and nondenominational poinsettias. Santa Claus and Saint Nicholas, with their troubling suggestion of canonization, were dropped from the program. Images of ice-skating, sleigh-riding and snowmen predominated.

The bright red and green and silver and gold of the Christmas season were replaced with 50 shades of wintry white and gray; the theological was replaced by the meteorological. Even though these renamed concerts are typically held during the week of the winter solstice, public-school administrators seem oblivious to the danger that they’re stepping over the religious line: The schools are flirting with endorsing Druidism.

One memorable grade-school performance my wife and I attended six years ago included songs about dancing penguins and prancing polar bears sung by fifth-graders dressed in white polo shirts and beige pants, interspersed with poetic student readings about snow and ice (prompting visions of isolation, hypothermia and snow blindness). Imagine a GapKids GPS +0.73% commercial directed by Ingmar Bergman.

Now, these once-festive and joyous musical events have become monochromatic affairs—both visually and artistically—devoid of any seasonal context. At last year’s high-school concert, all of the student performers were dressed in black—formal yes, but also funereal. Moreover, school music directors these days, overburdened by litigation-avoidance strategies, have committed the sin (if that word is still allowed) of not just erasing religion from these concerts but of basically abandoning musicality altogether.

Much of the music is simply bad: mindless melodies and meaningless lyrics, whether saccharine and syncopated or somber and staccato. To ignore the significant body of church music composed to celebrate Christmas—from English carols to Bach cantatas to the full oratorio of Handel —borders on musical malpractice, even if it is motivated by fear of the ACLU. No matter how technically well-executed, Broadway show tunes and “Glee” versions of pop standards will never inspire hope, goodwill and renewal. Wasn’t that the whole point of these annual musical celebrations?

Mr. Tice works in investment management and lives in New Jersey.

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