My specialized knowledge of Christmas music came about because I am Jewish. In 1980, my first year on the air at WDST in Woodstock, the management asked for a volunteer to run the Christmas eve airshift. Nobody else wanted to do it; they all had places to be on Christmas eve. I didn’t care, so I volunteered.
When I do things, though, I like to do them right. So, with several weeks’ notice, I set about putting together a collection of good Christmas music. Since my own tastes are very eclectic, I decided that the widest variety of music I could play would make for the most fun. And anyway, who would be listening to the radio on Christmas eve?
So, I searched my memory for outstanding examples of Christmas music. I’ve always loved the gorgeous melody and irregular phrases of “Lo How a Rose” by the great early baroque composer Michael Praetorius, so that went in. “Silent Night,” of course, is a gorgeous inspiration, the only surviving composition of Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863). But I had to find a non-corny performance of it. One of my favorite Christmas song recordings ever is a version of “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” retitled “Holy Babe,” sung by a group of convicts at Cumins State Farm, Arkansas, in 1942, one of Alan Lomax’s field recordings. It’s still been issued, as far as I know, only on a Library of Congress LP called “Negro Religious Songs and Services,” but I had a copy. (Because it runs so long, the original recording was on two 78 rpm disc sides, and that division was preserved on the LP dubbing. But someone at the station copied it onto an open reel tape for me and eliminated the break between sides, and I used that for the next decade.)
When the evening arrived, I went on the air at 7 p.m., prepared to go until midnight with the material I had on hand. But I also took requests from listeners, and as long as I thought they were decent enough music, I played them also.
It turned out, to my surprise, that quite a few people were listening, decorating their trees, wrapping presents, and doing other typical Christmas Eve activities. While a few callers didn’t like going from Gregorian chant to Ella Fitzgerald, most people enjoyed the program. I wound up doing a Christmas Eve program every year during my eleven years on WDST. I didn’t always manage to make time for my favorite Christmas work, the “Midnight Mass” of Marc-Antoine Charpentier (based on old French carols). But I played it most years, and I played “Holy Babe” every one of those eleven years. Sometimes people even called to make sure I would have it on before they had to go to sleep. I continued to take requests, but there were some things I would not play. “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” was one of them.
It was during those years that I became acutely aware of how little many “Christmas” songs have to do with Christmas. And fewer still are “Christmas carols,” a term that sometimes gets applied even to such non-Christmas winter songs as “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and “Jingle Bell Rock.”
A carol is a “joyful religious song celebrating the birth of Christ,” according to Dictionary.com. “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is not by any stretch of the imagination a Christmas carol. It is, in its oblique way, a Christmas song, since in the U.S. we have come to accept the whole mythology of Santa Claus and his sled drawn by reindeer (presumably the wildlife normally found closest to the North Pole capable of pulling anything heavy). That image doesn’t fly in most other countries, but I’m not trying to become a cultural dictator so I’ll accept Christmas any way we want it here in the U.S.
Still, there are many, many songs typically played at Christmas time which have nothing to do with Christmas in any way. Here are some of what I call Winter Songs which have no Christmas relevance at all:
Let It Snow!
Frosty the Snowman
All of these appear (one of them twice) on the latest edition of an Ella Fitzgerald Christmas compilation, “Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas.” There is no singer I esteem more than Ella Fitzgerald. But she either she didn’t know the difference between Christmas carols and winter songs or she didn’t care.
Writing the informal essays that I contribute to this site takes me back to my teens, when I was very much involved in science fiction fandom. The kind of writing I do here evolved from the fanzines I wrote for and sometimes published, and from writing I read at that time.
These days the term “blog” covers a much wider range of formality than I was used to in the past. There are now thoroughly professional “blogs” on line. I still think of the blog as a loose, informal style descended from the great essayists of the past, like the French Renaissance writer Montaigne–who popularized the genre–and the English writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, whose “The Spectator” (1711-12) was the Huffington Report of its day.
There were two highly diverse writers of my teens whose inspiration I still feel, both named Harry. One of them was widely known to the public: Harry Golden. The other was known only to science fiction fandom and the inhabitants of his home town: Harry Warner, Jr., the Hermit of Hagerstown.
I subscribed for several years to Golden’s weekly “newspaper” The Carolina Israelite. He wrote and published it from 1942 to 1968. I read it in the 1950s, and of course read his collections of columns, starting with the best-selling “Only in America.” I remember Golden, whom I haven’t read in a long time, as a superb informal essayist. He wrote reminiscences of his own life, including (after it was exposed) a frank discussion of time he had spent in prison for fraud following the 1929 crash. He became famous for “The Vertical Negro Plan,” a marvelous satiric essay in which he observed that racial integration was a problem only in places where people sat down. His solution to the problem was to remove seats in places where integration was a contested issue, like lunch counters and schools.
The content of Golden’s writing was interesting and sometimes challenging. But what made him so popular was his amusing means of expression. You could read a Golden essay on virtually any topic and remain engaged because he made you smile. “Only in America” was his fourth book, but it was the first one collected from the Israelite. Readers quickly discovered how entertaining Golden’s writing was and the book became a huge best-seller. He also came across well in frequent radio and television appearances.
Harry Warner, Jr. was a very different sort of person and writer from Golden. He was a newspaper reporter in his home town of Hagerstown, Maryland, who became interested in science fiction and science-fiction fandom in their early days. He published his first fanzine in 1938, and continued active in fan writing until he died in 2003. He also wrote some science fiction and a book-length history of fandom, “All Our Yesterdays.”
Harry was a voluminous correspondent, sending a letter of comment to any fanzine he received and answering all letters. I began writing to him occasionally when I was in my mid teens. We had some things in common that we both appreciated. We were both greatly interested in classical music. I was a poor piano student. Harry was an accomplished pianist and oboist who performed locally. We both wrote music reviews.
For decades, Harry was a mainstay of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA), a group which circulated fanzines published by its members to those members. Some of these fanzines went only to FAPA members; others had some outside circulation. Harry sent copies of his Horizons to me for several years. His training and discipline were awesome. He would start out with a quire of mimeograph stencils (24), compose his writing directly onto the stencils, and finish his last essay on the last line of page 24. As I recall the essays were bloglike, informally written and not the products of great research or contemplation, yet they were always interesting to read.
Harry got his nickname, “the Hermit of Hagerstown,” from his reluctance to travel or to engage in much personal contact with others outside his work. I was one of the few science fiction fans who got to meet him on his home turf. In 1960 I went to Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, within a few hours of Hagerstown. I was there for only six months, but during my fall semester I maintained my correspondence with Harry and he invited me to visit him. I got a ride with a classmate to Hagerstown, returning to Lancaster by bus. Harry was very welcoming and genial, taking me to eat in his favorite places. We spent the evening listening to some favorite classical recordings. It was a real treat.
I dropped out of science fiction fandom in my late teens and lost touch with Harry. I was a little surprised to learn that he had remained active until the end of his life. Now I regret that I didn’t write to him years ago and share with him details of my activities as a classical music critic, record dealer, and publisher. I’m sure he would have been pleased.
I still remember the writing of these two Harries, and I remain happily influenced by both of them.
About a year ago, I was surprised to get a hit from eBay on my Leslie Gerber search. Someone offered an APAzine that I had written and published. (It wasn’t from FAPA, which I never did get into; it had a very long waiting list.) The first page was posted in the offering, and I got to read it. I wrote about the some of same things that interest me today, including classical music and literature, as well as personal comments answering things other people in the group had written about. I was fascinated to encounter my teenage self in this way and would have liked to read the whole thing. But somebody outbid me.
In the post office lobby, there are three bins labeled WASTE. They have always been there as long as I can remember, and I’ve had a post office box there for more than three decades. Several years ago, two new containers were added, right next to a table which contains one of the waste bins. They are labeled RECYCLING. They have slots at the top to prevent people from throwing obvious trash into them, but you can still get a thick catalog or a telephone book into one of them without difficulty. I was delighted at the appearance of these containers and I use them for all my junk mail.
So do lots of other people. But not all of us! When I look into the waste bin which is right next to the recycling containers, there is always paper in it. Lots of paper. For a while, I used to fish out paper and put it into the recycling containers, and I still do that sometimes. But I’ve mostly given up.
The openings in the waste bins are larger. It’s easier to throw things into them. If you don’t think about anything, that’s what you would do.
But even the waste bins aren’t enough for some people. Many postal customers use self-seal envelopes and mailers, which require you to remove a strip of slick paper in order to close them. I seldom make a visit to the post office when I don’t see some of these strips lying on the work tables or on the floor. People just drop them carelessly, like smokers dropping cigarette butts.
I also frequently find postal forms, conveniently supplied in dividers on the work tables, left on those tables, or dropped on the floor. Someone who wanted to use one of these forms and accidentally took out two couldn’t be bothered to put the extra one back.
Don’t get the idea that the post office is a neglected place. I frequently see the postal clerks, when they aren’t busy with customers, out in the room picking up things.
Who are the customers who get mass mailings, like notices from the local school district, and leave them on the table for others? Sometimes there are large piles of them. Do people think that somebody else coming to the post office is going to want these notices and won’t get them?
I even know what happens to our local recycled paper. I wipe my ass with it. It’s bought by Marcal, whose paper products I buy whenever I can because they are made from recycled paper and have been for more than half a century. I’m sure Seventh Generation is doing good work, but Marcal has been doing the same things with paper since the guys who run Seventh Generation were born!
Am I over-reacting? Could be, but I’ll bet that in China and Korea you won’t find this kind of negligence and waste. Is that why those countries are whipping our asses economically these days?
I was probably the least talented and least able piano student Piero Weiss ever had. He got stuck with me in 1969, when I was living on Staten Island. I had found an excellent piano teacher who lived just a few blocks from my house, but her husband got a job in Los Angeles and they moved away. Thinking cleverly for once, I wrote a letter to Jacob Lateiner, a pianist I greatly admired but did not yet know. (Later he became a friend.) I described my level of ability as honestly as I could and asked him if he could recommend a teacher who would take me. He recommended Piero Weiss.
Mr. Weiss, as I called him in those days (later we became Leslie and Piero, but only after I was no longer his student) must have found me a trial as a student. I had no hopes or ambitions of playing on anything near a professional level. As a young man with a wife and three children to raise, I was lucky if I could manage an hour a day to practice, and often I couldn’t. But I came for lessons faithfully every other week, even after I moved to upstate New York the following year. Although I was a poor student, I was otherwise well informed about music, already writing professional record reviews. So even though I was unable to put my knowledge into practice very well, I must have been interesting enough to keep him willing to teach me.
Piero actually taught me more about playing the piano than I had any right to know. I was unsatisfied with the sound I usually produced from the piano. He taught me to listen, assuring me that conscious attempts to alter my sound would probably not work but that concentration on listening would lead my fingers to produce something closer to what I wanted to hear. He also showed me some elements of the technique he had learned from his own teacher Isabella Vengerova, of which I remember the use of the wrists to produce changes in volume, especially strong accents.
One of the aspects of his teaching I particularly remember was the way he would help me select repertoire to study. He often made suggestions. When he asked if I ever had played Schubert and I said I hadn’t, he said, “What’s the matter? Don’t you like Schubert?” “I love Schubert,” I replied. “That’s why I don’t want to play his music.” But he selected for me just the right Impromptu to fit my technique. When I mentioned something I would like to play, he would zip through the score from memory, no matter what it was, and tell me whether he thought I would be able to play it or not. I did surprise him once. I said I wanted to play Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 2, and he said I would not be able to handle the finale. I worked like a demon for two weeks and came back with that movement comfortably in hand. He was surprised, and gratified.
Piero frequently played for me at lessons, usually just brief excerpts to show me how something should go. He was obviously a superb pianist, and I asked him why he had not pursued a career as a performer. He told me he didn’t have the confidence. But he played me with pride the recording of his performance of the Mendelssohn First Piano Concerto from a Lewissohn Stadium concert. And he gave me a duplicate copy of one of the two LPs he had made for the German record club Opus. I found the other one decades later.
After one lesson, we somehow got into a discussion of the Schumann Toccata. “I used to play that,” he told me. He was still sitting at his piano, and he turned to the keyboard and began to play. He played superbly, with great power and fluency and surprising accuracy. When he had finished, he looked at me and said, “I haven’t played that in twenty years.”
After I “mastered” the Schubert Impromptu to the best of my ability, I asked if he thought I could learn one of the Schubert Piano Sonatas. I was particularly interested in the little Sonata in A Minor, D. 784. He pointed out to me that the finale was beyond my ability, and then told me he hated to teach that piece anyway. He had once had a talented woman student who wanted to play that Sonata. He had told her that the last measures of the finale, in octaves, were very difficult, and that she could not play the movement any faster than she was able to play the octaves because it was improper to slow down for them and spoil the momentum of the music. When she played the Sonata for him, she did slow down for the octaves, and he told her she could not play the music like that. She became angry and never returned.
At one point I fell in love with the Brahms Intermezzo in B Flat, Op. 76, No. 4. Piero encouraged me to give it a try. It didn’t really suit my limited ability, and although I could get through the notes, I was not able to make the piece flow. He kept encouraging me to work on it, but I brought it back for several lessons and it never sounded right. At one lesson, after I lumbered through the piece, I told him I wanted to give it up. “No,” he said. “Work on it for two more weeks, then play it for me and then you can give it up.” I did my best, but the day before the lesson it still sounded lumpy. I came in and said I was ready to quit and didn’t want to play it even the one more time. He told me to try it anyway. I did, and amazingly, that time, I played it very well. When I finished, he said, sounding very surprised, “That was beautiful!” “I know,” I replied, just as surprised. I never played it again. Thinking about the experience later, I suspected that he was not surprised at all. He knew exactly how to push me–like the zen master who told a student in search of enlightenment that if he did not succeed within three days he should kill himself.
I had the opposite experience when I attempted a speedy Scarlatti Sonata, K. 545. I worked hard on it and came to my lesson confident that I would be able to play it quickly and accurately, and I did. When I finished, he looked at me and said, “Mr. Gerber, that is the worst thing you have ever played for me.” It sounded cruel, but he was right; I had just gone for speed and accuracy and forgotten that I was playing a piece of music. He helped me learn to shape the piece so that even at rapid tempo it still made musical sense.
One incident that occurred during our relationship made a lasting impression on me. After a lesson, Piero told me that he had learned about a German musicologist named Wolfgang Boetticher (not to be confused with the cellist and conductor Wolfgang Boettcher) who had been invited to speak at a conference in the U.S. on Robert Schumann. There was no doubting Boetticher’s credentials as a Schumann scholar; he had edited the Henle Urtext of Schumann’s piano music. But Piero also knew that during the Nazi era Boetticher had worked for the government to help locate and identify collections of music and music materials owned by Jews so they could be confiscated. Apparently he was also a member of the S.S. Piero passed elements of the story along to his friend Anthony Lewis, then a regular columnist for the New York Times. After Lewis wrote a column about Boetticher’s background, the invitation was withdrawn. Piero was very proud and pleased, and I learned something about the strength and conviction of this gentle man.
I had relatively little contact with Piero as musical scholar, although I still have my inscribed copy of the book of composers’ letters he edited. I did take a lesson once at Columbia University, where he was teaching, and I got to meet his office mate, Richard Taruskin, who later became a regular customer of my mail order record business. We had some conversations about Italian opera, a favorite topic of his and not one of mine. Although I had grown up in an opera household, and attended occasional Met Opera performances from the age of ten on, I had never become a real devotee of the opera. Piero did his best to convince me of the greatness of Verdi, but it has taken me until recent years to realize how right he was. I am still not convinced by his arguments in favor of Franz Liszt. Piero insisted that all of his music had to be taken seriously, but I still think Liszt wrote both masterpieces and bombastic trivia.
Eventually, not even Piero’s encouragement could keep me at the keyboard, and I reluctantly gave up my lessons, my piano study, and even my piano. But we remained in touch over the years, mostly with occasional phone calls. After he went to Baltimore to teach at Peabody, he told me with great pleasure that he had gone back to playing the piano in public and was performing at faculty recitals. Earlier this year, I spoke with him several times after our mutual friend Jacob Lateiner died, telling him that I was working on publishing a Lateiner memorial CD set. I last spoke with Piero a month before he died, telling him that publication of the Lateiner set was imminent. I regret that he never got to hear it.