The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2020 broke Christmas music. Here’s what I’m listening to instead.


The holidays, it appears, are here. And with them, the annual sleigh-dump of Christmas music, which this year arrives like an unsolicited fruitcake: unexpectedly heavy, disproportionately sweet and near impossible to digest.

In past years, I’ve been able to keep my grinchier impulses in check. Christmas music has long been a seasonal allergen I could power through with the right level of mindful attenuation (i.e., tuning out) and medication (open to interpretation).

In 2020, however, every carol stings like a murder hornet, which, I’ll remind you, remain a thing.

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas”? Yes, so I’ve been instructed.

“The Most Wonderful Time of the Year”? I see we are grading on a curve.

“Here Comes Santa Claus”? Not without a mask he doesn’t. (And don’t even think about kissing my mother.)

There really aren’t enough chestnuts in the world to make this holiday season feel like reason to sing. And I’m here to say that it’s okay to not be okay. Frankly, I’m on the verge of pretending my mashed potatoes are Parson Brown.

It’s fine to wince at sterling-voiced crooners cheerily reminding you of the gatherings you’re not supposed to throw or attend. It’s fine if the twelve days of Christmas this year feel like as many months. And it’s fine if Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” fills you with unreasonable, unseasonable rage. (Not everything has to be different this year.)

After a year this brutal, the whole spirit-brightening mission is going to require a lot more than bells, bobtails and nog. Actually, the nog can stay. What needs to change is the mission.

What if the music that fills our collective Decembers were less about dredging up all of our collective Decembers? What if it were less about presents than presence? What if the songs of the season didn’t demand a mass emotional pivot, the obligations of cheer? What if they let in some of the cold?

I’ve found myself hunting for music to store away that might resonate more clearly within the peculiar acoustics of a dark, difficult winter. And while classical music has no scarcity of “Winters” to choose from, the go-to, season-signaling suites of Vivaldi or Glazunov aren’t quite what I’m seeking. Nor am I particularly pining for Nutcrackers or mourning any canceled Messiahs. (If you needed a band name, consider that my present to you.)

So many times this year, I’ve turned and returned to Claude Debussy. It started back in March with Víkingur Ólafsson’s pairing of the composer with an unlikely Baroque counterpart on his revelatory “Debussy — Rameau” release. But Debussy’s presence in my small apartment grew larger through the isolation of the pandemic, especially his works for solo piano.

Four strolls: Where to take them and what to listen to

I love the way they feel pulled between destination and distraction, the way uncertainty seems integral to their structure, the way they take one step and then another — a quality most clearly sounded in the sixth of his Preludes, “Des pas sur la neige” (or “Footprints in the Snow”). Its gentle back and forth enacts a lonely walker’s steps through a snowy wood, perhaps, but the gentle fall of the notes, the way they catch different glints of harmonic light on the way down, they way they gather in your memory as both pattern and pile — it’s as though you’re listening out the window instead of just looking.

Debussy achieves a similar effect in “The Snow is Dancing,” another piano miniature from his 1908 “Chidren’s Corner” suite. Though its fleeting beauties are more of a flurry.

Jean Sibelius, too, achieves a kind of twilight between cheer and despair in his many works that turned toward the landscape of his native Finland. “Talvikuva” (or, “Winter Scene”) was one of his final compositions for piano, the second of the “Cinq Esquisses” (“Five Sketches”) he composed in 1929, a time in his life when his loneliness and isolation were pushing him to lose hope.

And though “Talvikuva” lets you feel the snow piling up around you, the day growing shorter, the wind picking up and the temperature dropping, its lush sonorities seem to bloom. Like any winter scene (and like Debussy’s Prelude), it’s actually a prelude to spring.

And what comfort, in each of these pieces, to hear some of the harmonic characters that Vince Guaraldi would assemble anew in his signature suite of jazz carols for 1965’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” (Which, by the way, AppleTV+ and PBS recently paired to salvage from network exile.) Here, too, the intimate sighing from Schroeder’s piano was not just a perfect match for the blooming Boomer angst of the Peanuts gang, but for a more evergreen ennui. Its melody heats like a hearth, but its notes hang like icicles. The joy of the season; that sad little tree.

What is it about all of these piano miniatures that speaks to me so much more clearly than the carols already etched into my consciousness? Perhaps it’s the way their tiny details sound magnified (like footsteps in the snow). Or perhaps it’s the way their closeness offers that feeling that walking through snowfall can give you: alone in the world, yet enveloped in it.

The composer John Luther Adams spent nearly four decades of his career isolated in the boreal forest of Fairbanks, Alaska, where humans were scarce and the near-permanent winter furnished an empty landscape that doubled for Adams as “a vast, white canvas.”

In the quietude of the snowscape, he sensed a “shared resonance” between “landscape and mind, culture and ecosystem, painting and music” — a synesthetic understanding of landscape; the world as music.

In a journal entry from January 1999, Adams noted the way the silence deepened along with the cold, how the few sounds he could hear were “vividly present.”

“In such deep cold and silence, the smallest sounds speak with singular clarity,” he wrote. “The resonance of my musical landscape now is more interior, a little less obviously connected with the external world.”

Sound familiar?

We’re all living a bit more inside of everything now — our houses, our rooms, our bodies, our heads. As the dark settles in more swiftly, as the pandemic swells and the temperature plummets, and as 2020 gets in its last few shots, I want music that revels in what we have while we have it, even if that just means footsteps through the snow.

“It’s forty-five below zero, and getting colder,” Adams wrote in his January journal entry. “But it doesn’t matter how cold it is. We’re moving toward the light.”

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