Making Spirits Bright: Dean’s Take on Peace on Earth
The song “Peace on Earth” was written by Peggy Lee and Sonny Burke for the Disney animated film, the classic story Lady and the Tramp. It is performed by Donald Novis & the Studio Chorus as the intro to the film. This song was also recorded by Dean Martin in tandem with “Silent Night”. The studio chorus can be heard singing “Peace On Earth” while Dean sings “Silent Night”. This arrangement and the softly lilting but masculine voice of Martin nearly always brings me to tears.
Peggy Lee, singer-songwriter extraordinaire and one of my favorite songstresses, does her own version of her own song, but this composition is more aptly honed for a male voice, especially one with the tender, warm vibrato of Dean Martin. “Peace on Earth”/“Silent Night” was first recorded by Martin in 1963 on the Reprise album, The Christmas Album. The combo is listed as a “medley” on the 2002 Christmas With The Rat Pack album/CD, but that term is not correct. A medley is a musical composition that consists of a series of songs, or tunes, arranged and performed one after another, not concurrently, to produce a continuous entity. I spent about 30 minutes “online” this morning, trying to pinpoint the term or the terminology for this arrangement of 2 different songs sung at the same time. The research was not exhaustive, but it was a doozie that nearly exhausted me! In sum, there really is not a musical term for this type of melodic set-up in which 2 totally separate songs are sung simultaneously to create a harmonic sound that becomes almost heavenly. The songs end at the same time. In this instance, the melody of each song blends with the other to create an aesthetic unity that leaves the listener — at least this listener — in a state of transport. The synthesis of the voice of the chorus and of Dean’s voice is touching and, yes, almost angelic. It’s quite a celestial combination of sound, spirt, and sensibility! While trying to pinpoint the classification of this musical arrangement, I also mentally reviewed portions of the early phase of my formal vocal training (from ages 14-16). I called upon musical memory and auditory recall, and I hauled out a suitcase or two of emotional baggage. Memories are made of these, the sounds and sights of our lives. Dean has always helped me to sort out the noise from the music, and he sure helped me today! I automatically rejected the term “mash-up”, which sounds like ground beef, sautéed and mixed up with onion, garlic, and diced tomatoes in the frying pan. I did, however, re-hash “canon” as well as “fugue” (which is instrumental), “counter-point”, and the “round” — whereby the singer picks up the ending notes from one song and carries it into the next song. It’s the vocal form of a relay race, and I have experienced singers out-chasing each other to the melodic finish line. This wrestling match for vocal dominance does not exclude male singers, but, with women, it can get very down and dirty in the auditory trenches in a way that tenors do not deign to lower themselves. I know this experience from experience. My first choir director asked me, from time to time, to sing tenor because the weight of that section ran chronically thin for certain songs.
I also revisited the “madrigal” — with less than pleasant tones, overtones and undertones. My senior-year high school’s choir of “Madrigal Singers” did not involve me so I really didn’t pay much attention to them or to the musical form.
For the musical record, however, the madrigal dates back to the early Baroque and to the Renaissance eras. This type of song is performed “a cappella” by half a dozen singers, maybe even eight of them, with different melodies occurring at the same time. The 2nd choral instructor whom I experienced at this time in my life was mad about madrigals, in a way that I never fully understood, and still don’t. Maybe he had an obsession with forging a female congruence of sound. A feminine wall of sound. If so, I think he hit the wall. His idea of packing the house was for the adolescent choir to smilingly chime, “Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog!” The singers felt God-awful but, by God, the ticket sales were through the roof! It was a crash course for me in the commercial vs. the artistic, although I do not believe those two aspects of music, or of any art form, are mutually exclusive.
My first choir teacher at this high school possessed a natural affinity for voice. He was the first person to ever take notice of my voice, the very first time he heard it on the first day of freshman Chorus Class. He’d shrewdly handed out a paper strip of music, the first measures of the film score song, “Charade”. He casually asked the students, seated in the rows of chairs in the cavernous rehearsal room, to sing the lyrics. Seated in the front row, I sang, without any pauses for breath and with my own phrasing: “When we played our charade we were like children posing.” This instructor walked over to me and demanded: “Where did you learn to sing like that?” Not aware that my singing style is called “legato”, I blushingly said, “I don’t know. What’s wrong with it?” This voice teacher smiled. He had my number! Within weeks he asked me to become a member of the small, select Choir Class, and I began to take voice lessons from him.
This man was a gifted musician who understood the nature of singing and the craft of performing. He innately knew how to obtain the best quality of singing from each student. It was a gift. Under the firm but often comical tutelage of this teacher, the adolescent choir students eagerly sang exquisite compositions such as “The Neighbor’s Chorus” by Jacques Offenbach, The Theme from Mondo Cane (“More”), and “Madame Jeanette”, by Alan Murray and Edward Lockton, a cappella and in tune. Girls and boys truly merged voices, if not hearts, in what formed a peak experience for me at the age of fifteen: the Christmas Concert performance of Vivaldi’s “Gloria in D Major". The wonderful triumph of this teaching musician/conductor was not necessarily the vocal performances that he elicited from talented but largely untrained singers. His lofty attainment was the feat of transcendence that was euphorically shared by both students and teacher as so many of these working-class teenagers — sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses — earnestly chose to put down their cigarettes long enough to sing in long rehearsals after-school. That creation of art, and the joy of music, those intangible moments live tangibly forever in my psyche. They have become for me the foundation of the thrill of creating and of the joy of singing.
I, with my noticeable vibrato, clearly did not fit into the blended “voice” of any choir, but, regardless of the setting for my voice, fundamentally, and unfortunately, I did not get along, at all, with the next choir teacher who came my way during my senior year of high school. This technically precise man persistently told the singers that he wanted the notes crisp. And I persistently asked, “Do you want a song or a salad?” That flippant statement, along with others, got me rewarded during the Christmas Concert of my senior year of high school. I was finally given a solo in a John Jacob Niles tune, a Christmas Carol whose name has been blocked out of my primitive brain stem as well as my conscious memory, due to psychological pain and suffering. As I sang, “Weep not, weep not, Sweet Mary, nor bow your lovely head . . . ,” I realized that neither Mary nor anyone else in that auditorium could hear my vocal plea. The oohs-and-ahs of the 50+ male and female choir were mightily overtaking my soprano voice. I looked at this supercilious, mutely sniveling conductor, raising his palms to the roof to increase the already MASS FORTISSIMO from the background singers. And I stopped singing.
There were about 2 more lines of lyrics to be sung, but they were lost to time and to this conductor whom I’ve concluded was the most unprofessional “musician” I have ever encountered. Franz Schubert once refused to lower a note of a piece of lieder for a soprano, but he at least had creative genius going for him, to compensate for his selective torment of the female singer. I have no idea what the rest of those lyrics were, and I am a person who automatically memorizes the words-to-the-song and the notes from the very first sight. I was asked by my first choir director and voice teacher to hold the sheet music folder in concert, and to occasionally glance at it, just to fit in with the group and make everyone else look good. That night, I wasn’t looking, or sounding, good, or at all, but I did realize one aspect about my voice that I’ve since learned in technical terms: I did not know what “squillo” was, but whatever it was, I didn’t have it!
The voice of Dean Martin also did not possess squillo, which is a timbre of voice that is trumpet-like in its brilliant, ringing quality. The objective is for the voice to project over, or rise above, the orchestra or other voices. Julie Andrews had it in spades. Dean’s voice did not ring out over other sounds. It floated, like a graceful but solid intonation, a murmur that was warm and gentle and masculine. And in “Peace on Earth,” the voice of Dean Martin ascends, naturally and calmly and smoothly, almost effortlessly. Yes, I love the voice of Dean Martin. He was the basis upon which I built so much of my own singing, along with the voices of the women in the Chancel Choir of the church of my childhood. Dino and Church: they form a serene harmony in my heart this Christmas, and every Christmas.
And the best terminology for the blending of “Peace on Earth” and “Silent Night”: 2-part choral arrangement. The phrase sounds awful, doesn’t it? Discordant! Dean would probably say, “Aw, just sing it.” Dino Paul Crocetti knew how to sing, and he knew how to roll with the punches, especially when the punches were being delivered right at him. The hands of this former boxer got so messed up that he cleverly used them in the Howard Hawks film, Rio Bravo, when he asked: “What can a man do with hands like these?”
Dean did plenty with those hands and with that voice. When he sang, “Your love made it well worth waiting for someone like you,” I believed him. I believe him still. Rest in peace, Dean, this Christmas Eve and every other eve too.