Bonus Analysis – Effective Endings: “White Christmas”

We’re excited to offer you a bonus analysis by Deke Sharon! Due to rights complications, we couldn’t include this in the book. So here it is, on the web. Enjoy!

Effective Endings: White Christmas

(Irving Berlin, arranged by Deke Sharon)

As the song is coming to a close, I wanted to leave the listener with a couple of special moments.

First, the line “may your days be merry and bright” is a very sweet sentiment, akin to the Irish Blessing (“May the road rise to meet you, may the wind be ever at your back…”) so I felt it was best declared by one person/voice.

However, an a cappella song will quickly grind to a halt if you have one voice singing alone for too long, so I needed to introduce the other voices, and I felt that each coming in on their own better reinforced the sense that each was offering his own “blessing”. The Baritone enters in measure 38 to pick up momentum, rather than let the song slow to the pace of half notes, with the first two notes following the exact shape of the melody.

The T2 enters next on a condensed lyrical blessing “may your days be bright” and at his entrance, the issue of 3 part counterpoint arises. Not knowing how to start, I looked to the end, and decided on the chord I want: an F add 9, in close voicing, ringing up high on the lyric “bright.” T1 on a C, that puts T on an A and Bari on a G, but both need good contrapuntal melodic lines to get there.

Knowing the voices will need to leap, and that I want an expanding sound before the leap, I realize I need to set up the Baritone to span a large range. An octave leap is easiest, so I find a low G he can target… but the T1 is on a G in the last beat of measure 38, and I don’t want to “lose a voice” with a doubling, so I aim for a double leap on an easy chord factor – the tonic of the chord, which will give us a tonic triad before the 4 chord. So what should I have between? I like a diatonic scale here – simple, straightforward, honest, with a reassuring sense of inevitability. Curve downward after “days” and we can proceed step by step down to the G. Perfect.

The T2 line needs to be on an E during the fourth beat of the measure to establish the tonic triad before the 4 chord in the next measure. Where should he start? Not the E, as the T1 melody is there. What sounds good with the notes in place? Parallel sixths with the bari line prove the most pleasing, as I can start on a G, implying a major seventh tonic chord, then move through a passing 4 chord down to the E before the leap.

All that remains is the bass on a high F to round out the ringing F chord… but wait. Too boring. No motion in that chord, no sense of drama. Pretty, but I want chills. Hmm. Plus, the bass didn’t get to deliver his benediction. How about entering on the low F to round out the chord, but landing on the down beat doesn’t give him his moment. Let the chord land, then have him “catch up” on a couple of eighth notes, and leap up the octave to a high F.

Nope. Not right. No motion. If they’re going to hold the chord and have the bass move into it, it needs to somehow shift when he arrives. What chord? We’re heading to a 6/4 tonic (the tonic chord, with the 5th chord factor in the bass, which usually resolves V-I), so there aren’t too many options that make sense. I like the sound of a minor 4 chord here, but it needs 4 chord factors. Seventh? Yes. The bass can move up 5-6-b7 as the T2 shifts down to the flatted third, and the C and F can hold fast. It’s a moment of melancholy, but I like it. Feels honest, as if the singers realize that not all days will be merry and bright. The bass never reaches the high tonic he was striving for, but the result is still beautiful. A metaphor for life, if you’ll allow.

We’ve ground to a partial halt, but the song is not done yet, so we need to pick up some momentum into our final chords. Quarter notes don’t feel emphatic enough, so I went with a triplet, almost as if the singers get lost in thought, focus on a moment or memory, and then interrupt themselves, getting back to business. The melody requires a large leap down to a C, and a giant leap in all voices to land on a chord would be awkward, so unison is the answer. Cs for everyone. The minor 4 chord feel needs a moment of reinforcing after the unison C however, or there will not feel as though there’s any motion in this passage, but it can’t be a 7th chord with the T1 melody on the 6th of the chord. F minor add 6 is fine. T2 stays on the C – good voice leading – bari moves down to an A-flat, and the bass on an F. Done.

Wait! I want a low G at the top of the next measure. Non-negotiable. Low, rich 5 of the key resonating through the I6/4-V-I progression. Leaping from an E-flat down a 7th to an F then down another 7th to a low G? Nope. Never going to happen. Gotta lose the F and give the bass a moment to reset and prepare for a giant, almost 2 octave leap. Most a cappella singers can handle this with some practice. Will be a very dramatic color shift as well, spanning most of the male vocal range in the space of a measure.

The upper three voices are pretty obvious in their spacing: T1 on E (melody), T2 on C, Bari on G. Hmm. This measure is a bit boring now, with a pair of half notes and no motion. Gotta fix that. Can’t be the melody, and shouldn’t be the bass, who needs to sit on that low G for the next 2 measures. What if the T2 sings an add 9 then resolves down on half notes. Nice, but not enough motion. Quarter notes are needed here, which means the thought should continue: D, C, B, A… wait, getting too far away from the melody, which its a high A at the top of the next measure. Need to move back up, would be great to have an E in the T2 and a C in the Bari at the top of measure 43, but then the melody leaps down a seventh, and we can’t have all voices leap in parallel. Too jarring. Looks like I’ll have to settle for a C in the T2 line and in the bari line… oof. What a mess.

The T1 melody is set through measure 43, don’t want to change one of the most recognizable melodies in all modern Christmas carols. Bass line is set, although I want quarter notes to drive through rather than the dotted rhythm of the melody. I need a compelling reason for the remaining inner notes, and a countermelody is the most compelling reason of all. Figure out what notes I need, and write a line between that is aurally pleasing so you don’t mind the questionable moments. In this case 2 lines that need to work together, and not pull focus from the melody. Probably parallel thirds.

We should end on a definitive V7 chord. F in the bari, B in the T2 line. A fourth, but that can be a last minute shift. an F and A would sound nice the measure before, with a B in the T1 melody. Working backwards the line writes itself… but it’s a bit bland entirely on diatonic factors. Playing around on the piano I settled on the Bb & Db at the end of measure 42, as if the leap upward doesn’t quite get all the way there.

Time for a beautiful last chord on white and we’re done. Wait, no. Singing it back, it feels too short. Needs one more moment, a longer last note. I think the melody should “post” (a term from Barbershop) on the C, and let the other voices move around him. Some kind of deceptive cadence. IV-I is too bland, and we just did a IV to minor IV progression. Something subdominant, dominant, tonic is needed, but the diatonic chords are too stiff. Tritone substitution? Bingo! b6, b2, tonic. Bass line should land and sit on the Ab and Db, and the inner voices move through the chords. Since the melody is no longer the focus, they’re free to each go their own way, different rhythms and contrary motion. T2 needs to leap above the melody’s C so that the inner voices aren’t too crowded, but that’s fine. A little trial and error and bingo: penultimate and antepenultimate measures finished (no, I did not have to write antepenultimate, but how can I pass up this golden opportunity?)

There are doubtless thousands, perhaps millions of ways to arrange these measures. I’ll bet if I’d arranged it on a different day, I’d have made different choices, but that’s to be expected with any arrangement. One note: you can’t expect every arrangement to work for everyone. I arranged this for the Nylons but they didn’t care for it. Later that year the Gas House Gang needed something for their holiday album… and now it’s far and away my most requested and performed arrangement in Barbershop circles.

17e White Xmas