Adolphe Adam, a 19th-century Frenchman renowned as a teacher and critic in his lifetime, is best known today as the composer of "O Holy Night."
That poor sonofabitch.
Who wants to be known as the guy who wrote the most saccharine warhorse in all of the Christmas canon? There isn't much to the song; it's really nothing more than a modified strophic ditty (two verses, with a fancy ending after the second verse) that somehow achieves an aura of deference as "classical music" because of the company it keeps - sort of like how David Brooks sounds reasonable compared to other conservative pundits. Sit next to "Jingle Bells," and suddenly you're high art!
Don't get me wrong: as a young Catholic choirboy, I longed for the Advent Sunday when Father would approach me and say those magical words, "Michael, we would like you sing 'O Holy Night' this year at Midnight Mass." Is my distaste just sour grapes because I was never asked? Perhaps, but we must put away childish things. (Tell that to Father!)
Still, for some poor bastards, "O Holy Night" is the song of the season -- it just wouldn't be Christmas without it. For the rest of us, if we can't enjoy the song on its merits, we may derive at least a little schadenfreude from its more colorful performances.
Many comedians have lampooned this ubiquitous holiday tune, but none to better effect than the creative geniuses of South Park. This performance has become a classic unto itself as well as a testament to the joys of corporal punishment. Poor Cartman vainly attempts to get the words right:
An inspired scene from the sitcom Frasier has the Brothers Crane trying to help their dad Martin improve his chops...without success:
Even Tracy Morgan has tried his hand at "O Holy Night," fat suit and all, on the critically-acclaimed TV series 30 Rock:
And then there was Steve Mauldin. That's probably not a name you are familiar with, but if you like the song "O Holy Night" and you like things that are so bad that they're funny, you know his voice.
Steve Mauldin changed everything. He brought music that's so bad it's good to a whole new level. His vocals are an offense to nature and probably illegal in Northern Europe. Mauldin's "O Holy Night" is the gold standard of terrible singing.
Up to now, I have showcased only intentionally bad performances, those of comedians and other folks trying to be funny. But there is a category of bad beneath all others, a category which is worse because it thinks it's good, and it is a category dominated by Sarah Brightman.
Brightman's greatest achievement was marrying Andrew Lloyd Webber and getting him to write The Phantom of the Opera for her. Since then, she has been possessed of a delusion that she is a brilliant singer with talent and taste. Some years ago, she assaulted crowds gathered in Saint Peter's Square with a terrifying version of "O Holy Night." Brightman's lips imitate the trumpets of Joshua which she is apparently using to try to bring down the walls of the Vatican.
This odd, unnatural, and incorrect phonation strategy has the effect not only of ruining her tone but of transforming all of the vowels into o's. ("O holo note. Tho stos o brotelo shooooo-nong.") In an attempt to sing the high note at the end of the song, she dislocates her jaw Predator-style and disgorges a thin screech not totally unlike dolphin vocalizations. Watch for it -- yes, watch -- at 3:33. If you miss it, don't worry; she goes for the gold a second time at 4:25.
I think that's enough masochism for the moment, don't you? Thanks to these dreadful performances, we have a pretty good idea what the massacre of the innocents must have sounded like. If you can stomach another round of this saccharine little tune, at least enlist the preternatural beauty of Leontyne Price for what is doubtless the finest performance of "O Holy Night."