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No one dreamed of a ‘White Christmas’ before this song

December 24, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
"White Christmas," the holiday classic penned by Irving Berlin and most famously crooned by Bing Crosby, helped to create the very idea of the American holiday we hold dear today. Composer and pianist Rob Kapilow joins Jeffrey Brown to examine the song that became the best-selling single of all time.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next for this holiday season: a new way to look at a classic song, Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.” It’s the best-selling single of all time with more than 50 million copies sold.

Jeffrey Brown recently sat down with composer and pianist Rob Kapilow, who deconstructs music for the NewsHour from time to time. They met up in Arlington, Virginia at the Signature Theatre for our latest installment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rob Kapilow, welcome back.

ROB KAPILOW, Composer: So nice to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so “White Christmas,” a touching, beautiful, nostalgic song, but started life very differently, as a kind of parody.

ROB KAPILOW: Yes, you know, we now think of it as this perfect, sentimental depiction of Christmases past. But, in fact, it originally started with a verse the no one sings anymore, and that Berlin actually eliminated from the song, that sets the song in Beverly Hills, L.A.

It actually started, the sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. And it’s actually sung by somebody in Beverly Hills around a pool dreaming of Christmas up north. So, originally, it was a send-up of the very song that it’s become.

JEFFREY BROWN: Set in Beverly Hills, but, of course, came to be known and came to touch so many people because of the historical moment, 1942, American military personnel far away for the first time.

ROB KAPILOW: It’s true.

“All of a sudden, we invented an American Christmas based on a mythic golden past that never existed in this rural New England that came purely out of his imagination.”
You know, Berlin says that songs make history, and history makes songs. And this is a song that was completely made by its history. When he wrote it, it was just for the movie “Holiday Inn,” and it was just going to be a lovely Christmas song.

But then, all of a sudden, December 7, 1941, we have Pearl Harbor, we get into the war, and the song and the movie come out just when the Americans are spending their first winter away from home. And, suddenly, that nostalgic tug of Christmases past, of that mythic American past, for all the Americans overseas, as well as their families at home missing them, suddenly made the song immensely popular in a way that Berlin never anticipated.

BING CROSBY, Actor: I’m dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know.

JEFFREY BROWN: It also, though, created an idea of Christmas.

ROB KAPILOW: Yes, it’s true. It’s sort of an invented Christmas.

One of the things that is so wonderful is you…

JEFFREY BROWN: Because it’s so familiar to us now.

ROB KAPILOW: It is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. There are many songs like that.

(CROSSTALK)

ROB KAPILOW: Now every Christmas, there’s a new recording of new Christmas songs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

ROB KAPILOW: But the whole idea of secular Christmas songs really didn’t exist before Berlin. No one was actually dreaming of white Christmases before him.

Composers and publishers thought, why write a Christmas song? They will only play it once a year. But, in fact, the success of this actually launched a whole genre of secular Christmas songs. And all of a sudden, we invented an American Christmas based on a mythic golden past that never existed in this rural New England that came purely out of his imagination.

JEFFREY BROWN: And done through seemingly simple music and lyrics. Show us the music here and how he did it.

ROB KAPILOW: Sometimes, the words themselves aren’t nearly as beautiful or as meaningful as the notes behind them.

So, he starts off, even a simple chord. Anyone else would have begun like this, for “I’m,” a very straightforward chord. But he adds one extra note, and that’s what gives it all the warmth and all the yearning, not this, but this.

“It’s almost like fog on the window as you’re looking out at those snowflakes.”
So, even the first chord already has a different warmth. “I’m.” Now, anyone else would have written “dreaming of a.” But each chord has one different chord that makes it so emotion-filled, “dreaming.” And then listen to this wonderful dissonant one.

It’s almost like fog on the window as you’re looking out at those snowflakes. That’s just two measures of music. The words are just “I’m dreaming,” but the music is what tells us what that dreaming feels like.

Great composers don’t set words to music. They set the emotion behind the words. So, we’re now dreaming of this white Christmas. Anyone else would have written this for white Christmas. That would have been fine. But instead, he writes all that yearning.

Now, we have started with long note, fast notes, long note, fast notes. Anyone else would have done another long note, “just like the ones I know.” But, instead, he pushes higher to the highest note of the entire song. All this yearning.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lifted you right out of the chair, didn’t it?

ROB KAPILOW: Absolutely. I mean, that’s what it’s meant to do.

Now, “where the treetops glisten.” Who knows what that feels like, but listen to the music underneath. He could have easily written this, “where the treetops glisten.” Would have been fine. But listen to the emotion in “treetops.” And now listen to this.

That’s what made this song so famous, the beautiful harmony on “glisten.” Then we do it lower. He could have easily written, “children listen,” but listen to the beautiful left hand, “children.” And now listen to this minor color, “listen.”

BING CROSBY (singing): To hear sleigh bells in the snow.

ROB KAPILOW: I mean, that’s what this yearning is all about.

There’s almost a melancholy behind this song that you wouldn’t think from the words themselves. Now, that’s basically the whole song. Everything repeats, everything repeats, and then we come to the magic moment that really makes it spectacular. Everything’s an exact copy.

We come back to the same music. “May your days be merry.” The first time, we went down to this note, but now we go…

BING CROSBY AND MARJORIE REYNOLDS (singing): Be merry and bright.

ROB KAPILOW: And if that’s not beautiful enough, then there’s this minor color.

JEFFREY BROWN: It takes us back down.

ROB KAPILOW: Takes us back. I mean, it’s such a complex mix. It seems like it’s a seemingly simple song, but there’s all the melancholy, the disappointment of what Christmas is about, as well as the brightness of Christmas.

And then we end beautifully. And, again, could have written the same chord twice. Not him. And, again, not a simple ending, but each one is a different chord, a different emotion.

BING CROSBY AND MARJORIE REYNOLDS (singing): And may all your Christmases be white.

GWEN IFILL: Makes me hear the song a whole different way, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m never going to listen to it the same from now on.

(LAUGHTER)

GWEN IFILL: Now she will sing it for us when we go off the air.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maybe not.

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