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My Interpretation of WHITE CHRISTMAS by Irving Berlin

Cory Hall

This most famous of Christmas songs is gratifying and rewarding for all pianists to play. Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" has an interesting history. According to Wikipedia:

"White Christmas" is an Irving Berlin song reminiscing about an old-fashioned Christmas setting. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the version sung by Bing Crosby is the best-selling single of all time, with estimated sales in excess of 50 million copies worldwide.

Accounts vary as to when and where Berlin wrote the song. One story is that he wrote it in 1940, in warm La Quinta, California, while staying at the La Quinta Hotel, a frequent Hollywood retreat also favored by writer-producer Frank Capra, although the Arizona Biltmore also claims the song was written there. He often stayed up all night writing — he told his secretary, "Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I've ever written — heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody's ever written!" (For the complete Wikipedia article, CLICK HERE.)

CLICK HERE for the sheet music for the original piano/vocal version, which is the version I play and discuss.

Although this song is classified as "intermediate" or "early intermediate," perhaps around level 4, this version transcends all classifications because it is simply great music. Intermediate-level piano students of level 4 all the way to advanced pianists of level 12 or beyond can all benefit by playing this version of "White Christmas." The most gratifying aspects of this version are the lush, legato melody accompanied by idiomatic chord voicings. The first four measures of the refrain -- that is, the famous "White Christmas" melody -- consists of continuous half steps creating a uniquely chromatic phrase. It is the only song or piece I can think of in which the main melody is fully chromatic. In order to do this phrase justice, the pianist must play totally legato 5-4-3-4 on the "dream-ing of a" measure while lifting 3-1, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1 on the bottom two fingers. In other words, with only one hand the pianist must connect one finger while not connecting other fingers. This is a particularly challenging technique that all piano students from around level 3 on must learn.

The technique of connecting some fingers and not connecting other fingers in the same hand is the most important technical challenge to be faced by intermediate level pianists. One will never be able to play 4-part writing in Bach, Mozart, or Beethoven well if one cannot master this technique. In most cases, like in this first phrase of the refrain, the top voice should be legato while the bottom voice(s) should be non-legato. This is also often the case in hymns where the top voice (soprano) is played legato while the voices below (alto, or alto and tenor) are played non-legato. Regardless of if the damper pedal is used, pianists need to pay close attention to the independent lines and the finger independence that is required to achieve a cantabile (i.e., "singing") sound, especially in the melody line.

I use much damper pedal in my performance, although I never let its use cover up my ability to connect voices and chords with the fingers. The general rule I follow is to be able to connect things and play fully cantabile without any pedal, and then finally add pedal for coloring and sonority. I like to refer to the pedal as the "frosting on the cake" once the cake is carefully prepared and ready to serve. In general, the pedal should be changed with every new chord or harmony.

Along with achieving finger legato and using of the pedal judiciously, choosing a convincing tempo is the next most important factor that contributes to a good performance. I play the tempo of half note equals 63 beats per minute. I find this tempo makes the song fast enough but at the same time not too fast. Of course, one wants to ritardando in strategic locations; however, when not slowing down at these points, it is best to adhere to the chosen tempo rather strictly.

I love this original version of "White Christmas" and believe pianists of all levels can benefit from practicing and playing it. It is melodious and romantic and requires careful finger control and voicing, judicious use of the damper pedal, and good choice of tempo. I hope you will enjoy my performance of "White Christmas" and if you are a pianist I hope you will practice and perform it not just in December, but all throughout the year! Merry Christmas!