In his acclaimed “What Makes It Great” series, conductor and composer Rob Kapilow urges us to listen with new ears to music we’ve heard before. But during the holidays, it can be difficult to appreciate endless loops of “Feliz Navidad” and “Jingle Bells.” Rob and Kojo take the plunge into holiday songs and find out how tradition shapes both how composers write music and how we hear it.


  • Robert Kapilow Composer, conductor, commentator. Author, "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers (Wiley, 2011)

What Makes Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” So Great?

What Makes The Kojo Show Theme Song So Great?

Composer, conductor and commentator Robert Kapilow breaks down the musical elements and ideas behind the Kojo Show theme song, spotlighting what makes it a great piece. Kapilow credits composer Igor Stravinsky with saying that all composition comes down to a balance between unity and variety. “Too much repetition leads to boredom, but too much variety leads to chaos. And this theme is a perfect balance of unity and variety,” Kapilow added. All great art at some point undermines the very world it has created, and Kapilow says the theme accomplishes this task.

“White Christmas” By Bing Crosby In The 1942 Film “Holiday Inn”

Schubert: “Der Wanderer”, D. 493 Fischer-Dieskau, Moore

Hallelujah – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge live performance of Handel’s Messiah


  • 12:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to the Kojo Nnamdi Show, connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's the most wonderful time of the year. And you know what that means: endless loops of the same old Christmas standards playing in every restaurant, retailer and radio station in town -- from Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas," to Andy Williams' Remember That It's the Happiest Season of the Year." It seems like music goes on autopilot this time of year. But where's the magic in these tunes?

  • 12:07:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhat do we -- why do we have a love/hate relationship with them? And why have they become such an important part of our holiday tradition? There is no one better to dissect both the music and the meaning behind it than one, Rob Kapilow. For more than a decade, Rob has been sharing his passion for music by urging us to listen to it with new ears. He takes music, turns it inside out, and tells us what makes it great. He is, of course, one of our favorite guests. And so he joins us here in studio. Rob Kapilow is an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator.

  • 12:07:55

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe's the host and creator of the What Makes it Great music series found on NPR and in concert halls around the country. He's all the author of several books, including "What Makes it Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers." Rob Kapilow, good to see you again.

  • 12:08:11

    MR. ROBERT KAPILOWIt's a pleasure to be back here. I always love coming here.

  • 12:08:13

    NNAMDIAnd I will now relinquish the airways, so to speak, to Rob Kapilow.

  • 12:08:17

    KAPILOWDon't. Don't.

  • 12:08:18

    NNAMDIHe can do that. You can call us if you've got questions for Rob Kapilow at 800-443-8850. What music traditions do you have? Have the holidays, Rob, for more than a decade, your What Makes it Great performances have made music come alive for listeners, by dissecting music we all know and telling us what we didn't know about it. But, you know, it is the most wonderful time of year. And I hear loop -- if I hear one more loop of "holiday greetings and gay, happy meetings when friends come to call," I think I'll just scream. But it's tradition, right?

  • 12:08:53

    NNAMDISo how can we listen to those overplayed songs with new ears and get something out of them?

  • 12:08:58

    KAPILOWWell, you know, I think that's the interesting thing. Tradition is both a danger and an opportunity. You know, it keeps coming up over and over again. And you hear these songs over and over again. But, I think, in a way, it's really up to us to actually make these songs come alive again. And, you know, once I was coming on this show and I was talking with your wonderful producer and, you know, we were saying: What's the worst one? You know, what's the one we have heard the most times?

  • 12:09:18

    KAPILOWAnd I think we sort of all agreed that somehow the Bing Crosby, "White Christmas" one personified everything you just said in your introduction. And I had never really looked at it closely. So I thought, all right, here's the challenge. Can I make this tradition come alive? And I have to tell you, looking at "White Christmas," it's a masterpiece and I never knew it.

  • 12:09:36

    NNAMDIBut let's talk about tradition more broadly first, because I'd like you to talk about what Stravinsky has to say about tradition.

  • 12:09:43

    KAPILOWWell, I think he has a wonderful quote about tradition, and I think it's really true, not only in music but in everything else. He says, "A real tradition is not the relic of a past that is inevitably gone. It is a living force that animates and informs the present. It appears as an heirloom, a heritage that one receives on condition of making it bear fruit before passing it on to one's descendants." And, you know, that's such an interesting idea that, you know, tradition isn't the fixed thing. But your job isn't to just pass it on to your descendents. First, you have to make it bear fruit.

  • 12:10:17

    NNAMDIWell, let's talk about "White Christmas," because it's one of the most popular holiday songs of all times, written by Irving Berlin. Since its 1942 debut by Bing Crosby, it has become a staple of holiday listening. Let's listen to a little of this classic.

  • 12:11:37

    NNAMDINow, apart from the fact that my father thought he could croon just like Bing Crosby, what is it that makes this song so endearing?

  • 12:11:45

    KAPILOWWell, first of all, isn't it amazing just what a mood gets created? You hear those first few bars -- nothing creates mood and a moment in time like music. Isn't it amazing? So what makes it so spectacular? Well, you know, here's a version that isn't so spectacular that I wrote, that he could have written. Now he could have easily started this piece like this: I'm (piano chords) Listen to my chords. But the first thing he does is he adds sweetener. He adds this wonderful, beautiful chord.

  • 12:12:11

    KAPILOWThe first chord could have been this (piano) but he adds one note and he turns it into this (piano). Ah. Already we've got that beautiful sweetener. And then the first note is so long. I mean, what's the word "I'm" doing on such a long note? Not "white" or "Christmas" but "I'm." But it's there because we have time. It gives us time to drift back into the past. And listen to not this chord (piano) but this one (piano) "I'm." Now, then this. He could have easily written this: Dreaming of a... But there's no dreaming going on.

  • 12:12:43

    KAPILOWInstead of this (piano) he adds one note and does it this (piano) And, now, we dream. Now here's the best one. Not this (piano) but (piano) That's the money chord. All those notes are outside the key. It's like the windowpane is being fogged up by this beautiful, accidental (piano). Then this. This is great. Anyone else would have written this (piano).

  • 12:13:10


  • 12:13:10

    KAPILOWBut instead he writes (piano) and you can just...

  • 12:13:14


  • 12:13:14

    KAPILOW...feel the pang of memory. Boring (piano). Him (piano) .

  • 12:13:20


  • 12:13:20

    KAPILOWNow, what's next is absolutely fantastic. He started with a long note (piano) on "I'm," then some fast notes (piano). Then another long note (piano). Anyone else would have done another long note, "just," (piano). But not him. He's so excited by dreaming, that it's "just like the ones," (piano). And we realize we've risen up a scale from "I'm" (piano) "white", (piano) higher and higher. "Just like," (piano) you can feel him yearning for that past. "Just like the ones, (piano), but then maybe not, "he used to know (piano). And we come back.

  • 12:14:00

    KAPILOWSo beautiful. Now, then, here's the best part of all. So, "where the treetops glisten." Now how do you make that come alive in music? He could have easily written, and anyone else would have written, "where the tree tops glisten" (piano).

  • 12:14:14


  • 12:14:14

    KAPILOWThat would have been normal. The part of the chord, sort of normal chords, "tree tops glisten" (piano). But he writes, "tree tops" (piano) and that note, I mean, all the urgency and the yearning is in that. And, then, anyone else could have written, (piano). But he does this --this beautiful left hand (piano). And then listen to this beautiful chord. Listen, first it's minor (piano). Ah.

  • 12:14:45


  • 12:14:45

    KAPILOWRight there. Those two notes (piano) are what make it great. And then to here, this is -- I never noticed this was there, because it's never in any of the arrangements -- "to hear," (piano) the words are, "sleigh bells in the snow" (piano) and then the actual sleigh bells are in the piano part (piano). Those are the sleigh bells in the snow. I mean, isn't this fantastic stuff?

  • 12:15:08

    NNAMDIAs you pointed out, any normal person would have written it differently. I consider myself normal. I would not have written it like that.

  • 12:15:15

    KAPILOWBut you know what's also interesting? When we talk about tradition, you know, that idea of passing it on to your descendents, but first making it bear fruit. Once I studied this, then I listened and I realized, that's not what Bing Crosby sings. He take the tradition and he makes it his own. First of all, he completely changes all the rhythm. But he adds wonderful little touches. Like instead of singing, "I'm," -- pardon for me singing on the air, I have the world's worst voice -- but instead of singing "dreaming," he had this little flip in his voice.

  • 12:15:43

    KAPILOWHe adds two extra notes, like sort of a Mariah Carey American Idol thing. He goes, "I'm dreaming," and he had this little flip. That's what makes it his own. Then he changes all the rhythms. He goes, "dreaming, of a white," as if he's lost in the dream world, not what Berlin did.

  • 12:16:03

    NNAMDIThat's all Crosby.

  • 12:16:04

    KAPILOWIt's all Crosby. And, in fact, you realize the whole song, he makes it sort of casual, as if he's talking the song as opposed to singing it. It has nothing to do with what the actual Irving Berlin did. And even on that great high note, on "glisten," instead of making it long, "glisten," he does, "glisten." "And children listen." It's making his tradition his own.

  • 12:16:26

    NNAMDIHear that, dad. You're no Bing Crosby. Does this song typify what Stravinsky was talking about? Bing Crosby taking an idea, making it his own and passing it along to all of us to do with it as we wish?

  • 12:16:38

    KAPILOWBut not only that, it does it on multiple levels. First of all, I think one of the things that's fascinating about this song is the quintessential Christmas song is written by an immigrant Jew. So, I mean, whose tradition is it? You know, actually, there is originally a verse. This song...

  • 12:16:51

    NNAMDII was about to say, an introductory -- a short, introductory verse that Berlin apparently wrote before launching into the main theme.

  • 12:16:58

    KAPILOWExactly. And that makes it so much worse, because it makes it so much more specific. It's, "The sun is shining. The grass is green. The orange and palm trees sway." He's actually written it in L.A. And then it goes, "There's never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A." But he says, "I'm yearning to go up North." And so, all of a sudden, you know, it's someone who's stuck in L.A., but yearning for something that isn't there.

  • 12:17:21

    NNAMDINow, does anyone include that in any of the popular recordings?

  • 12:17:23

    KAPILOWNo one ever does it, because suddenly -- and it's not this dreamland that we can all plaster ourselves on top of it -- then it actually becomes an actual specific moment in time. But it's the universality of when you just start, "I'm dreaming of a white Christmas." But there are two more things I've got to tell you about this song...

  • 12:17:38

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:17:38

    KAPILOW...two more great, great things that I never noticed. So, okay, we come back. We do our first verse. Then we start to repeat. Whenever we start to repeat, there's an opportunity. All of this is exactly like the first verse, (piano) second time, "dreaming of a white Christmas." All this is exactly the same. (piano) All this is the same, "with every Christmas card I write," all exactly the same. (piano) By the way, one thing I didn't realize is, after that line, "with every Christmas card I write," the whole rest of it is in quotes.

  • 12:18:04

    KAPILOWIt's actually the words of the Christmas card he wrote. "May your days be merry and bright and may all your Christmases be white," is in quote marks, because it's his own Christmas card. But here's the great thing. We're still copying the music. (piano) "May your days be merry," the first time we went, (piano). But here's the climax, so everyone expects (piano). I want you to expect that. But then what he does is, "merry and bright," (piano) on that heart -- that high note, that heart-tugging chord, that's what makes this so beautiful. (piano) And then, watch this.

  • 12:18:43

    KAPILOWIt's beautiful, but then one touch of minor (piano). I mean, isn't that exquisite? From (piano) and then, but maybe not. And then the beautiful ending. And that minor makes this major sound so beautiful. (piano) He could have kept the same chord. (piano) No. And then, this is what's so beautiful, and Bing Crosby misses it. There hasn't been a single note shorter than a one-beat note in the whole piece. Everything has either been, "dum-dum," one beat or longer. But right on the last words, (piano) "all your Christmases," (piano) "Chri-stmas-es."

  • 12:19:20

    KAPILOWThat's the one short note. (piano) "Chri--stmas-es," which makes that high note so beautiful. (piano) "Chri--stmas-es," anyone would have put one chord here (piano) "mases be," he does three different chords. "mas-es be" and then we finish on "white," and we float to the heavens. (piano) Out of L.A. into the imagined past.

  • 12:19:43

    NNAMDIWell, we think of this as Bing Crosby's song, even though it was written by Irving Berlin. Do composers tend to get lost in the shuffle when a song becomes as incredibly popular as this one is?

  • 12:19:54

    KAPILOWYou know, you've brought up such an enormously huge point, because, you know, before this time, you know, we tended to think of music as the composer's music. You know, we think of it as Beethoven's 7th Symphony. We don't think of it as Leonard Bernstein's 7th Symphony, although on the album cover it's always Leonard Bernstein twice as large as Beethoven on the actual album covers. But we tended to think of the music as fundamentally the composer's.

  • 12:20:15

    KAPILOWBut with popular music we start to pass on traditions in a different way. If I'm going to do a Beethoven Symphony today, I'm going to certainly play the notes that Beethoven wrote. The area of interpretation is much smaller. You have to do the dynamics, you have to do the articulations, you have to do the notes. But with popular song, the tradition of how you pass it on becomes different. Now it is owned by the performer. If we're going to do an old song now, if someone's going to do White Christmas today, we "cover it." We make it our own and it's, in fact, how different we can make it from the original that is our reason for passing it on.

  • 12:20:49

    KAPILOWYou know, I did a wonderful program at Lincoln Center and it was called "Anything But Standard." And I took the original version of "Tea For Two" -- I found the original parts from the Broadway Show -- did it exactly as printed and then I transcribed Ella Fitzgerald's version, you know, in which none of the words are there, the harmonies are different, the melody's different, at which point you actually say, what is the song, you know. And then I did Thelonious Monk's version of George Gershwin, you know.

  • 12:21:13

    KAPILOWAnd what it makes you realize is how we pass on traditions in popular music has really changed because now, it really is the performer's art who's reinterpreting the song and he's doing just what Stravinsky said. He's making it bear fruit by taking it, making it his own and then passing it on to the next generation to do the same.

  • 12:21:32

    NNAMDIYou can catch Ron Kapilow on what makes it great this Sunday, December 15 at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum's Baird Auditorium. He'll be looking at Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy, something that we'll be talking about when we come back with pianist Yuliya Gorenman. But before we go to a break, I think Allison in Washington, D.C. has a comment about White Christmas. Allison, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:56

    ALLISONOh, I'm really sorry, I'm outside, but I'm glad you finally talked about the first verse of "White Christmas." I grew up in Southern California and my father always sang the first verse of "White Christmas," because when you grow up seeing palm trees with Christmas lights, you have a real appreciation for why Irving Berlin was sitting at a swimming pool in Hollywood and wrote that first stanza. So I love the first verse of "White Christmas." And I wish it would be included in...

  • 12:22:32

    NNAMDIIn more performances.

  • 12:22:34

    ALLISONBing Crosby didn't sing it in the movie so that's why it's never included anywhere so I'm glad you talked about it.

  • 12:22:40

    KAPILOWWell, also I think you're absolutely right but I think one of the wonderful things that's so interesting is it's a song of yearning in a way. You know, it's about the things that we don't have. When you locate in L.A. you realize it is that yearning, and I know, I've been out in L.A., I was there last week. You know, the Christmas Season seems so ludicrous to be hearing White Christmas when it's 70 degrees out there. But in a way it's about a deep yearning.

  • 12:22:58

    KAPILOWAnd, in fact, one of the reasons the song was so popular was it was sung in 1942 during the war. And one of the places it was most popular was overseas with the soldiers who were really yearning for something they were truly far away from. And, in fact, it's also a key moment in the transition between live performance and recorded performance. Because it was the wartime we started doing radio broadcasts and recorded performances as opposed to live. And so this was shipped as 78s to the soldiers overseas.

  • 12:23:25

    KAPILOWSo whether you're in L.A. with palm trees in the wrong weather or you're overseas fighting for the country, this kind of longing for the absolute homespun-Hallmark card, you know, Whitman's-Sampler Christmas that probably we never had -- and if we did probably didn't enjoy our relatives at anyway, you know, that's part of all this. So I think the yearning is what the song makes special.

  • 12:23:44

    NNAMDIEven with the home you never had. I grew up in Guiana, South America, which has never seen snow and never will, yet the song is still incredibly popular there.

  • 12:23:53

    KAPILOWThat's -- I mean, the yearning is universal beyond the circumstances of whether you're a Jewish composer or living in a very beautiful L.A. where it's 70 degrees where I wish I was right now.

  • 12:24:02

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. Rob Kapilow is not in L.A. He is right here in studio with us. And if you have questions or comments for him, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Is there a piece of music that you would like Rob's opinion about? Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or send email to You can shoot us a Tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:26:10

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Rob Kapilow. He's an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator, host and creator of the What Makes It Great music series found on NPR and in concert halls around the country. Rob is also the author of several books including "What Makes It Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you often hear passages that sound the same and songs by a particular artist or composer? Something we'll be talking about shortly, 800-433-8850.

  • 12:26:40

    NNAMDIBut Rob, I have to share this email we got from Dennis. "The most annoying Christmas song ever is "Little Drummer Boy," elevators, shopping malls, wherever, they all play this song over and over. It takes me until March to get it out of my mind." Any comments on that song at all?

  • 12:26:58

    KAPILOWYou know, I think that's a great song. First of all, I mean, the idea of having this great drum part, you know, in a way it's like bolero. You know, you've got this one rhythm and then there's this great build, you know. Each verse gets more and more and more and more . And the rhythm gets more and more infectious. And I think the fact that you can't get it out of your mind until March is a good thing. That's a hook. That means it's actually been a successful song.

  • 12:27:20

    KAPILOWSo I think listen for the big arch and listen for how much you can do with the simplest most elementary snare drum. I just think it's great. And then the voice floats on top of that rhythmic ostinato. I think it's a fantastic song and I think it's great that you can't get it out of your mind until March.

  • 12:27:36

    NNAMDIA four-month ear worm. That's got to be some kind of record.

  • 12:27:39

    KAPILOWThat's the mark of a success as a part of a composer. All we want is for you to listen to it until March.

  • 12:27:43

    NNAMDILet's step away from Christmas for a few minutes and tie in this traditions theme with what you're doing here in Washington this week. We'll be looking at Franz Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy on Sunday, 6:00 pm, Natural History Museum's Baird Auditorium with the pianist Yuliya Gorenman. Tell us a little bit about this piece and then we'll take a listen.

  • 12:28:03

    KAPILOWGood, but first I want to just say, you know, you're talking about this theme of tradition. And just before we get to this piece, the whole idea of what makes it great really is about this tradition kind of thing. I mean, so much classical music is traditional music. It's old music. Its music was written 200, 300 years ago. Why listen to it today? And, you know, the whole goal of what makes it great is to actually do what Stravinsky said, is to take this tradition but make it come alive for people.

  • 12:28:28

    KAPILOWYou know, it's always been my greatest belief that I think everyone in the world loves classical music, but most people have never really heard it. And when I say really heard it, I mean in the kind of way we took apart Great Christmas -- "White Christmas." And I think that's really the whole point of the What Makes It Great series is to take this traditional music that a lot of people think, oh my god, what's in it for me, and actually make it come alive, make it bear fruit for the listener so that they can pass it on to the next generation.

  • 12:28:53

    KAPILOWNow, this particular piece is actually a wonderful case of that. Schubert, I mean, as I'm sure many of you know, died tragically young at the age of 31, you know. So Schubert's early middle and late career were all about five years apart. But he wrote this song called The Wanderer, you know, in 1816 when he was 19 years old. You know, it's one of those great happy text in which everybody dies in the end, you know. The last line of this text is, you know, there where you are not there is your happiness. It's kind of the exact opposite of white -- I mean, that's the kind of text you would love. You know, there where I'm not that's where my happiness is.

  • 12:29:25

    KAPILOWAnyway, he wrote this song in 1816. But then in 1822, just after finishing The Unfinished Symphony, he went back to it and he got inspired by the actual tune itself and turned it into a piano piece in a slow movement. But then as we'll see, not only did he turn into a piano piece but he made it actually the theme of an entire four-movement fantasy, the most virtuosic piece he ever wrote in his life. But it all grew out of him taking his own tradition, his own song and recreating it and reinventing it.

  • 12:29:58

    KAPILOWIn a way, this entire 25-minute piece is a cover of his own earlier song. So let's just hear a little bit of what he started with and then we'll see what he did with it.

  • 12:30:07

    NNAMDIHow he took something old and made it new.

  • 12:30:09

    KAPILOW...made it new.

  • 12:31:04

    NNAMDII should mention, that's the voice of the great German lieder singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau who died last year. He's Germany's best known singer of lieder or art songs but Rob Kapilow, take it from there.

  • 12:31:16

    KAPILOWBut I have to say, isn't that an exquisite performance?

  • 12:31:18


  • 12:31:18

    KAPILOWI mean, you know, even if you don't know a word of German, you feel the pain, you feel the yearning. Okay. So let's see how he did Irving Berlin version, you know, the Bing Crosby to Irving Berlin's version here. So, I mean, you start off with one of those beautiful lines, "the sun seems so cold to me here." (piano) The sun seems so cold. So now, in the piano version, he makes it even starker. I mean, as bad as the weather is in this version, (piano) this version at least has a melody here. The piano version just makes it this, (piano) that low sound.

  • 12:31:55

    KAPILOWI mean, already it's such a beautiful taking of tradition and reinterpreting it. Then he takes...

  • 12:31:59

    NNAMDII'm loving it already, yes.

  • 12:32:00

    KAPILOWI mean, that low chord already makes it even more somber than the voice ever could. Then he takes the next part which had a melody still (piano) and he makes it into nothing but this, (piano) and this great rolled chord, (piano) reinterpreting what the voice did in the piano's language. Okay. Then the next phrase -- that's all we need is really one more phrase -- then the flowers faded, the life old. I mean, these texts are so depressing. Okay.

  • 12:32:28

    KAPILOWThe flowers (piano) again, there's these melody notes, a leap up to a yearning note. (piano) I mean, you feel how faded life is on that note. But what does he do in the piano? (piano) Takes out the melody, changes the high note chord even worse, (piano) ah, beautiful chord. Then the ending of the voice raise was, again even more stark just (piano) I mean, you feel it. This is the end of the world. There is no happiness here.

  • 12:33:04

    NNAMDII'm depressed.

  • 12:33:05

    KAPILOWYeah, exactly. But then here, there's hope, wait, right around the corner. So what do you do with this? Okay. You've got an idea, four notes. (piano) I'm just going to call this long, short, short, long. It's important we use some really technical vocabulary here on this. Okay. So what do you do with this? (piano) There's a famous dream that Schubert recorded. And in this dream he said, when I attempted to sing of love, it turned to pain. And again, when I tried to sing of pain, it turned to love. Thus, were love and pain divided in me. And I think we all know, so often that's the case. What starts as love turns one day into pain and back and forth. And that's what he does.

  • 12:33:47

    KAPILOWThis was a minor key, a depressing minor key. (piano) How can I turn this into something hopeful? How can I turn pain into love?

  • 12:33:56

    NNAMDIPlease do.

  • 12:33:56

    KAPILOWHe says, what if I threw it higher? (piano)

  • 12:34:01

    NNAMDII'm feeling better.

  • 12:34:01

    KAPILOWThat's already better but now listen to what I put underneath. (piano) This -- here's how you reinterpret tradition. Now becomes major, higher like this. (piano) I mean, isn't that a -- I mean, from this to this, (piano) there's hope.

  • 12:34:22

    NNAMDII'm mellow now, yes.

  • 12:34:23

    KAPILOWI mean, suddenly, it's different. Then he invents a new continuation. (piano) But now watch, love and pain are so close together, here's Schubert in a nutshell. We start back to the original version, (piano) which was minor, but now we do it for one beat in major, (piano) but now, oh it's minor. And somehow in that one beat, we've gone from hope, from love to pain.

  • 12:34:54

    NNAMDIBack to pain.

  • 12:34:58

    KAPILOWBut then we yearn just like Berlin. So much of music is about the yearning that we all feel, but we can't express in words. You know, someone once said that music starts where normal communication ceases. And then we yearn (piano) to that beautiful high note, just like the glisten in Irving Berlin. We try again to find somewhere where there's happiness. (piano) We can't find it, we get softer, we decorate it. (piano) But just when you're about to kill yourself, still there's hope. We're back to major.

  • 12:35:36

    NNAMDICome back.

  • 12:35:36

    KAPILOWWe're back and the piece just moves back and forth in such a beautiful way between love, between pain, between hope, between joy. That's what's at the heart of this. Now remember, this all came from that one simple phrase (piano) but the amazing thing is, that's only the beginning. This is the second movement. He sees so many more possibilities. Once you've gotten your ear and you're a great composer -- you know, I often say, what composition is really about is listening for possibility. Hearing possibilities where no one would see it before.

  • 12:36:07

    KAPILOWAll we've got is a long, short, short, long, a repeated note. (piano) He says, what if I do it here, (piano) long, short, short, long? What if I make it major (piano) long, short, short, long then do it twice as fast? (piano) Long, short, short, long, short, short, long. Suddenly the entire first movement of this piece grows out of that simple idea, long, short, short, long, short, short, long. An entire movement grows out of what can come from just (piano) and suddenly if you come on Sunday, you'll hear the rest of that story. I have to leave something for you. But the entire first movement grows out of that.

  • 12:36:46

    NNAMDIAnd based on one single motive -- one basic motive.

  • 12:36:48

    KAPILOWBased on long, short, short, long. (piano) In fact, all four movements of this piece are linked by long, short, short, long. I mean, what do you need to invent something? All you need is a long, short, short, long. You know, Etherpound (sp?) once said, genius is the capacity to see ten things where the ordinary man sees one. Well, this piece is the capacity to hear 20 minutes of music out of (piano) long, short, short, long. I mean, it's just stunning.

  • 12:37:17

    KAPILOWThere's a great moment right before the second movement -- I'll just show you one little great place where what could we do out of (piano) long, short, short long? Well, we're doing it fast, (piano) long, short, short, long. This doesn't sound very promising. But what if I do it with a chord here? (piano) Long, short, short, long, then try here. (piano) What if I add two notes? And constantly everything you're going to hear is long (piano) what. Each chord is like a stab in the heart, (piano) short, short, long. But all of this comes from (piano) all these different versions, (piano) short, short -- do it here (piano) long, short, short -- do it here, (piano) make a progression.

  • 12:37:56

    KAPILOWEvery single thing you're hearing is (piano) long, short, short, long, short, short, long, short, short. Then you're exhausted. I mean, at this point, you just -- you've heard every possibility you could possibly imagine for long, short, short, long. But then we turn it into this, (piano) long, short, short, long, short, short, long, short, short. We're so exhausted now, it's just long. We're dying. We can't do anything more than long. And then that actually is how we lead into the second movement, the actual song,(piano) which now seems to come out of the beginning even though this was the tradition, the thing that actually started it off.

  • 12:38:35

    KAPILOWBut now we've arrived at that and we feel like we've taken that journey. You got to come on Sunday to hear the whole journey. But all of that from nothing more than (piano) long, short, short, long. That's how you take a tradition and make it bear fruit.

  • 12:38:48

    NNAMDIAre there any other composers who plagiarize themselves and inserted music they'd written previously into new works?

  • 12:38:54

    KAPILOWConstantly. In fact, you know, I think we're going to talk about Messiah in a little while.

  • 12:38:57


  • 12:38:58

    KAPILOWI mean, Handel constantly borrows from himself in his own piece. In fact, one of the most famous pieces in Messiah, for unto us a child is born, I mean, here we're heralding the birth of Christ, it actually was a frivolous love duet, you know, about blind love. And he literally stole it -- it's the exact same piece -- and took it from secular to sacred from a little frivolous love duet about some, you know, jilted lover. And it became for unto us a child is born, which is why there's such a weird long first note on the word for.

  • 12:39:26

    KAPILOWEver wonder why it's for unto us? I mean, it was actually something completely different in Italian and it was a love duet. So yes, lots of composers use what they do. I myself have to say I'm writing a string orchestra piece right now, and though I don't want to say this in public, I actually stole the ending from an earlier octet I wrote for this string orchestra piece. So I think composers are continually going back because that's the thing. You never exhaust possibilities. You know, you finish the piece but it's what's possible.

  • 12:39:51

    NNAMDIRob Kapilow's self plagiarizing. Here is Mary Beth in Reston, Va. Mary Beth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:39:59

    MARY BETHYeah, I was just wondering because we were living in East Berlin in the '80s and we were at a Christmas market and I swear it was Bing Crosby's voice singing "White Christmas," in German. So I was wondering did they often record in other languages for an overseas market?

  • 12:40:18

    KAPILOWWell, that's an interesting question. I mean I know that they did a lot of that with films, but, you know, they were dubbed. I don't think that Bing Crosby actually sung it in German, but maybe somebody knows about that. Maybe it was someone who sounded who sounded like Bing Crosby.

  • 12:40:30

    NNAMDIYes. Because...

  • 12:40:31

    BETHYeah, I mean it sounded so much like him. And I'm like well, maybe they just wrote it out phonetically for him to sing it in German or something.

  • 12:40:40

    KAPILOWPossibly. You know, there's a research topic.

  • 12:40:43

    BETHYeah, okay.

  • 12:40:43

    KAPILOWThere's a research topic.

  • 12:40:44

    BETHThank you. I enjoy the program.

  • 12:40:45

    NNAMDIIn addition to which there are imitators of every culture. Mary Beth, thank you for your call. We move on to Dawn in Leesburg, Va. Dawn, your turn.

  • 12:40:52

    DAWNHey, Kojo. You guys were talking about "White Christmas," and I just have to share. That was my father's favorite song ever, ever. And so we would sing it for our allowance, no matter what time of year it was. It's allowance day, you know what you get. I mean this was the '60s, so you know you're getting 50 cents. And we'd sign it for our 50 cents and we'd be excited and we wouldn't get allowance until we sang "White Christmas" at the dinner table.

  • 12:41:23

    KAPILOWWell, you know, I think that's a perfect example, by the way, of how you make a tradition your own. For a lot people it means Christmas. For you it meant allowance. But, you know, you turned it into your own -- by the way, you know, there's a great quote, you know, Irving Berlin said about this song. He said, "It's not only the greatest song I ever wrote, it's the greatest song anyone ever wrote."

  • 12:41:37

    DAWNI was married in August and it was a father/daughter dance at our wedding, and the same with my sisters, it was what we danced to with our father at our wedding, too.

  • 12:41:49

    NNAMDISo you played "White Christmas" at your August wedding?

  • 12:41:51

    DAWN"White Christmas" at my August wedding. And he passed away and we sang "White Christmas" because that was who my father was. He was Bing Crosby in a different body. And so it's not Christmas without "White Christmas" and you can't sing it with anybody else, but Bing.

  • 12:42:07

    KAPILOWWell, but also I think, you know, you made it your own. It became your father. It became more than Christmas.

  • 12:42:11

    DAWNIt's my father. It is.

  • 12:42:12

    KAPILOWAnd that's why you could sing it at your wedding. You know, it became your father.

  • 12:42:14

    DAWNIt's my allowance money.

  • 12:42:14

    NNAMDIDawn, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:42:16

    KAPILOWAnd your wedding.

  • 12:42:19

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Phillip, who said, "I read somewhere that the chimes and percussion player on Bing Crosby's Christmas album was Spike Jones, the famous musical comedian. It is alleged that the idea of striking the wrong chime in one of those dreamy songs inspired him to go into musical parody. By the way," says Phillip, "Jones attended the same high school in California, Long Beach Polytechnic as Marilyn Horne and one Calvin Broadus," also known as Snoop Lion or Snoop Dogg or whatever he's calling himself this week.

  • 12:42:54


  • 12:42:54

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue our conversation with Rob Kapilow. He's an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:44:54

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Rob Kapilow. He's an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator, host and creator of the "What Makes It Great" music series that can be found on NPR and in concert halls around the country. He's the author of several books, including, "What Makes It Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composers." Rob, and "What Makes It Great," will be available this Sunday, December 15th at the Smithsonian's Natural History Baird Auditorium.

  • 12:45:19

    NNAMDIHe'll be looking at Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy with pianist Yuliya Gorenman. And if you would like to get tickets you can go to He appears on Sunday for the Washington Performing Arts Society. You can get tickets at or call at 202-785-9727. And let's circle back to holiday music, Rob.

  • 12:45:46


  • 12:45:46

    NNAMDIBut this time let's take a look at a classical holidays staple, Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."

  • 12:45:52


  • 12:45:54

    NNAMDIWe did a show about Messiah in March and found out that this piece was not written for Christmas at all.

  • 12:45:59


  • 12:45:59

    NNAMDIAnd it was not written for massive choirs. Yet, the "Hallelujah Chorus" is a popular part of our holiday repertoire. The Messiah sing-along at the Kennedy Center is one of the biggest events of the year. Since we're talking about tradition, what did Handel really intend with this piece? Is there a tradition we're supposed to be following with the "Hallelujah Chorus?"

  • 12:46:19

    KAPILOWWell, you know, I think that what Handel was he clearly read the Stravinsky quotation. And it was the Stravinsky quotation that inspired him. Because I mean it is such a perfect example of how, you know, the whole idea of tradition is not to pass it on automatically or mindlessly, but to make it bear fruit each time. Because the truth is there is no actual Messiah. The truth is every time he went to a different place he invented a new Messiah. If there was a new soloist, he wrote a new aria. If there was a big orchestra, he used the big orchestra.

  • 12:46:45

    KAPILOWIf there was a small orchestra, he used the small orchestra. You know, there is -- we look so hard because we live this era where we want the authentic real version, but the real version is that there is no version. And I think that there's something really profound about that. Is that he remade the tradition of Messiah every time he performed it. You know, we live in an era of recorded music, so we tend to think of like music as a fixed thing, like there really is a version, like it's a rock in the hand, it's the Bing Crosby version.

  • 12:47:10

    KAPILOWBut I prefer to think of music, which was always intended as live performance as a Tibetan sand painting. You make the Tibetan sand painting in a given performance, then you dissolve it and you remake it again. And that was the truth of Messiah. Every time he did it somewhere else it was a different Messiah and there was no fixed version, though we desperately want to hold it back. But it was really just a Tibetan sand painting, remade, given the circumstances, the particulars, the singers, the orchestra, the hall that he was at, at that particular moment in time.

  • 12:47:38

    NNAMDIWhy does this piece get us so fired up that we feel we need to stand up when the choir starts singing?

  • 12:48:09

    NNAMDIWhy am I standing up?

  • 12:48:12

    KAPILOWBecause it's the tradition. Although, the amazing thing is, no one knows why it's the tradition. You know, there's thousands of stories and people tell these stories for years about, you know, King George II came in and stoop when he heard this music. And since the rule was you had to stand up because royalty stood up, every stood up. Of course then later scholars looked and he was never even at the performance. But it doesn’t really matter because a legend or a story can create a tradition, just like your allowance can create a tradition around Bing Crosby.

  • 12:48:40

    KAPILOWWe're the ones who make tradition, not facts. But, you know, speaking of traditions, listening to this performance is stunning. I mean this is from a previous generation where you had massive choirs. You did this piece incredibly slow because that's what something serious, as if you did it really slow. Nowadays, this is way too slow, way too huge a choir. It's not the tradition. But each generation thinks their tradition is the right one. This is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, chorus of 1,000, play slow. Nowadays, it's fleet, it's small, it's one and a part -- but it's the new tradition.

  • 12:49:17

    KAPILOWAh, that's a great moment. We gotta go back and talk about some of this.

  • 12:49:21

    NNAMDINo. We'll talk about it right now.

  • 12:49:23

    KAPILOWThat moment is literally revelation happening in front of your very eyes. Okay. So three great things that happen in this piece. You start off -- and why do we stand, because it's such a, you know, Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, "The Tipping Point," he talks about sticky ideas. This is a sticky idea. Now, he could have easily written (piano) "Hallelujah," four even notes. (piano) "Hallelujah." No one's standing. No one's even sitting down. I mean, he could have then made the last two notes faster, (piano) "Hallelujah," that's a little better.

  • 12:49:55

    KAPILOWBut what he does is he lengthens the first note, (piano) "Ha-llelujah." And all the ecstasy of hallelujah is in that one long note, (piano) "Ha-llelujah," and then the fast notes show it. So we start off with a fantastic sticky idea, (piano) "Hallelujah." You do it one more time because that's all you need. He assumes you're incredibly intelligent. One repetition is all you need, (piano) "Hallelujah." What do you with an idea? Now, this is subtle. He takes, (piano) "lelujah", doubles the first note and makes it, (piano) "Hallelujah."

  • 12:50:24


  • 12:50:24

    KAPILOWSo the second note comes right out of it. (piano) "Hallelujah." And then we have a close, (piano) "Hallelujah." Then you do the whole thing one more time, transposed. But then, what do you have? Unison. Everybody sings together. (piano) "For the Lord God omnipotent" how do you get across the image of an omnipotent God? Well, first of all, he could have written, (piano) "For the Lord God omni," but it's this leap, (piano) "God omni." I mean only an omnipotent God could sing that octave leap in tempo. (piano) "God omni." I mean, it's incredibly hard.

  • 12:50:58

    KAPILOWThat one leap is what makes it so fantastic. All the awe is in everybody, the whole orchestra. Everyone singing the same note. (piano) "For the God omnipotent," but then immediately they show us the ecstasy, (piano) "Hallelujah, hallelujah," so we not only see the awe about the Lord God reigning, but we also see the ecstasy. Now, the other great thing about -- once you write an idea in unison, everyone's thinking the same thing. (piano)

  • 12:51:26

    KAPILOWThat allows for the possibility of it coming back later with accompaniment. So we do it down low. (piano) You tell them how omnipotent it is down low, (piano) but then you put it up high in the sopranos. (piano) But you start to add accompaniment, (piano) "Hallelujah." And suddenly you have this whole universe of just all these different ways of celebrating. But the moment we just stopped is one of my favorite moments in all "Messiah." And I have to show you this one. So we've got trumpets coming in. You've been sitting there with strings for hours. Trumpets come in. It's just the most glorious thing in the world. Trumpets and the phrase (piano).

  • 12:52:04

    KAPILOWSuddenly, everything is quiet. Suddenly, we come down to just strings and we paint the kingdom of this world because this is what it's really about. And it's this serene, beautiful moment. (piano) The kingdom of this world. We have two beats of just strings by themselves. (piano) And then it is become (piano) then we have this fantastic moment where I always had a timpani roll in, it's not in the original score, but I'm making tradition happen.

  • 12:52:31

    KAPILOWAnd what you're going to watch is the kingdom of this world literally becomes the kingdom of our Lord in one beat of music. Here we are in the kingdom of this world. (piano) It's quiet. Then timpani roll and suddenly forte, (piano) "The kingdom," I mean, that moment that the trumpets come in and literally the kingdom of this world becomes the kingdom of our Lord, right there on one beat before your very eyes.

  • 12:52:52

    NNAMDITransported on one beat.

  • 12:52:54

    KAPILOWOn one beat. And if that doesn't make you stand up, I don't know what does. It's better than King George II.

  • 12:52:58

    NNAMDISpeaking of standing up, when the "Hallelujah Chorus" is performed, there are often people who spring to their feet, but others who remain seated. This confusion touches on a subject that you often talk about, concert protocol. Are people intimidated sometimes by what's expected of them at classical performances and …

  • 12:53:15

    KAPILOWOh, constantly. They don’t know what -- they're always worried they're going to clap in the wrong place. And then the people who stand up, it's sort of an insider's knowledge, we know we're supposed to stand up. But that makes all the people who don't know that they're supposed to stand up feel like idiots, which is the whole point of classical music in the first place, let's be honest.

  • 12:53:30

    NNAMDITo make us all feel like idiots, yes.

  • 12:53:31

    KAPILOWExactly. Absolutely, that's the whole point. But, you know, I mean it's wonderful also, you know, there's many places where there's a whole division, because in a way standing up is like royalists and it means you believe in authority. But then the people who sit down, the ones who know are actually sitting down on purpose because they're saying, "We don't believe in that kind of thing. America was founded on anti-authoritarian." So there's all these ideas surrounding it. But what really matters -- let's face it -- is the music itself. What's so great is the music. All the surrounding stuff around classical music has nothing to do with this music itself, which is an incredibly, vibrant, alive tradition once you hear it and make it your own.

  • 12:54:08

    NNAMDIYou can catch Rob Kapilow in "What Makes It Great," this Sunday, December 15th, at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum's Baird Auditorium. He'll be looking at Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy, with pianist Yuliya Gorenman. Onto the telephones now. Here is Jack, in Falls Church, Va. Jack, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:26

    JACKThank you very much. I just had a question about Christmas music and the tradition, and that is who decided or how was it decided that the song from "The Sound of Music," "My Favorite Things," became a Christmas song. And I'll take my answer off the air.

  • 12:54:45

    NNAMDIYou want to know specifically, by name, who decided this?

  • 12:54:49

    JACKYeah, well, yeah, unless it was you, Kojo. In which then I understand completely.

  • 12:54:53

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Rob Kapilow respond. Rob?

  • 12:54:57

    KAPILOWWell, you know, I think a lot of these things get decided by the nameless crowd. I mean, go back to Messiah for example. Messiah was originally more done at Easter and it was never, ever done at Christmas time. It has become a Christmas tradition because it's a wonderful to do it, families come together, but it never was actually, particularly about Christmas. In fact, it tells the whole story, you know, through the whole year. And you could actually do it anytime, just like our listener's Bing Crosby. You could do it at an August wedding if you want.

  • 12:55:22

    KAPILOWBut gradually over time it becomes a tradition. So in way we make it the tradition, in the same way "Sound of Music" was just performed last week on television. And now it's going to become a family tradition of Christmas time. Also, you know, "Over the Rainbow," the "Wizard of Oz" is played at Christmas time. It's we who make these decisions. And then if it catches, if there's some kind of vibe that seems to work with the public, then it gets taken up by the group as a whole. But I don't think any one person ever decided that something was a Christmas thing.

  • 12:55:49

    NNAMDIUnless, Jack, you still think it's me. Then I'll be happy to take the credit for it. We got an email from Matt, who said, "I would love to know the guest's thoughts on the song, "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," which I have always held to be an abomination before God and man." This is it.

  • 12:56:10

    KAPILOWTo quote from "Jingle Bells."

  • 12:56:33

    NNAMDIOkay. Rob Kapilow, that's about enough of that for you, for the time.

  • 12:56:36

    KAPILOWYou know, I think there are certain pieces that so clearly speak for themselves, that they need very little interpretation on my part. And I think that one's fairly clear, but I did like the sort off off-key quote from "Jingle Bells" at the beginning.

  • 12:56:48


  • 12:56:48

    KAPILOWI had never actually heard that one before.

  • 12:56:50

    NNAMDI"Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer." We got this email from Jane, in D.C., who said, "Thank you for that brief journey into the Schubert. I heard it in the car and sat in my garage so as not to miss a minute. Oh, if all music education could be those few minutes."

  • 12:57:06

    KAPILOWWell, come on Sunday and then you'll hear the whole thing.

  • 12:57:07

    NNAMDII was about to say, it's…

  • 12:57:08


  • 12:57:09

    NNAMDII was about to say Sunday, December 15th, Smithsonian's Natural History Museum's Baird Auditorium. You can go to, if you're interested in tickets or call 202-785-9727. So you will not be in Los Angeles this weekend. You'll be here standing the cold with the rest of us, but…

  • 12:57:30

    KAPILOWAbsolutely. I was in Los Angeles last week doing Harold Arlen.

  • 12:57:32

    NNAMDIWhen are you heading back that way again?

  • 12:57:34

    KAPILOWJanuary, first week of January.

  • 12:57:37

    NNAMDIRob Kapilow. He's an award-winning composer, conductor and commentator, host and creator of the "What Makes It Great" music series found on NPR and in concert halls around the country. Rob is also the author of several books, including, "What Makes It Great: Short Masterpieces, Great Composer." Thank you so much for dropping by today.

  • 12:57:54

    KAPILOWA pleasure to be part of your tradition.

  • 12:57:56

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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