‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ brilliantly composes holiday cheer

Matt Campbell

There are few albums in the holiday genre that can be enjoyed outside the season, and there are arguably even fewer that can be enjoyed inside it as well.

Some shudder when they hear the sultry crooning of Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra as they stumble drunkenly through a rendition of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” while others revel in the intense violin of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

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No matter how one feels about Christmas music, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that Vince Guaraldi established an aesthetic that has helped shape the sound of Christmas on the 1965 classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

The Peanuts gang is responsible for a great portion of the aesthetic that comes along with any holiday season. Sponsored by Coca-Cola, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” aired on Dec. 9, 1965, with its soundtrack arranged and performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and it has become a staple since.

The Vince Guaraldi Trio is responsible for a large part of the sound behind many of the beloved Peanuts specials from the mid-1960s, with the soundtrack to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” demonstrating a level of grace and unorthodox style not seen in popular music at the time.

While the creator of Peanuts, Charles Schulz, is largely credited for the concept of mixing jazz and traditional Christmas music, it is the execution by pianist Guaraldi, bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli that takes the minimalism of a traditional jazz trio and beautifully demonstrates the potential behind each song.

The success of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ is a very easily identifiable mix of raw talent, genius and familiarity.”

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” begins with German composer Ernst Anschütz’s “O Tannenbaum.” The song is a light tune played solo by Guaraldi before breaking into a half-tempo groove that defines the tone of the album with its coolness and careless charm.

Guaraldi’s arrangement of “My Little Drum” utilizes the voices of the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. Their first appearance is subtle and rhythmic over the decidedly more classical-influenced number that demonstrates Guaraldi’s proficiency and versatility.

“Linus and Lucy” sits triumphantly at the center of the album with its playful sound and instantly recognizable melody. It is charming and not so subtle: a critical demeanor to bear, as it represents the whole cast of the Peanuts gang, specifically Charlie Brown’s best friend, Linus, and his little sister, Lucy, who pines for Linus’ attention throughout the special.

It is within “Linus and Lucy” that we are hit with the highlight of the entire record — a groovy, dirty and walking bass-driven half-tempo break with a pocket so deep there are crumbs from last year’s Christmas cookies down there. The rhythm section is tight and determined, yet it plays with a level of ease to make the song an easy, enjoyable number to snap your fingers to while sipping on some sweet Christmas scotch.

Guaraldi’s talent for mixing classical elements with calming jazz textures is demonstrated again in all its glory with a “Christmas Time is Here” double-header, which sees a near six-minute long riff over the classic melody before fading into a reprise featuring the recording found in the special, sung by the same choir featured in “My Little Drum.”

It is the sound of Christmas in its truest form: a bold, sometimes chaotic and unashamedly timeless album.”

A critical part of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” comes from the production, with its warm and balanced mixes. The production feels a little off in some spots and occasionally warbly, which gives the songs a human element. The live performances carried out by the trio are a masterclass in patience and excellence, as each member fills their space in the song with strength and prowess.

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At the end of the special, after Charlie Brown learns the true meaning of Christmas, the cast of characters huddles around the once-small and feeble Christmas tree with a rendition of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” This traditional hymn dates back to the 18th century, but it is executed with a sense of immaturity that makes the version on the record approachable, recognizable and comforting.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” ends with a series of traditional Christmas songs including “Für Elise” and “Greensleeves,” which saw a role in the special and allowed the album to end in a way that feels natural and fits within its context as a whole.

The success of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is an easily identifiable mix of raw talent, genius and familiarity. Guaraldi’s ability to blend jazz, classical and traditional Christmas music together in an album that feels like a separate entity from its television patriarch is a testament to the greater forces behind the record.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” is a warm and cozy classic that can be enjoyed year-round and provides the perfect soundtrack to dinner parties, Christmas mornings and nights spent by the fireplace cuddling and drinking cocoa. It is the sound of Christmas in its truest form: a bold, sometimes chaotic and unashamedly timeless album.

Score: 10/10

Matt Campbell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @mcampnh