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A prolific paleontologist reflected on his mentor, Peter Wilhousky, for a 1988 issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  Stephen Jay Gould and another alumnus of the New York All City High School Choir had returned to listen to the group thirty years after they’d been members (In their day, there were equal numbers of SATB and the director frowned upon rock and roll).  As they listened, there was a noticeable imbalance of male voices, with the tenors nearly screaming by the end of the number Jeanette.  More fascinating is the fact that the writer’s career path had been not in music, but in science education at Harvard.  He remembered the rigorous training and Wilhousky’s insistence on perfection.  “Fourth row, fifth seat: You’re flat.”


Peter J. Wilhousky (1902-1978) grew up in Passaic, New Jersey.  His parents had emigrated from what is now northern Czechloslovakia, and sang in the choir of SS Peter and Paul Greek Catholic Church (which in 1920 changed to Russian Orthodox).  Young Peter went to live at the school of the Russian Cathedral Boys choir as a soprano soloist.  He performed with them at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson in 1920.

After graduating from the Damrosch Institute of Musical Arts (now Julliard), he got a job teaching high school music in Brooklyn.  Gradually he built the program and became Director of Music for New York City Schools; in 1936 he trained 1500 students for a concert at the opening of Madison Square Garden.  Later he whittled the number to 250 for annual performances at Carnegie Hall.

The two songs for which he is remembered are Carol of the Bells and The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  He wrote the notes for neither, but arranged their scores with musical genius, adding English words to Carol (Schedryk), which had been composed by Mykola LeontovychHis stirring version of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn was made famous by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and is known to choirs young and old everywhere.

When Wilhousky died at the age of 76, the New York Times noted he had once played violin for Ozzie Nelson’s orchestra.  Then again, he conducted the NBC Symphony in a 1947 radio broadcast of Otello.  A versatile and accomplished artist, he left an everlasting mark on students he touched personally — in the opera, in symphonies, on Broadway, as teachers in their own classrooms, and across their daily lives.  And on all of us who ever memorized his combination of notes, dynamics, and timing for a concert.

I copied below a boys’ choir performance of Carol of the Bells.  It is a group much like the one Peter Wilhousky sang in when he was young.  Perhaps the beginnings of this song, which he would write thirty years hence, were in his mind then.











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“You don’t need any more Christmas wrapping paper!”
My daughters have said this to me more than once when we’re out shopping or looking through stationery catalogs.  But can you ever have too much wrapping paper?  It makes giving more fun; it allows you to create your own art form; I just like looking at the presents and grouping them in stacks according to color (yes, a little bit of the OCD tendency there).  And the rolls fit under the bed so well.
How did we get from “brown paper packages tied up with strings” to the $2.6 billion gift wrap industry today?  A little checking on the Internet reveals that it makes up half the 85 million tons of paper products sold each year, and 30 million trees are cut down to produce it.  Yikes!
In the Second Century B.C., the Japanese placed gifts of money in envelopes called “chin poh” made from hemp, bamboo, and rice.  They also wrapped gifts in “furoshiki,” or reusable cloth.
Before 1900 Victorians wrapped their gifts in elaborate paper and ribbon. Mercantiles used tissue paper.  In 1916, storekeepers Joyce and Rolloe Hall ran out of it and substituted some special French paper instead.  It caught on in following years, and eventually became a key product of their company, Hallmark.
The process of wrapping a present can be tricky.  You’ve first got to cut the paper to the right size; if you don’t, trimming the ends after the middle part is secured requires precision so that it covers. but doesn’t overlap too much.  Invisible tape is preferable to cellophane, which shines on the seams.  We would never want anyone to think this package was taped, would we?  I used to teach a geometry lesson while gift wrapping: right angles and perpendicular lines, acute angles…
And then, ribbon.  I love wired ribbon that can be stretched and molded just how you want it.  I’ve given up curling ribbon and found it better to let the loose strands fall in a mass than having them boing like Shirley Temple’s curls.  I’ve also massacred those “easy pull” flat ribbon bows so often that I don’t buy them anymore.
I do like gift bags, which can be reused to the end of saving part of those trees.  As can the tissue paper that keeps the giftee in the dark about what’s inside.
Just before Christmas, when my dining room table is covered in paper rolls, flat wrap, boxes, ribbon, and tags, I look forward to the days ahead when family will gather and memories will be made.  The embellishments make it a little more happy.