My friend Leanne sent me an article about frisson as the word applies to musical enjoyment. In French, it means “shiver,” and its Latin root, frigere, means “to become cold,” as in the food in your Frigidaire.
Every now and then, English has to borrow a word in order to communicate a concept. Ennui, for example, is not exactly boredom and not exactly dissatisfaction. It conveys instead a world-weariness, or what the poet Charles Lloyd termed “pale unrest.” It’s a feeling of jadedness, like, you know, French people. Instead of using all those words to describe the experience, we borrowed ennui from France, and it does the trick.
Frisson is almost the opposite of ennui. It describes the feeling of surprised delight–chills or goosebumps–we can feel upon hearing a piece of music or having some other aesthetic experience. Back in the day, we could move the needle on a record (over and over again) to repeat “the good parts,” as my husband used to call them. Now we have to ask Alexa to play the whole song again.
Before now, I knew the word to mean a little thrill but had never heard it used in the context of music. The article links to a Spotify list (you can find many of the pieces on YouTube instead) of 715 pieces of music that give many people a frisson. The list’s diversity is cool, from Metallica to Mozart to Johnny Cash to a bunch of people I never heard of.
This afternoon as I baked cookies I was frisson-ing over several pieces of music I associate with the Christmas season, even though they’re not technically Christmas music. I first heard Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances at a December concert years ago with the late lamented Red, An Orchestra and have associated it with the holiday ever since. I love it so much that I sometimes have to sit down during my cookie baking to regain my composure. The Bergamasca movement in Suite No. 2 is one of many good parts. Turn it up loud.
I also listened to soprano Kathleen Battle’s version of Pie Iesu on one of our Christmas cds. It’s from Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, so it’s not specifically a Christmas piece, but it’s about Jesus, so there you go. I’m sure other singers’ renditions are just fine, but I’m partial to this one. I don’t use the word sublime very often, but it applies here. I wonder how often a frisson occurs not only because of the music but because of the performance. I note for instance that some commenters on the article cite not Simon and Garfunkel’s version of “The Sound of Silence,” but the band Disturbed’s performance, which is indeed awesome. Watch it to the end.
Finally, I connect Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings to Christmas, because my husband played it at Christmas time in our first apartment on Fulton Road in Canton. Because he associated it with Christmas, I do too. It brings back our first Christmases together in that top floor place with our little Christmas trees and our old furniture and meager decorations. Also cookies. A nostalgic frisson.