Sprechgesang

July 31, 2014

Sprechgesang, n. Music. A style of dramatic vocalization intermediate between speech and song.

(Oxford English Dictionary)

You know Sprechgesang. You may not realise it, but you do. The three most celebrated examples are Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, and the theme tune to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Now, this is a story all about how
My life got flipped, turned upside down,
And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there,
I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air.

The fact is that if you know the song and can’t see the first verse written down without hearing the precise intonation of Will Smith, it is likely that you are tone-deaf. You can probably recite it yourself with your voice going up and down in all the right places.

Speaking over music has a proud tradition. The term melodrama, now used as a casual shorthand for a piece of film or theatre of unusual emotional incontinence, originally denoted a mixture of speech and music — literally melody and drama. Perhaps Schoenberg drew consciously on that tradition in Pierrot Lunaire; that is a question for a specialist to answer. Alternatively, his text, adapted from French poems by Albert Giraud, may have lent itself naturally to a semi-spoken interpretation.

Du nächtig todeskranker Mond
Dort auf des Himmels schwarzem Pfühl,
Dein Blick, so fiebernd übergroß,
Bannt mich wie fremde Melodie.

The gist of this verse is ‘I whistled for a cab and when it came near / The license plate said FRESH and it had dice in the mirror.’ Excuse my unidiomatic translation.

Rex Harrison nearly didn’t speak-sing the part of Henry Higgins at all. Alan Jay Lerner was desperate to get him on board, and Dirk Bogarde engineered a meeting at which Lerner bewitched Harrison, singing through the whole score of My Fair Lady while accompanying himself on Bogarde’s spinet. This is according to Bogarde’s memoir Snakes and Ladders. We have Dirk Bogarde partially to thank, therefore, for one of the great masterpieces of musical theatre.

Although the popular perception, endorsed I think by the man himself, is that Rex Harrison couldn’t carry a tune if his life depended on it, my opinion is that he could sing perfectly well. There are many moments in My Fair Lady where he does sing, and in tune. Not for more than about five notes at once, perhaps, but the evidence is there.

The way Harrison says the words ‘confirmed old bachelor’ at 0:42 has often reminded me of the voice of Dirk Bogarde himself, in the petulant manner of his character in, say, Death in Venice or Providence. I wonder what kind of Higgins Bogarde might have made.

The closest to Sprechgesang that Bogarde got, however, was this.

Why anyone thought it was a bright idea to make a recording of Dirk Bogarde speaking show tunes over a soft-focus orchestral backing arranged by Eric Rogers (of Carry On fame), I can’t fathom. Under contract at Rank in the 1950s, Bogarde did make several films for Ralph Thomas and Betty E. Box, respectively the brother and wife of Carry On supremos Gerald Thomas and Peter Rogers. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true

The delivery of this opening couplet is so ramshackle as to defy description, though I will have a go. The positioning of the pauses is inexplicable, the idea that pauses are required at all dubious, though perhaps they are forced on the speaker by the fact that the melody is long and lingering: to read Otto Harbach’s lyric is the work of a moment compared to singing it. Bogarde appears to stumble over the word ‘was’. The sense of the verse is misunderstood, and the performance of Bogarde not merely directionless but apparently entirely uninterested.

It’s not as if Bogarde wasn’t a good actor. The films he made from the 1960s onwards were widely feted, he was nominated six times for the Best Actor BAFTA, winning twice, he was awarded the BFI Fellowship and a knighthood. But give him a set of lyrics to read off a piece of paper and he falls apart.

I of course replied,
Something here inside

You can feel how hard he is trying to emote on the word ‘here’, in the hope of giving an impression of heartfelt introspection — the long pause before the word, then the great stress that makes him sound like nothing so much as James Mason trying to dislodge an intestinal obstruction.

By the time we reach the second verse it becomes apparent that he’s not sticking with the melody after all. He gets through two verses in one playover.

When your heart’s on fire

Never has anyone’s heart sounded more in need of defibrillation.

You must realise
Smoke gets in your eyes

If you’ve succeeded in listening as far as the 30-second mark, you yourself may be on the verge of catatonia.

So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed
To think that they could doubt my love

Hear that little hesitation on the second ‘I’, like the back-echo of an embryonic Hugh Grant? And the addition of the conjunction ‘that’, not present in the original song. Anything to pad it out, I suppose. It would be a tragedy if this performance ended too soon.

And yet today my love has flown away
And I am without my love

He’s just bunging in extra syllables all over the place now. And yet, slowly but surely, his personality is starting to break through, with the angry, upset obstinacy of Aschenbach telling the gondolier he will pay him no penny at all unless he takes him to San Marco.

So I smile and say,
When a lovely flame dies

Suddenly, somehow, I’m sold. He’s just got such a lovely voice. The kind of man you wouldn’t mind telling you you’ve got cancer.

Smoke

Hello?

gets in, your, eyes.

And Eric Rogers moves to the flattened submediant and everything is blossom and birdsong. That’s the way to do it. Schoenberg would have been proud.

Brad the Bartender

July 22, 2014

A couple of Fridays ago I became a bartender. Not in a bar, but in a church. The organ recital started at 10pm, the listing said ‘Wine and soft drinks available from 21.30′, the appointed person didn’t turn up, and so I took charge. I’m not someone who has ever taken charge of anything in my life, but I’d turned 31 just a couple of days before and decided it was now or never.

First thing was to suss out the territory. Three kinds of wine, the white (Sauvignon) chilled, with several backup bottles in the fridge, the red (Montepulciano and Chilean Merlot) not; elderflower pressé, orange juice. There were twelve wine glasses lined up already, which would suffice if business was slow, but perhaps there were more stashed away. Aha, a box under the counter. Everything was coming together nicely.

Then it was pointed out that there wasn’t a float. I had to improvise. I gently pleaded with my first patrons to pay exact change if possible. At one point I had to rush out, leaving my post unattended, to swap money for some change from the cash box at the door. One woman, buying £3.50 of drinks for her and her daughter, gave me £4 and told me to keep the change, a tacit but reassuring endorsement of my professionalism.

As the audience trickled in, I began to observe a strange alteration in my behaviour. The old social awkwardness disappeared. I felt a proprietorial pride. I leant on the bar, hallooing potential boozers. I became every bartender I have ever seen on television or in film. Sam Malone from Cheers, Brad the Bartender from Magnolia, Les from Men Behaving Badly. I haven’t watched Cocktail and, I may say without fear of contradiction, I never will, but I began to lament the absence of a cocktail shaker. Every new face automatically became a person who might confide their troubles to me as I poured them a large glass of Merlot and offered them a sympathetic ear.

Dave Atkins as Les

Dave Atkins as Les

I also assumed a jocular patter I have never possessed in real life. Give a man a bottle of wine and a person to pour it into and he suddenly finds his tongue.

White wine: Ooh, I’m out of breath after that.
Me: Did you come up Bath Street?
White wine: No, Catherine Hill.
Me: Well, they’re both steep!

This is the kind of witty banter I would never think of under normal circumstances. With other patrons I joked about the ludicrous overpricing of our drinks compared to those at the cello concert earlier in the week, and the oppressive atmosphere inside.

Elderflower: It’s very close in here.
Me: Yes, you can’t open the windows!

To see it written down, you don’t get a sense of the sheer jollity that arose from this quip. People just love small talk, that’s one of the many truths I discovered during my half hour in the limelight. They also like it if you play down your competence. I tried to engage one man by telling him that if he took a risk and bought a glass of wine he might get lucky as I’d never sold wine before and my measures were likely to be on the generous side. He didn’t buy anything, but it didn’t really matter as (I found out) people really like wine. ‘I work hard,’ their eyes seemed to say, ‘it’s Friday night. I want a glass of wine.’ One man bought a glass of red at 9.45, then came back for another one just before the recital started. Another asked me if there would be an interval. ‘No, it’ll just run straight for about an hour.’ Oh, well, in that case he’d better have two glasses. These men were clearly committed alcoholics, but you can’t let ethical considerations interfere with your job, especially when they might lead to the alienation of your core demographic. By the end I’d got through the best part of ten bottles, with enough left over for a glass of white for myself.

Not that my success was unmitigated. Near the start, one man asked for a Sauvignon and I peered at the labels on the bottles of red for a few moments before he clarified that Sauvignon meant white. Another man appeared to take umbrage at my having given his change to his wife. I wouldn’t have done it if he hadn’t suggested the money might have been hers anyway and that he was under orders from her as to what to buy. I didn’t call him a bastard, which is another illustration of my professionalism.

All things considered, I would be a bartender again, but probably not if it means I have to wash up 40 wine glasses after everyone else has gone home.

Papa Haydn wrote this tune

July 18, 2014

A reference in Paul Kildea’s Britten biography sent me scurrying for a copy of this book, which entertained the composer on a visit to America:

Spaeth - title page

If this were only a book deconstructing the great symphonies for the layman, it would be nothing remarkable, but Sigmund Spaeth takes it upon himself to provide mnemonic lyrics for each melody. It’s a treasure trove.

Some choice examples:

Spaeth - Haydn 1

Haydn, Symphony no. 94, ‘Surprise’ (Andante)


Spaeth - Haydn 2aSpaeth - Haydn 2b

Haydn, Symphony no. 92, ‘Oxford’ (Presto)


Spaeth - Schubert 1

Schubert, Symphony no. 8, ‘Unfinished’ (Allegro moderato)


Spaeth - Schubert 2

Schubert, Symphony no. 9, ‘Great’ (Andante)


Spaeth - Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn, Symphony no. 4, ‘Italian’ (Allegro vivace)


Spaeth - Brahms 1

Brahms, Symphony no. 1 (Allegro non troppo, ma con brio)


Spaeth - Brahms 2

Brahms, Symphony no. 4 (Allegro non troppo)


Spaeth is justifiably proud of his achievement, though he confesses it is not an original concept.

Credit for the germ of this whole idea really belongs to Miss Mabelle Glenn, of Kansas City, one of our outstanding educators in the field of music …

Not that he’s trying to pass the buck. As he says, ‘No justification or apology is really necessary.’ Not everyone could undertake a project like this successfully, though.

… there is a horrible memory of one musical educator who undertook to analyze Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony for an audience of children in New York. For the opening four notes, definitely described by the composer as representing “Fate knocking at the door,” this gentleman used the words “I’ve lost my hat!” … Without undue arrogance, it may be assumed that no such desecration has been committed in this volume.

Well, I’ll be the judge of that, thank you very much. A couple of big romantic themes for your delectation, firstly from the slow movement of Dvořák’s ‘New World':

Spaeth - Dvorak

And here’s the horn theme from Tchaik 5, one of the most beautiful melodies ever written. Spaeth draws on his knowledge of Tchaikovsky’s pacifism to create a subtle and eloquent plea for peace.

Spaeth - Tchaikovsky 1Spaeth - Tchaikovsky 2

Hard to know how we managed in the bad old days before this book existed, isn’t it. I suppose if there’s a disadvantage to Spaeth’s method, it may be that it makes it impossible to listen to the noble opening of Schubert 9 without the accompanying banality of the text, but that’s a small price to pay for being able to recognise it and impress your friends. ‘That’s the “Horns play the prologue slow” Symphony!’ you cry, and everyone applauds.

Like rain on your wedding day

June 25, 2014

A year ago I went to chapel and observed a bunch of students about to graduate. This year, reluctantly, I shunned the corresponding service in favour of the second half of England’s match again Costa Rica, which was so monumentally uninteresting that I didn’t even bother to look at the screen for most of it. We all make bad decisions.

This morning, our students graduated. I went to watch them line up along the side of the chapel, and clapped as they paraded past. I took an umbrella with me, as the skies looked threatening. It’s been warm recently, but two days ago Cambridge was mercilessly thundered and lightninged upon, and yesterday I arrived home semi-soaked.

As I watched the students in formation, observing the now familiar mix of camaraderie and nerves, and eventually embarrassment as we started to applaud and they perhaps realised how preposterous all this is, I found myself thinking that a rainstorm is a thing that unites us all. The rush to find a place of shelter, the resigned but smiling faces we make at each other as we come in from the wet, as if to say, This country, eh? I was a few minutes from home yesterday, the rain falling in sheets, when a young mother on a bike (complete with Rerun-style baby) pulled up next to me and asked if I would zip up the bag on her back, which had come open. Her eggs were getting wet. I can’t remember the last time I talked to a stranger in the street. I remember my own graduation ceremony only dimly, probably because I was so intent on not falling over as I knelt for the accolade that I forgot to take it in. If it had rained, things would have stayed in the memory.

Rerun

It didn’t rain today. In fact it turned into something idyllic, beautifully sunny and breezy. I can’t speak for other universities, but here you graduate, then you clear off. By the time the degree ceremony takes place, the parties have all been had. The authorities bung you a piece of card in a plastic pocket, then you go back to your room, shove some things in a box, put everything in your parents’ car, and arrivederci Cambridge. That doesn’t capture the euphoria and heartbreak jostling for supremacy in the human breast, but it’s the mechanics of the thing.

It’s a good thing to escape. Well, I imagine it is; I’ve not succeeded in doing it. I did go home after graduation, but by October I was back again, this time for good. So now I watch the students packing up and there is a small yearning in me to help them carry their lamps and kettles, and maybe, if they didn’t mind, I could sit in the back of the car and go back home with them, for who knows what adventures in the future, and I promise I wouldn’t be a bother.

You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel a bit melancholy about the prospect of not seeing people again, and that’s as true of the people leaving as it is of those staying behind. Here is a recent Varsity article from one of our leavers. ‘I know that the memory of me will fade,’ she writes, ‘people will forget I was here. I will get lost in the trail of time and thousands of other students will take my place.’ But while it’s true that Cambridge the place will forget, the people won’t. Not all of them, anyway. And I find I remember particularly well the students who give us chocolates before they leave, as two did today, one with a card that I found unexpectedly moving. Valete, students! Onward and upward!


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