Posts Tagged ‘Singing’

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.

On singing in choirs

March 20, 2012

Last Friday I arrived early for evensong at St John’s College, and so sat in the antechapel for 15 minutes listening to the choir practising the evening’s anthem, Bruckner’s ‘Christus factus est’, and then singing through the hymn Bow Brickhill to ‘aah’. Thus it was that I came to think of Mr Wright.

As a little boy, I liked to sing. If you doubt it, here I am struggling through Harold Fraser-Simson’s setting of A.A. Milne’s ‘Missing’ at the age of two. I get a bit lost in the middle, but the very end sees me on surer ground.

Has anybody seen my mouse?

I opened his box for half a minute,
Just to make sure he was really in it,
And while I was looking, he jumped outside!
I tried to catch him, I tried, I tried. . . .
I think he’s somewhere about the house.
Has anyone seen my mouse?

Uncle John, have you seen my mouse?

Just a small sort of mouse, a dear little brown one,
He came from the country, he wasn’t a town one,
So he’ll feel all lonely in a London street;
Why, what could he possibly find to eat?

He must be somewhere. I’ll ask Aunt Rose:
Have you seen a mouse with a woffelly nose?
Oh, somewhere about —
He’s just got out. . . .

Hasn’t anybody seen my mouse?

When I started going to school, though, I didn’t join the choir. I was embarrassed at having a weedy girly voice, in spite of all the other boys being in the same predicament, and in assembly tried to sing in my chest voice as much as possible (or not at all if we were singing something shameful like ‘We are climbing Jesus’ ladder’ which entailed much waving about of arms and, on my part, prayer for imminent death). Though I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone, I was also terrified of being asked to sing a solo, which, as far as I could discern, happened a lot to the boys and girls in the choir. Looking back on it now, I’m sure I would never have been forced to do anything against my will, and certainly not by kindly Mrs Cooper who ran the choir (and now sings with me in other ones occasionally).

Anyway, with one thing and another, it wasn’t until after my voice broke at 13 that I became interested in choral singing. I was lucky that my college had two choirs, the main one and the chamber one, run independently and covering different repertoire. With the larger choir, we sang popular stuff – songs and medleys from musicals, The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Abba (happy memories here of the basses singing with relish ‘And if he happens to be free / I bet he wouldn’t fancy me’ à la Anni-Frid) and so on – and we had a great time too. If there was the odd duff singer, it didn’t really matter, because young voices generally make a nice sound anyway. It’s a shame that I never thought to make any clandestine recordings of the choir, but I still have old programmes (and illegal photocopies of music) stowed away as reminders in some dark recess of my bedroom.

The chamber choir was run by Mr Wright, a semi-retired teacher of geography and keen amateur musician, and consisted of perhaps ten regulars, mainly students but also some staff, with a handful of irregulars. We were hardcore. You wouldn’t have got just anyone turning up to sing ‘The Silver Swan’ on a Friday lunchtime. And not just madrigals, but also Palestrina’s sublime Missa Brevis, Byrd’s Mass for five voices, bits of Tchaikovsky, and Bruckner’s graduals (see paragraph 1) — even ‘Os justi’, which is not a walk in the park. Mr Wright’s choice of music inspired us to strive for transcendence. He even pulled some strings to get us a little lunchtime concert in Wells Cathedral.

So I salute you, Mr Wright. I may have impersonated you mercilessly in my teens, but I now acknowledge you as an influence as important as the teacher who first played me bits of the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes in primary school or the teacher who encouraged my awful poetry when I was about twelve. So much of the music I sang then is still in my blood now, and I am enormously grateful for it.

Running on Empty and singing in films

April 11, 2011

I was one of many people saddened by the news over the weekend of the death of Sidney Lumet, a favourite film director of mine. The observable lack of meretricious flashiness in his films betokens the filmmaker of great sensitivity and intelligence that he was. On Sunday I watched his harrowing drama The Pawnbroker, notable for a riveting central performance by Rod Steiger as a repressed concentration camp survivor and an excellent Quincy Jones score (his first). I followed it up, foolishly, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film which seems to embody everything Lumet was not about: spectacle, noise, and vacuity.

The obituaries list the same celebrated films over and over – 12 Angry Men, Network, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon – but a particularly fine example of Lumet’s craft has been omitted from all those I have read, even Roger Ebert’s reminiscence, though Ebert gave it the highest rating of four stars in his original review when it came out. The film is Running on Empty.

River Phoenix, c. 1988

Released in 1988, it’s now most often thought of as one of the small legacy of films left behind by River Phoenix, and watching it one feels a sense of tragedy at the premature death of this man who was not merely beautiful but also talented in multiple directions. His performance was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, though he is very much at the film’s centre. He plays Danny, the elder son of Arthur and Annie Pope (Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti). As young radicals the Popes were involved in the bombing of a napalm laboratory in an anti-Vietnam protest, and nearly 20 years later they are still on the run from the police. They love their sons dearly, but are compelled to give them an unstable upbringing, moving on every few months or years as their past catches up with them, and creating new identities and appearances for themselves.

This fugitive life is all that Danny and his little brother Harry have ever known, but now Danny is growing up, and two complications have arisen: firstly, he is a talented pianist who wishes to audition for the Juilliard School, which, if successful, would mean a break with his family, perhaps permanently (one has to suspend one’s critical faculties here – Danny is a good pianist, and so was Phoenix judging by the evidence, but none of the pieces he plays is sufficiently demanding to demonstrate whether or not he is Juilliard material – and who ever became a virtuoso with only a dummy keyboard for practice, apart perhaps from Joe Cooper?); secondly, he has fallen in love, with Lorna (Martha Plimpton), the daughter of his school music teacher.

One of many touching scenes is that of Lorna’s visit to Danny’s house for a meal. His father is suspicious of her at first, as he is of everyone outside the family. They turn on the radio while they do the washing up, and James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’ comes on. Arthur begins to sing along, and Lorna joins in. The two of them begin to dance together, and soon the whole family follows suit. Danny’s parents see in Lorna the free, rebellious spirit of their own youth, and, for all the eccentricities of Danny’s home life, Lorna finds something in his family that she does not have in her own, which is austere, though not devoid of love.

It’s a well judged and tenderly handled scene, but there is also a simple joy in seeing these people singing spontaneously. In musicals, impromptu bursting into song doesn’t mean anything, but in the context of an otherwise non-musical film, whether it makes contextual sense (as it does here), or doesn’t (as in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, where the central characters sing along with Aimee Mann’s song ‘Wise Up’), I can rarely forbear to smile when watching. Perhaps the success of such musical interludes depends on their unpredictability. The sense of spontaneity in the Running on Empty scene is reinforced by the song appearing unbidden, coming by chance from the radio rather than from an expressly selected record.

It’s easy to see why the two scenes I mention above are a rarity in films, at least in films operating at the level of reality that Running on Empty occupies: a communal singing scene can come across as unwelcomely gratuitous (as some would argue the Magnolia scene does) or as a distraction from the thrust of the film. Shakespeare didn’t have these reservations, I find myself thinking. A well placed song can be a very effective punctuation mark in the scheme of a drama, equivalent to an aria in opera (which is how the Magnolia scene functions, as an ensemble piece uniting several characters at individual crisis points, in a moment of reflection while the action pauses). The song scene in Running on Empty, by contrast, is more like recitative – it’s not merely a song for its own sake, but also a plot device to show the Pope family’s acceptance of Lorna into their life and her acceptance of them.

While Running on Empty was broadly acclaimed on its release, there were dissenting views (see Hal Hinson’s mean-spirited review from the Washington Post for a taster). As far as I’m concerned, it’s a most sensitively judged drama, with the dynamics of the family as a single unit and as constituent elements beautifully played. Hirsch, an actor with more versatility than he is often given credit for, and Lahti, whose meeting with her estranged father, played by Steven Hill, provides the most moving scene in the film, are both superb, and those viewers not nauseated by adolescent romance will find the scenes between Phoenix and Plimpton touching.

Lumet, unlike Spielberg, generally succeeds admirably in keeping sentimentality in check. This is a film where his hand wavers slightly, but I think the viewer would have to have a hard heart indeed not to feel both moved and exhilarated by the climax. If it’s not his absolute finest work, then it’s a typical example of what he was capable of – an involving, considered and poignant drama. I still rate 12 Angry Men as his greatest achievement, if not his most ambitious, but in addition to the titles already mentioned above I would put in a good word for his film of Eugene O’Neill’s stark Long Day’s Journey Into Night, which is quite mesmerising.


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