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.
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.