Monday, 1 November 2004

An Evening of Love Songs

At the beginning of the twentieth century there were 27,000 cafés in Paris. 150 of them had begun to provide shows where “..audiences came and went at whatever point in the night's entertainment they pleased. Almost any attire was acceptable. Food and drink might be served during the performances, at which the audience commented freely and sometimes participated. The performers had to be aggressive to compete with the smoke, noise, waiters, flower sellers, and buskers”. Such an establishment was called a café-concert or café-conc’ (be careful not to abbreviate it further).

In my town something similar still flourishes………
Once a week at a local café there is some kind of show. It might be cabaret, a recital, a jazz concert, a demonstration of belly-dancing or almost anything that people would pay a little to watch. For £10 you get the entertainment and a good simple meal; the performers get a free supper and maybe a small fee, and everyone has a whale of a time.

Last November the group providing an evening’s entertainment consisted of one distinguished professional singer, one pianist, six talented amateur singers, and me; our ages ranged from eleven to ninety.
We had intended to present twenty of the greatest love songs of all time (excluding opera), but we found we could only select from those songs which one or another of us was willing and able to sing. But there was still plenty of choice: here were the ones we chose and some notes about them. Each one was supposed to illustrate one of the many aspects of love.

1 As Time Goes By (Love Nostalgic)
No-one ever actually said “Play it again Sam”, but when Ingrid Bergmann turned up in Rick’s Bar, of all the bars in all the world, she said to Dooley Wilson “Play it, Sam”, and he did.

2 Come Into The Garden, Maud (Love Waiting)
If you take a distinguished poem and set it to magnificent music you can make a beautiful song. If you can do this more than six hundred times then you were probably born in Vienna and your name is Franz Schubert. If, on the other hand, you were born in Ireland and your name is Michael Balfe, then you cannot aspire to this achievement, but you can take an extract from a rather piffling monodrama by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, set it to music and create a charming little song.

3 Hymne à l’Amour (Love Committed)
Many marvellous songs depend almost entirely for their effect on the interpretation, but (for example) Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Elvis Presley couldn’t be there, mainly because they’re all dead. But one song of this kind we really had to include, so we cheated and played Edith Piaf's recording of it.
In 1949 she was in New York preparing for a concert at Carnegie Hall when she heard that the great love of her life, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, who was flying to join her, had been killed when his plane crashed into the Atlantic. She had many other lovers and husbands before she died in 1963, but when she sang this song it was always for Marcel Cerdan. (Sung in French)

4 None But the Lonely Heart (Love bereft)
A song by Tchaikovsky based on a poem by Goethe. (Sung in Russian)

5 The Boy in the Gallery (Love confident)In this one the singer knows where her boy friend is and knows that he loves her.

6 Pretty little Polly Perkins of Paddington Green (Love Spurned)
All too frequently it happens that the love of a good and honest man is spurned by a proud and ambitious woman, and we all know how that feels. This song tells just such a sad story.

7 Silent Worship (Love hopeless)
A beautiful song of really hopeless love. We were half expecting that after that song some small-minded idiot would cry out “Why did you include Silent Worship? You said you were excluding songs from opera and everyone knows that this was originally an aria from Handel’s 1728 opera Tolomeo.” (We had a good answer ready for this: we would have replied “Why don’t you shut up?”)

8 O Sole Mio (Love Neapolitan)
A woman called Helen Lawrenson once put in a great deal of international fieldwork on the subject of love and then summarised her conclusions in a book called Latins Are Lousy Lovers. This presumably included Neapolitans but at least they have some nice love songs and this is one. (Sung in Italian)

9 Frühlingstraum (Love longing)
Of course we had to have a Schubert song. Its English title is Dream of Spring and it is from Die Winterreise, a cycle of poems by Wilhelm Müller.(Sung in German)

10 The Foggy Foggy Dew (Love illicit)
A traditional song arranged by Benjamin Britten.

11 A la Claire Fontaine (Love lost)
An old traditional French song often sung by old traditional French men after they’ve been dipping their beaks in the Beaujolais. (Sung in French)

12 The Man I Love (Love hopeful)
In this song the girl not merely gives a detailed specification for her future love, but describes exactly what she believes will happen when they meet. One can only wish her the best of luck.

13 Ochi Chornya (Love admiring)
An old Russian song called in English Dark Eyes. We had hoped that the accompaniment would be provided by a famous balalaika player who had agreed to fly in for this evening but unfortunately his flight was held up in Tbilisi by a band of marauding Azerbaijanis, so we had to improvise. Our baritone introduced himself as follows:
I am famous old Russian singer. For many years the Theatre of Moscow and the Theatre of Petrograd were disputing about my singing. The Theatre of Petrograd wanted me to sing in Moscow, and The Theatre of Moscow preferred that I stay in Petrograd. That is why I sing Ochi Chornya for you tonight in Hastings, Sussex. (Sung in Russian)

14 Send in the Clowns (Love wistful)
From Eine Kleine Nachtmusik: not the Rondo Allegro with words set to it, but a song from Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

15 Plaisir d’Amour (Love betrayed)
A French song in which the singer tells how he gave up everything for Sylvie but she left him and took another lover. Not surprisingly, this gives him a jaundiced view of love. (Sung in French)

16 Greensleeves (Love complaining)
We didn’t sing this, but told the story of its origin while the melody was played on the piano. There is a fuller version HERE.
According to Michael Flanders, 1542 was a very bad year for the theatre. Gorboduc was doing poor business at The Globe, and people were obsessed with cock-fighting and bear-baiting and didn’t give a fig for the live theatre.
But a leading London producer, the Cameron Mackintosh of the day, came up with the idea of putting on a musical. So he hired some top minstrels and acquired the rights to some good tunes, and they started to prepare the production. But they were stuck for a good number to end the first half—a First-Act Closer, as it’s called. The Musical Director tried out some tunes on the virginals but none of them was up to much until they came to this one. The producer listened and said “Verily, 'tis a passing melodious roundelay, but I doubt me an it will get into the charts. Who wrote it, anyway?”. And a voice from the back of the auditorium called out “We did!”. They peered at a large figure in the darkness and asked “Who are you?”, and the reply came back: “We are Henry the Eighth, We are”.
After that of course they put the number in the musical and it ran for years under the title Don’t Look Now Ladies of 1542.
And that is why, nowadays, in plays or films set any time between, say, 1500 and 1750, for incidental music Greensleeves is always played. And the royalties go to....Royalty.

17 Spring Song (Love vernal)
Most of the songs we sang have words which tell a story or paint a picture, But there are songs which need no words. If you want to describe a really despicable person, you might say that he is the sort of chap who would sell his grandmother to the old clothes man, or you could say that he is the sort of chap who would put words to Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words.
The one we sang was originally called Camberwell Green, because that is where it was written, in June 1842. Nowadays it is called Spring Song. But what's it got do with Love? Well, first, in silent films when the heroine was tripping dewy-eyed through a cornfield to meet her lover, the pianist always played this. Second, we all know what a young man’s fancy lightly turns to in Spring. (Piano)

18 Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine (Love tolerant)
A woman in love with a man of bad character has three options if she wants to stay with him: she can shut her eyes and pretend she doesn’t know of his faults, she can try to believe that she can improve him, or she can accept his failings. The woman in this song takes the third and most sensible course.

19 What Then Is Love (Love urgent)
From a Book of Ayres published jointly in 1601 by Thomas Campion and his friend Philip Rosseter.

20 She Was Poor, But She was Honest (Love betrayed)
We ended with another sad story. This is a Victorian song, but some may feel that that the injustice described in the refrain persists until the present day.
It's the same the ‘ole world over.
It's the poor what gets the blame.
It's the rich that gets the pleasure.
Ain't it all a bleeding shame?

By the time we finished the wine had been flowing freely for three hours so we got a standing ovation, but no-one has yet asked us to do it again.


Grumio said...

Do it again!

Tony said...

How kind! But two of our lead singers are currently doing time for GBH so please let me know when you and your lovely wife are available to join us and fill in as, respectively, lyric tenor, i.e. a voice between that in size and power of a tenore di grazia (sometimes referred to as a tenorino), and a lirico spinto, and basso profundo.