Saturday, September 6, 2008

Linguistic Spirit Matters

Back when I was living in Southern California, I remember once going to a rather nice review of the music of George Gershwin that was seasoned with just the right amount of background narrative. Part of that narrative had to do with how quickly songs from Gershwin musicals caught on in Europe. This was demonstrated by having a young tenor, looking for all the world like a member of the Hitler Youth, standing at rigid attention singing, "Dame, sei gut!" in the strictest time imaginable.

This memory was revived this morning as I near the completion of my ascent of Mount Beethoven with over six (count them!) discs of folksong settings. Given that I am not particularly fond of the settings I have previously heard, this is without a doubt the hardest part of the journey and is really quite slog.

It is a bit like the mule train that takes you to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. When you finally get to the bank of the Colorado River and the afternoon sun is beating down on you with full force (having long since gotten away from any sources of shade), you discover you still have to ride for another hour to get to the bridge that crosses the river to the ranch where you will spend the night. That last hour is one of the longest I ever endured!

Part of the problem, as I previously observed, is that, at least according to Eric Bromberger, Ludwig van Beethoven never saw the texts he was setting, at least for his sources in English. Still, whatever the weaknesses of these settings may be, it helps to have these songs sung by someone with a command of the language. Thus, while Eberhard Büchner has a wonderful tenor voice, his delivery of "Sally in our Alley" (the last of the 25 Scottish songs that constitute Beethoven's Opus 108 (the only one of this collections that seems to have an opus number) is no less ludicrous than the cheap gag in that Gershwin revue I saw decades ago. Alas, with all due respect to Beethoven's memory (which I have exhibited in this blog many times over), I have to say that there is more substance in Gershwin's original conception of "Oh, Lady be Good!" than I have encountered in any of the folksong settings Beethoven prepared on commission from George Thompson!

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