Friday, September 25, 2015

Adding Words to Wordless Music

With my 12 Composers of Christmas turning ten this December, I've been working on a new SATB choral version of this little music history sampler. A couple of years ago, I added a video with a recording featuring my homemade "junior chorale" singing the tune, but I figured having a full choir afforded the opportunity to get the singers involved in the musical quotations that are all over the piano part. Hopefully, I'll be able to debut a recording of this arrangement in time for the holidays and those end-of-semester review sessions.

For now, I'll just focus on one little bit of problem-solving. The composer for Day 6 is Franz Schubert, represented by the sextuplets that permeate his legendary Erlk├Ânig. (Yes, technically they're marked as triplets, but they basically function as sextuplets.)


Both hands gets their own iconic versions of the sextuplets. For pianists, it's those insanely repeating right hand octaves that make this song memorable and truly terrifying, and though the Swingle Singers found a way to sing them, my arrangement leaves the octaves to the piano. However, the most distinctive hook in the whole song is the left hand motif that begins with a rising sextuplet scale. (Curiously, for this most melodically gifted of composers, the vocal part is mostly declamatory - except when the bad guy sings [1:25] his sickly sweet seductions - and the closest thing to a vocal hook is the child's cry [3:08] of "Mein Vater, mein Vater," which includes only two different pitches.)

So, I decided I'd let the choral basses in on the action by having them sing along with the left hand, which left me with the question of what syllables they should sing. The Swingles, not surprisingly, do a jazzy duhbaduh-duhbaduh-dum-dum-dum for the fast notes, but I found myself defaulting to doodlely-doodley-doo-doo-doo. Somehow the "oo's" make it seem more ominous, while the "doodlely" has a kind of playfulness I also like.

Anyway, it was only after I'd mostly finished the arrangement that I thought consciously about the unquestionable source for my "lyric." I had a distinct memory of Buddy Sorrell singing it as a comically ominous warning in some episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show - in fact, I'm sure I would've seen/heard Buddy's version several times before I ever heard how Schubert used this motif, though I've never spent much time thinking about the connection.

It took a little Googling (so many ways to spell "doodlely"), but I finally found my way to Episode 38: "Like a Sister."  Sally's fallen for a flashy singer (played by Vic Damone), and Buddy anticipates a bad outcome, communicated through music instead of words. In the high-quality moving cellphone video below, you can also hear how the soundtrack cues pick up on Buddy's vocal as a little leitmotif.



Vocalizing instrumentally conceived musical ideas has its own history though, and I don't just mean when a character like George Costanza mimics some music he's excited about. (By the way, Jason Alexander nails this bit, in which he's asked to sing something about as singable [0:38] as Schubert's repeating octaves.)



(Oh, and perhaps it's not so surprising that Seinfeld includes this smart bit of classical vocalizing, since the GREATEST CLASSICAL MUSIC EPISODE IN TV HISTORY is Curb Your Enthusiasm's "Trick or Treat," in which Seinfeld mastermind Larry David first whistles Wagner and then wildly wields Wagner as an act of revenge. More on that here.)

But, of course, many music lovers have been tempted to go the extra, sometimes fateful step, and add actual words to instrumental tunes. This topic could go in many directions. In fact, I just tracked down this commercial that I used to see over and over back in the days when I was watching reruns of Dick Van Dyke after school. It references "Stranger in Paradise," "Our Love," "Full Moon and Empty Arms," and "Tonight we love,"  popular songs based on tunes by Borodin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Tchaikovsky again. (I don't know how Chopin's "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" didn't make it into this commercial.)



[ Available on 8-track! ]

However, I think it's the music educators who've done the most harm in this realm - the folks who use the "just add words" technique on the classics to help us learn to remember these abstract tunes, never worrying about what parasitic harm those syllables can do over time. So, how do I even discuss such a sensitive topic without doing more harm?

Well, I'll just mention a little book I used to check out of my local library: The Great Symphonies, by Sigmund Spaeth. The curious Dr. Spaeth (who apparently made something of a career for himself in what Leonard Bernstein used to refer to as the "music appreciation racket*") decided that the best way to help listeners navigate sophisticated symphonic structures was to nail the tunes to some of the worst lyrics imaginable.

On the no-longer-active Dial M for Musicology blog, I once made a cautionary comment about Spaeth's book to which Phil Ford replied: "Sigmund Spaeth! That book is a musical neuroweapon — you get Speath’s idiot mnemonics in your head and it will forever overwrite your prior hearings of the music."

So, do I dare unleash any of these neuroweapons now? And I'll just add that a distinguished Twitter follower seemed genuinely alarmed when I tweeted a few of these out last week  She wrote:
Please stop posting those "Great Symphonies" excerpts. Burn that book. Those words can get into your head & ruin the music forever.
How about I put a big picture of the book's cover here, and you only scroll down if you don't mind exposing yourself to what lies beneath?



OK, you've been warned.

To ease us in, I'm gonna start with what might be my least favorite tune in the symphonic repertoire (though this might be because I read Spaeth's words so many years ago), this rousing bit of bombast from Franck's Symphony in D Minor, which you can hear at about 14:55 here.



The words are awful, but it's Franck's chromaticisms that really make me queasy.

You probably won't get this next example stuck in your head because it's so awkward to sing [1:00]:



And, finally, just one more example which is SO STUPID that I really don't think it will get stuck in your head either. I don't think it would be possible to write worse lyrics to the truly inspired opening of Mozart's 40th ("full of laughter and fun" ?):


I can confidently say that I've laughed at these words many times over the years and they've never upset my feelings for Mozart.

Obviously, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with this book. I even ordered my own copy on Amazon a few years back when I couldn't find my old copy (which I think I'd bought at a book sale at the same library where I first found the book). Anyone who's read this blog knows that I don't hold musical masterworks so sacred that they should never be re-imagined, and I also think that approaching music with a playful spirit is almost always a good thing.

BUT THE BEST NEWS IS: Spaeth's book is now available for perusing in full online. So, if you enjoy this sort of thing, then by all means, follow that link and see what you think.

There are, of course, some other "just add words" paths I haven't explored here, most notably the kinds of [often inappropriate] words that music students have passed around the halls of conservatories. I'll never be able to hear Chopin's 3rd Ballade without blushing a little, but I won't say why. Sometimes, it's best to stick with dummy lyrics like "doodle-ly, doodle-ly, doo, doo, doo...."


* In fairness, as evidenced by the fact that I used to check out Spaeth's book frequently, I've enjoyed the musical appreciation racket myself at various times.

P.S. For the record, although I know and respect some people who like it, I find the "Beethoven's Wig" series even worse than Spaeth because it include those inane arrangements/performances which I won't even link to - but I'm happy to say that none have gotten stuck in my head.

1 comment:

Leslie Allen said...

Thank you! I too was looking for a clip of Buddy's doodley doodley doo doo, and up popped this! Thanks so much.