Category Archives: Music

‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

For reasons I’m not sure I entirely understand, I happened last week on this clip from the old movie, Lili. It features the song “Hi Lily, Hi Lo,” which was a very big hit when I was a very little boy. I realized, somewhat to my own surprise, that this might be my favorite song in the world.

The situation here is that Lili, an orphan in post-war France, has just lost her job in a carnival, and has been rejected by a man she thought she loved. She is contemplating suicide when the puppeteer, speaking through his puppets, engages her in conversation. Soon she is having a wonderful time. Then comes the song. I’ve watched this clip again and again, and I’m fascinated by the storytelling skill of the screenwriter, Helen Deutsch.

Notice something strange in the scene? The song is (as the lyrics say), a sad song. And indeed, most of the many performers who’ve covered it since have slowed it down and sung it soulfully, with a different chorus. But Deutsch is doing a subtle and interesting thing here. She’s creating deliberate ambiguity. The words of the song don’t match the mood of the scene. That would be a great writing error if the writer didn’t know what she was doing. But this ambiguity creates a tension in the mind of the viewer. And that tension’s like Chekhov’s famous gun – if you hang it on the wall, you’ve got to use it before the play is over. Continue reading ‘Lili’ and the magic of storytelling

“Bill” by Wodehouse

Were you aware that, aside from being the funniest writer in history, P. G. Wodehouse helped invent the American musical comedy?

He and another Englishman, Guy Bolton, came to America early in the 20th Century to write for Broadway. At that stage, the theaters were running translated, Americanized versions of Viennese operettas. And that’s what Wodehouse and Bolton did at first. Then they branched out and began to write original plays of their own.

For one of those (now forgotten) shows, Wodehouse wrote the lyrics to a song named “Bill.” The production failed, but years later Jerome Kern (one of their collaborators) and Oscar Hammerstein dusted it off and inserted it into their production of “Showboat.” Thus it became the only Wodehouse song that remains in the songbook today.

Here it is.

A Carol Symphony

Here’s an orchestral work that isn’t played constantly every Christmas season but could easily fit in any holiday concert program. Victor Hely-Hutchinson wrote “A Carol Symphony” in 1927, which was about the mid-point of his life. It hit all the right notes of his London audience at the time, but since then other compositions have crowded it off of our traditional Christmas playlists.

I hadn’t heard of it until today. Have you?

‘Det lyser i stille grender’

I almost posted something about My Senator, Al Franken, tonight. But the more I thought about it, the less I had to say. In my opinion this is pretty much all political triangulation — on both sides. No actual repentance is apparent anywhere.

Christine Keeler, the “party girl” at the center of the Profumo Scandal which brought down an English Conservative government in my youth, died the other day, old and poor. I was reminded of Mark Steyn’s obituary on John Profumo, the disgraced politician in the case. Profumo gave up politics and gave his life to good works, working in soup kitchens, etc., for the rest of his life. I think we can be fairly sure Al Franken will not be doing that. Nor will Roy Moore (or, less likely, President Trump), if things should go so far.

Instead, here’s an old film clip of one of my favorite Christmas songs from Sissel — one that, for some reason, seems to have fallen off her Christmas repertoire. The song tells, very broadly, of how the light of Christmas spreads gradually over the whole earth on Christmas Eve night.

‘Walkin’ in my Winter Underwear’

Why is this the best time of year? Because when I’m reading a long book, as I am now, I can share wonderful musical moments like this in lieu of a review. It’s a precious memory from my childhood, from a kid’s show called “Lunch With Casey,” broadcast in the Twin Cities in the 1960s. I’ve shared it before, but I’m doing it again because I know how much it means to you.

‘Glade Jul’

I’m between book reviews tonight, so I thought, “Hey, I can post Christmas videos now.” And what do I discover on YouTube, but a Sissel video I haven’t seen before? This one’s a treasure, because it shows her just when she was beginning to be famous in Norway. You’ll recognize the song as “Silent Night,” as they sing it over there. “Glade Jul” means “Happy Christmas.”

This is the young Sissel I modeled the character of Halla after, in The Year of the Warrior.

It’s also worth doing well

I have very few fond memories of the time – decades ago – when I used to watch the 60 Minutes TV program. But one of them is (I think, it might possibly have been a different show) a segment on the Portsmouth Sinfonia, “the worst orchestra in the world.” Atlas Obscura has an article about it:

The original Sinfonia consisted of 13 members, mostly students who had little to no musical experience. The “scratch” orchestra was meant as a one-off joke, part of a larger collection of silly acts. And they didn’t win the contest. Still, their playful irreverence hit a nerve. Spurred on by an outpouring of enthusiasm for their initial performance, the Sinfonia continued to play, growing in size over the next several years. Their policy was that anyone, of any skill level, could join, with the exception being that skilled musicians could not join and simply play poorly on purpose. Another rule was that all members had to show up for practice.

For a while they attracted large crowds, and they even cut a couple albums. People (like me) were charmed by the blatant effrontery of the thing. It was a sort of an embodiment of Chesterton’s maxim, in his essay on amateurism, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

The concept is fun, but it seems to me there’s a serious side too. The pleasures of bad music, like other pleasures of the flesh, are fleeting. In the end, quality counts. There’s a difference between enthusiasm and virtuosity, and virtuosity has staying power. It’s worth preserving.

Which brings me to this link, from Legal Insurrection, about protests at very liberal Reed College, Portland, Oregon. A number of students are angry that the school’s Humanities 110 course, a core course in the freshman curriculum, concentrates on western civilization.

I’m gonna go ahead and say it. Western civilization is the best civilization the world has ever seen. The very anger of the course’s opponents is a symptom of their cognitive dissonance, a refusal to accept the evidence of history, science, and their own senses.

Beethoven’s Fifth As It Was First Heard

Gerald Elias paints a slice of life in 1808 Vienna for someone looking forward to the premiere of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Of course, as a music lover, you sing in your parish choir and play duets and trios at home with the family (you on piano, and assorted family members doing the vocalizing). You are partial to Mozart’s concert arias, though they are the devil to get through unscathed.

The only music that is possible for you, or anyone in the world, to hear is live, face-to-face. That makes life pretty quiet. The cows low in the field on the hill, the goldfinches chirp in the linden tree in front of your house, the easy flow of the brook gurgles behind it. At night, sometimes you can hear loud talk from the tavern on the corner, but otherwise from dusk until dawn life is essentially silent.

While you wait for the performance to begin you wonder why it takes Beethoven so much longer to write a symphony than other composers – a mystery to you because from everything you’ve been told, his symphonies are rough around the edges, disconnected, and make an altogether unpleasant noise. The program, which Beethoven himself is conducting (though it’s well-known he’s hard of hearing), is as crazy as the man himself: the Sixth Symphony, one of his concert arias, the Gloria from his Mass in C, and his Fourth Piano Concerto, which Beethoven will perform himself. That’s the first half.

God Has Designed Us to Sing

We have three young daughters, and it has surprised us with each of them how early they could sing. Simple melodies with mumbled words grew into phrases like “O sing happylujah,” or a bizarre mixture of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

Keith and Kristin Getty say, “Your ability to sing is fearfully and wonderfully made,” which is the reason God has called us to sing in worship. They say it isn’t your talent for carrying a tune that’s most important; it’s the tenor of your heart.

‘The Last Farewell’

You might be surprised to know that Sissel is not the only singer I’ve been obsessed with over the years. Though my obsession for Roger Whittaker was of a different sort. I never fantasized about marrying him, for instance.

“The Last Farewell” came out at a time in my life when I was susceptible to such a song, and it knocked me for a loop. I kept the radio on all the time, waiting for it to be played, until my roommate took me out to a store (Target, I think) to get the album. (The idea of buying music was still unfamiliar to me in those days.)

The song itself is actually about the 10 Years’ War of the 18th Century. The situation is supposed to be that an English sailor has fallen in love with a beautiful Caribbean woman. Now he has to sail off to fight. It was written in response to a sort of competition they held on a TV show Roger Whittaker hosted in England. People would send their original songs in, and if one passed muster Roger would sing it on the show.

Hope you enjoy it. Have a great weekend.

Country & Northern

From PJ Media, via Dave Lull: This New Yorker Grew to Love Country Music — in the Last Place You’d Ever Think.

And, yes, they adore country music. It speaks to them. Because it’s the real America, if you like, speaking to the real Norway. And guess what? Listening to that music here, I’ve undergone a long-delayed conversion. I’ve finally realized that of all the popular music produced today, it’s country songs, by far, that are most likely to have real melodies and real lyrics, to speak honestly and movingly about love and friendship, to exhibit courage and humor in the face of adversity, and to show appreciation for everyday comforts and pleasures. All in all, they’re the closest thing around today to the standards by Kern, Berlin, Rodgers, and company that I grew up on.

This story may surprise you. But to one who, like me, has spent time at the Hostfest in Minot, North Dakota, it’s just part of life. Like trains, dogs, pickup trucks… and lutefisk.