The song without words (Lied ohne Worte), as I’ve written before, is a bit of a paradox. It is made possible by the fact that a piece of wordless instrumental music can nevertheless be recognized as a song. Its singable, quasi-vocal melody may suggest a concealed text – because (and that’s remarkable enough) singing is nearly always done to words, and the conventional phrase structure of poetry is easily recognized in the music.
It may often be tempting to fit a text to the music. A peculiar case arises when this text refers to the tune itself, as something pre-existent and familiar. The music is then not merely transformed into a carrier of the text; it also becomes an object of signification, something that is recalled, an example of itself. It involves a particular mental twist to be able to see something both as what it is, and as a sign of itself – that is, as a quotation.
When the text in some way contradicts the music, the result is caricature or parody.
That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune
With a growing complexity of musical culture, when music becomes fractured into many ‘musics’, instances of musical quotation may proliferate. The end of the nineteenth century saw an accumulated classical repertoire, a growing diversity of styles, with various strands of modernism overturning sacred principles, and an increasing variety of popular music that through print and recordings supplied to expanding markets.
Against that background it is maybe not surprising that around 1900 references to music in music became a popular fashion. According to J. Peter Burkholder (1995: 366), “Many American popular songs of the 1890s through 1920s are about singing, playing, hearing, or dancing to music, and some refer directly to well-known tunes”. (It is to be seen whether this equally holds for Europe.)
Among Burkholder’s examples of songs about a familiar tune is That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune (1909), one of Irving Berlin’s early successes.
The Mendelssohn tune is the Spring Song (Frühlingslied, in A major, op. 62 nr. 6, June 1st 1842), of the Lieder ohne Worte one of the most popular, and an emblem of biedermeier-bourgeois culture around 1900, when there was hardly a middle class household without a piano and a daughter more or less miserably playing it. It still figures in such commercial horrors as 50 Best Piano, Classical Dining, Classic Goes Meditation, Coffee & Chill, Heart is Purified Beautiful Classical Piano 8, and Classical Music for Weary Life 17, to pick a few from the Spotify inventory.
Even under professional hands, the Spring Song’s incessant arpeggio’s may become a nuisance. But that’s hardly the composer’s fault; for an antidote, listen here to Josef Hofmann’s subtle interpretation (1912).
It is the sociocultural connotations, rather than musical qualities, that make it a perfect target for parody. In Berlin’s song, only its first four bars are quoted in the chorus (Love me to that ever lovin’ Spring Song melody … That’s the only music that was ever meant for me), immediately giving way to bumpy ragtime syncopations.
Honey, listen to that dreamy tune they’re playin’ Won’t you tell me how on earth you keep from swayin’? Umm! Umm! Oh, that Mendelssohn Spring Song tune If you ever loved me show me now or never Lord, I wish they’d play that music on forever Umm! Umm! Oh, that Mendelssohn tune
Love me to that ever lovin’ Spring Song melody Please me, honey, squeeze me to that Mendelssohn strain Kiss me like you would your mother One good kiss deserves another That’s the only music that was ever meant for me That tantalizin’, hypnotizin’, mesmerizin’ Mendelssohn tune.
It may escape notice, if you just look at the printed music, that the parody is not just musical, but above all racial (Hamm 1997: 74, Magee 2014: 26). This is already implied musically in the ragtime syncopations, but also hinted at by textual elements such as the dropped g (playin’), indicative of ‘black’ speech. It becomes painfully evident when the song is rendered according to the performance traditions of the minstrel show (featuring mostly whites with blackened faces). This is what happens in the contemporary interpretation by vocal comedians Collins and Harlan (1910), to which you can listen here.
The parody turns out to have a threefold target, and a kind of humour based on racial and gender stereotypes that has lost its apparent innocence. First, there is the white middle class, European-dominated culture represented by Mendelssohn’s tune itself; next, a black man’s uninhibited physical response (swayin’) to ‘classical’ music that has little or no ‘danceable’ qualities; and finally, the women’s misunderstanding of the man’s pretentious use of upper class words in the spoken dialogue added by these comedians.
— Mmm, Mmm, Sam, I certainly am inspirated ovah dat meddlesome music. — What kinda music you say? — Meddlesome. — No, not “meddlesome.” — Well, den, what is it? — Why, Men-dels-sohn. — What did I say? — Why, you said “med-dle-some”. — Did I say dat? Why, how phantasmagorious! (both laugh)
(transcr. after Hamm 1997: 74-5)
The Song That Stole My Heart Away
The succes of That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune was apparently such, that more milk had to be squeezed from that same cow. Irving Berlin soon after incorporated the Spring Song’s characteristic half-tone steps in a song titled Stop! Stop! Stop! Come Over and Love Me Some More (according to the publisher, “better” and “bigger” than TMMT; Hamm 1997: 166-7). In 1924 Berlin again alluded to Mendelssohn’s tune in Tell Her in the Springtime (1924).
When ev’rything begins blossoming, you’ll hear Mendelsohn’s Spring Song tune.
Sentimentality without shame or irony reigns in The Song That Stole My Heart Away (1913), by Harry Von Tilzer and Andrew B. Sterling, which both mentions and quotes a classic in the genre of the sentimental ballad, Ben Bolt, dating to the 1840’s. It is all about memories: in Ben Bolt of one “sweet Alice” who lies under “a slab of granite so gray”, and of nameless schoolmates, also dead; in The Song That Stole My Heart Away it is the memory of some “you” singing Ben Bolt “One night in June … in the long ago”:
You gave your first love kiss to me When all the roses bloom I hear that melody Just play that old sweet tune once more for me.
Ben Bolt‘s obsession with deceased peers may be an odd prompter for a “first love kiss”. But evidently the association of first love with a sentimental song was a strong enough cliché to ignore any textual detail (never very important in the appreciation of a song). We may count it, in fact, as simply another instance of the Darling They’re Playing Our Tune (DTPTO) phenomenon, except that here memories are not awakened by the chance hearing of a familiar tune; instead, the song is an eagerly sollicited memory stimulus:
Just play that old sweet tune once more for me Play that melody so sweet I love it so, I love it so Soft and low those words repeat.
Herman, Let’s Dance That Beautiful Waltz
Another reference to Mendelssohn’s tune, and (indirectly) to his own hit song about it, is contained in Irving Berlin’s Herman Let’s Dance That Beautiful Waltz (ca. 1910, with music by his business partner Ted Snyder, the publisher of “bigger” and “better”).
Again, music is an aphrodisiac:
I heard that a coon who heard Mendelssohn’s tune Kissed the first man she saw, if it’s true That very same feeling I feel on me stealing And Herman I’m looking at you.
The ethnic-racial stereotype, this time, is German: the “I” is a “Miss Lena Kraussmeyer with hair red as fire”, who despises “dances like ragtime and lanciers” (the latter a kind of quadrille), but is irresistably urged to robust kissing by hearing a waltz. (The chorus, Herman let’s dance to the tune of that beautiful waltz, seems to have been derived from the waltz in Gounod’s Faust.)
The same idea has been adopted, and improved upon, by George and Ira Gershwin in By Strauss (1936), which manages without racial stereotypes, and also without memories: it is simply a call for a waltz that itself is a waltz (and ironically extends the self-reference to the song’s composer):
Away with the music of Broadway
Be off with your Irving Berlin
Oh I give no quarter
to Kern or Cole Porter
And Gershwin keeps pounding on tin.
How can I be civil
when hearing this drivel
It’s only for nightclubbin’ souses
Go tell the band
If they want a hand
The waltz must be Strauss’s.
Sad and Pleasant Memories: Charles Ives
The epitome of musically remembered music is probably the oeuvre of Charles Ives, “all made of tunes” as so many memories. Ben Bolt, for instance, figures with many other musical relics in Central Park in the Dark (1906/1936), the evocation of a New York soundscape as it could have been experienced on a summer night around 1880. Much of Ives’ music is an attempt to integrate classical, popular and religious musical traditions in a retrospective vision, that is at the same nostalgic and musically among the most complex and advanced of its time.
An early work, Memories (1897) for voice and piano, consists of two short songs to his own texts: A. Very Pleasant, and B. Rather Sad. The first is an evocation of a child’s visit to the theatre, and its anticipation before the curtain rises, oddly sung (and whistled!) to operetta music, the kind of music that may be expected to sound shortly afterwards:
“O, Jimmy, look!” I say,
“The band is tuning up
And soon will start to play.”
The second involves a pure case of involuntary memory, prompted by the chance hearing of a familiar song.
From the street a strain on my ear doth fall,
A tune as threadbare as that “old red shawl,”
It is tattered, it is torn,
It shows signs of being worn,
It’s the tune my Uncle hummed from early morn,
‘Twas a common little thing and kind ‘a sweet,
But ’twas sad and seemed to slow up both his feet;
I can see him shuffling down
To the barn or to the town,
The “strain” that fell upon the poet-composer’s ear is presumably the song’s own tune, which is indistinguishable from the parlour music of the age, but seems to have had no previous existence – a quotation without a source. The one explicit reference, that “old red shawl”, is to My mother’s old red shawl, another memory-obsessed, folkish sentimental ballad (by Charles Moreland, 1885). An early recording (1926 or 1927) is found here.
In Moreland’s lyrics, the garment in question …
is all that is left for this heart to adore,
To bring to mind those happy days of yore.
How gladly I’d flee from the world’s bitter thrall
To seek the heart that throbb’d beneath the shawl.
The final word of Ives’ song, ahumming, protracted over four bars (a-hum – – – – – – – – ming), effectively comes to designate itself. In this turn towards wordlessness, the nostalgia expressed in the ‘threadbare’ song, that of the humming and shuffling uncle, and that of the retrospective “I” all fall together.