May 12, 2013 5 Comments
“Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise…” Looking back over some of the entries on my blog, it seems I’ve given the impression that music played no part in my life until stumbling upon classical music. This would be misleading, and today’s piece made me realize that music played an important role in my life at an early age, in a way that it seems is rarer in our culture than it once was.
In truth, music surrounded me as a child. My parent had bought an old mono, console hi-fi record player about the time that stereo arrived on the scene in the early 1960s. They also collected 78 and 33 rpm records at garage sales. My older brothers and sister, by the time they hit puberty, were buying 45s and LPs around that same time period. The console had two large compartments for storing records, and I used to delight in going through the albums, studying the artwork on the covers, and playing them on the old turntable.
Bob, my second oldest brother had some very “cool” jazz albums by Dave Brubek, and he once brought home a copy of that hot-sounding party favorite “Tequila!” Joan, my sister, collected Beatles albums and owned a myriad of 45s (which seemed to be released every 30 seconds after the “British Invasion.”) My parents had a number of old crooners–Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Mario Lanza and Tony Bennet. They also owned sound tracks to many of the big musicals of their day–Oklahoma, Brigadoon, South Pacific, and Annie Get Your Gun. Everyone in my family liked everything in our collection and I remember all of us delighting in listening to that music. But we didn’t just passively listen to music; singing was also pervasive in our lives. My father was my cub scout master and an assistant scout master when I joined the boy scouts. We sang lots of songs around the campfire at our weekly meetings and at Christmas parties.
We also sang in church. I loved standing next to my father, who had a rich tenor and sang beautifully. He hit all the high notes and could sing harmonies, and it used to thrill me to hear him sing “Ave Maria.” I always tried to stand as far as possible away from my mother for the opposite reason. Still, she appreciated music and once in high school I was very surprised to find she knew a lot about opera. I had come home with a copy of La Traviata from the library, and when she saw it, she started singing an aria from it. When I asked incredulous how she knew it, she said “Oh, I used to listen to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio every Saturday.”
How the pervasiveness of music in our lives changed remains a mystery to me. Perhaps television had something to do with it. When I was younger, friends and relatives of my parents used to come over to play cards or just visit. Music always played in the background. Socializing like that broke down when television arrived and we started spending evenings glued to the television. Then when the Beatles arrived on the music scene, the whole music industry changed. Performers became superstars, the gap between professionals and amateurs deepened, and songs became preoccupied with different themes—narcissistic, ones often far away from the goals and aspirations of normal people.
Church music also changed after Vatican II, which allowed folk music into church. All those great hymns like “Adeste Fideles,” and “Tantum Ergo,” gave way to such bland pap as “Kumbaya” or “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” or some other mind-numbingly hackneyed tune. This “folk” music, I later discovered, was a twisted travesty and perversion of the socially relevant work of Woodie Guthrie, Pete Seager and early Boby Dylan.
So what does this have to do with Borodin? Well one of the records in that old hi-fi console had the melody, which Tony Bennet popularized, called “Stranger in Paradise.” The songwriters Wright and Ferre, had taken a melody from Borodin’s Polvetsian Dances, which were extracted by the composer from his opera Prince Igor. The crooner’s version was sweet and seductive. The Polvetsians, my Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music tells me, were a nomadic people who had invaded Russia. How you get from invading, nomadic hordes to Tony Bennett, I haven’t a clue. Less even how you get from “This land is my land” to “Kumbaya.”
One last interesting note about Borodin. He suffered the shame of being an illegitimate son of a Georgian nobelman, but he later went on to become a physician and professor of chemistry. He also founded a women’s medical school. Once upon a time, it was OK to excel in more than one discipline, even quite unrelated ones. So beware specialization.