Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

When I was a very young woman, I bought, one Sunday, a homemade cassette tape of the great jazz singer Betty Carter at the now-defunct Canal Street flea market. This tape helped me through a long, difficult period of heartbreak, in particular Carter's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Landesman-Wolf standard "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (from her 1964 album Inside Betty Carter), which you can hear here. The lyrics convey the louche, wised-up attitude of most 1950s standards, and yet they are also resigned and truly poignant.

Morning's kiss wakes trees and flowers
And to them I'd like to drink a toast;
I walk in the park just to kill the lonely hours.
Spring can really hang you up the most.

The sparse arrangement and the understated playing of Carter's trio, suggestive of wide-open spaces not yet warmed by the sun or populated with blossoms, combined with her restrained, intellectual, and yet deeply affecting read of the lyrics, give this song a kind of verisimillitude, a true-to-life musical depiction of loneliness as the modern condition.

The funny thing is that I have always felt, no matter how hard the winter has been, that spring has come too soon. I am never ready for it. By the time March rolls around, I feel as if I've allied myself completely, inside and out, with wintriness, the essence and substance of winter, and that winter is the only state in which I will ever feel comfortable. In spite of the universal longing for spring, I feel that I should hang back (as the song says, "like a horse that never left the post"), and I would like to delay the warmth, the fecundity, the light-heartedness, of the new season.

The cold, gray days of early spring are, however, especially evocative and nostalgic for me, and in my mind I have always associated them with certain pieces of French Impressionist music that I had the great good fortune to study as an undergraduate. These pieces have always been a kind of balm for loneliness to me, not because they counteract it, but because they so marvelously depict and deepen solitude. These are pieces that (like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most") convey a sense of wind-swept openness, and also of rushing movement, of forward motion without resolution. Whenever I hear Debussy's string quartet, I'm taken back in memory to New York. It is early March, a Sunday, and I am walking up Riverside Drive ("I walk in the park just to kill the lonely hours"); the huge trees are black and bare, with just the merest hint of a grayish-green penumbra shading some boughs to suggest the coming leaves; the air is cold, and the river is gray. To me Debussy's music is gray too, in many varying shades; it is the music of early spring, of hearts that lie dormant. Ravel's quartet, though it too suggests wide-open spaces with sweeping melodic gestures, is for later, much later, after hearts have begun to be awakened by the warmth of spring, awakened to love and pain.


Anonymous said...

Oh, I heard the Parennin Quartet play the Ravel, in 1976, when they toured NZ. They played it as though it had been written for them - they were the best quartet I've ever heard.

I remember that first winding phrase of the Ravel struck me so deeply, I wept hot, wet, teenaged tears. This is true.

I was bowled over, saved up and bought the vinyl. I played the grooves off it - it had the Debussy one side, the Ravel the other.

Funny thing was, the labels on the record were reversed. The Debussy was labelled Ravel, and vice versa. So to this very day, you occasionally hear the quartets being played on New Zealand Concert Programme, and announced, incorrectly, as each other!



I don't cry at music any more. When and why did I stop, I wonder?

Pentimento said...

Have you ever wanted to get up on the stage and announce the correction to the audience? :)

At the time of the Betty Carter tape and the long walks up Riverside Drive, I was also reading Remembrance of Things Past and listening to a lot of French chamber music. One piece I listened to a lot was the Franck violin sonata (known in the business as the Franck Sinatra -- it's been transcribed for just about every instrument), which is supposedly the real-life version of the sonata by the fictional Vinteuil which Proust weaves in and out of his narrative.

Speaking of Franck, when I sat for my second doctoral exams there was an orchestral score that I had to identify on sight, and write an essay persuasively explaining why I had so identified it. I wrote a detailed essay on why it was Wagner, but it turned out to be Franck's Symphony No. 1. My answer was accepted, however, because the piece was very, well, Wagnerian.

Anonymous said...

The Concert Programme is part of our national public radio. I could ring or write and tell them, but chances are they wouldn't have the time or staff to put it right. I just wonder if Debussy and Ravel would smile about the confusion, since the similarity between the quartets was popularly supposed to have caused (but did not in fact cause) a rift between them.

(According to the back of the record cover. I got most of my musical education off the back of vinyls!)



Pentimento said...

So the radio station is playing the same old vinyl you had?

I think that Debussy was actually quite encouraging of Ravel, wasn't he? And D's quartet predated R's by some years.

Both have this wonderful sense of starting in the middle of continuous motion, as if the opening phrase actually begins somewhere to the left of the page.

Anonymous said...

The actual vinyl is long gone from my house, so I can't check, but I remember reading that the similarities between the two quartets raised some eyebrows, and Debussy said or wrote something to Ravel along the lines of, "We'd better not be seen together in public for a bit." Or something like that.


Pentimento said...

I think the Ravel has a lot more warmth and lyricism than the Debussy, which is very cool in its essence, and more experimental.

Betty Duffy said...

As a former cellist, Ravel recalls Spring for me also. We played the quartet for our senior "Contest" piece--quite poorly, I might add.

It isn't French, but the Shostakovich piano quintet also makes me think green and violet thoughts--sort of tortured ones, though.

Pentimento said...

The most evocative pieces I know are both by Brahms - his Trio in B Major and his Piano Quartet in C Minor - but it's really hard to describe what they evoke. Did you ever play those, Betty?

Betty Duffy said...

Sadly, my ensemble broke up at graduation. In college, I did symphony, but not chamber, and then I switched to English.

So no Brahms.

Pentimento said...

I always thought it would be an incredible experience to play in those two pieces - my fantasy instrument is actually the viola, jokes notwithstanding. But it must be incredible to play in orchestra, too.