Thursday, August 26, 2010

Music and Memory, part 14: The Carousel

I had the radio on in the kitchen yesterday afternoon during "Performance Today," which has a fun feature on Wednesdays (fun, that is, if you're a total music nerd) called Piano Puzzler, in which the pianist and composer Bruce Adolphe plays a popular or show tune in the style of a great composer, and then asks a call-in contestant to identify both the composer and the tune.  As a committed Brahmsophile, I immediately recognized the composer and the piece Adolphe pinched, Brahms's Intermezzo op. 118 no. 2 in A Major, one of the pieces perhaps most redolent of a sort of restrained but heartfelt nostalgia in the entire western canon.

Adolphe substituted Brahms's B section with the Rodgers and Hart tune "Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered."  It was skillfully and beautifully done; to hear it, you can go to the Piano Puzzler link above.

I first heard the op. 118 no. 2 while growing up in my culturally-anachronistic classical-music-loving family.  My mother had the Glenn Gould recording, which is why I chose a Youtube video of Gould's performance for my example above.  Gould is not the pianist most aficionados of late-Romantic piano repertoire would immediately think of for this piece, but his performance of it is remarkably true, I think, to the practice of classical restraint that Brahms always used in his most profoundly moving pieces, which serves only to make them infinitely more moving than if they had been composed by one of his more overtly passionate contemporaries.  And Gould brings out the complex network of Brahms's inner voices, teasing multiple melodies out of the piece's dense construction, so that, while you listen, your heart can be broken at several spots and in several different registers of the keyboard.

Coming late to the party, as is my wont, I have only recently discovered the AMC television series Mad Men.  It happened when my husband was out of town.  We don't have real television here, so, after seeing the first episode on a free site that has since shut down, I took to downloading every other episode of the first season.  I got a couple of free ones through an Amazon promotion, and then I couldn't stop.  I watched the first-season finale last night, which includes a brilliant, marvelously-acted scene in which the troubled ad-man Don Draper makes a pitch to Kodak to create the campaign for its new slide projector, overriding the client's initial branding instructions and calling the device, in his own copy, "The Carousel."  (You can watch the scene here; copyright laws prevent me from embedding it in this post.)  Advertising, Draper tells them, is about nostalgia, which, he says, means in Greek "the pain from an old wound."  A Mad Men fan site challenges Draper's definition, translating the Greek as, essentially, homesickness -- or, for Brahms, who wrote several songs with the title, Heimweh.  Here is the best known of his Heimweh songs.

The text, by Klaus Groth, is translated thus by Leonard Lehrman:

Oh, if I only knew the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
Oh, why did I search for happiness
And leave my mother's hand?

Oh, how I long to be at rest,
Not to be awakened by anything,
To shut my weary eyes,
With love gently surrounding!

And nothing to search for, nothing to beware of,
Only dreams, sweet and mild;
Not to notice the changes of time,
To be once more a child!

Oh, do show me the road back,
The dear road to childhood's land!
In vain I search for happiness,
Around me naught but deserted beach and sand!

There is a large, lovingly restored belle-époque carousel in a public park within walking distance of our house.  It's painted with idyllic childhood scenes à la Kate Greenaway, and it booms out its highly-orchestrated turn-of-the-century tunes from a period Wurlitzer calliope.  Admission is free, so when we ride it, we usually ride it for an hour or so, which gives my son all the time he needs to pretend that each separate ride is one of the stations on the Metro-North Railroad from our old neighborhood in the Bronx down to Grand Central Station (he, train-obsessed, also calls the carousel "the magic turntable").  This also gives me time to think.

Occasionally at the carousel I see a haggard young redheaded woman.  She is surrounded by seven redheaded children between the ages of about one and thirteen, and is pregnant with another.  A social worker with a name badge sits on a bench and looks on.  I have seen this mom waiting for her kids by the parking lot, talking with the social worker, and then seen a minivan taxicab pull up and all the kids piling out of it, including the baby in a car seat. The mother has plastic grocery bags full of soda and chips for their picnic, and they all make their way over to the playground area, where the social worker helps with pushing the little ones on the swings and mediating their childish disputes.  My friend who knows the director of a local foster-care agency tells me that this mother has lost custody of these seven children temporarily, and of an eighth permanently, while awaiting trial for soliciting johns for one of her pre-teen daughters.

The orderliness and cleanliness, the gay music, the ethos of innocent fun represented by the carousel make me think of Wallace Stevens's poem "The Anecdote of the Jar."  Like Stevens's jar, our carousel makes the "slovenly wilderness" surround its artfulness, its artifice, its order; but our carousel, like Don Draper's Carousel, also dispenses a false nostalgia, the longing for a home that most likely, for most people, has never really existed.

Here is some vintage carousel footage from Coney Island, set to the song "Carousel" from the original cast recording of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.


marie therese 1 said...

I have 'intercepted' things from your blog since I first found:
"I hope and pray that God will use my sense of exile from my city and all that I once knew, my remorse for my misdeeds, and my confusion for His glory and honor and for the help of someone else who, like me, is stumbling brokenly through the Lenten desert."
I hope you don't mind. You can check if you are comfortable with that at
If not I will take all the copied lines off. I do give you credit, but the words mean something different for me sometimes. Thanks for goading me over this hill I faced in inner space. Peace, Mary

Pentimento said...

Mary, I'm perfectly comfortable with that, and I'm grateful to God for allowing my words to speak to someone else's heart. God bless.

Tertium Quid said...

Beautiful as always. You know God is behind everything beautiful, but you know you don't need to scream it because screaming takes away from the beauty.

Pentimento said...

Thank you, TQ. That means a lot to me.

Really Rosie said...

One of my favorite pieces of music ever.

Pentimento said...

I'm glad you took up the Richard Rodgers thread in here, Rosie, and glad to see you here.

There's also the Joni Mitchell song, of course . . .

Rodak said...

My goodness, Pentimento, I continue to be in awe of your mind, its vastness, and the wonderful connections it makes with all that it contains.

I'm stealing the Glenn Gould performance to add a little class to my own site.
As always, Thank you!

Pentimento said...

Oh, Rodak, you flatter me, especially since you know the banality of my usual thoughts. Please help yourself to Glenn Gould. I'm always happy to spread the Brahms love.

Enbrethiliel said...


Pentimento, I shared this link with a friend of mine who is also a music nerd (When we chat, I listen to Duran Duran and he listens to Beethoven); he was enchanted!

I should really start watching Mad Men, too. From what I've read about the art direction alone, the show, too, is a vehicle for a whole generation's nostalgia.