the cmrc blog
Words and Music 5 Silly Love Songs
My grandparents on my father’s side were Russian Jews. They fled from persecution in the Ukraine at the beginning of the last century, making the perilous journey by sea (does this sound familiar?) heading for the USA.
My grandmother became ill, though, and only got as far as Southampton. My father, born in London, grew up in a practising Jewish household, but during his teenage years renounced his religion after witnessing domestic violence meted out to his mother for unwittingly intruding on a religious observance which was strictly men only. My father later married a non-Jewish girl and our family practised no religion at all.
I did attend a few Sunday School classes (for social reasons) and at school learned some basic Bible stories from Mr Wren, an eccentric teacher of what we called ‘Divinity’ (RI nowadays), which involved a lot of drawing with coloured pencils. We drew maps of Palestine and pictures of Biblical scenes; I spent a long time on a picture of Samson pushing down the pillars of the Philistine temple. I remember Mr Wren once striking a pupil around the head quite hard and shouting ‘God is spelt with a capital G!’
During the 1970s Dominic Muldowney introduced me to a book ‘The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral’ and I became hooked on the esoteric theories surrounding the building of the Gothic cathedrals in France and the involvement of the Knights Templar in guarding the ‘Ark of the Covenant’. Mr Big in this mediaeval thriller spanning centuries was the 12th century abbot St Bernard of Clairvaux. He gave 86 sermons on The Song of Songs – a text well known for its eroticism – in which he offered line by line interpretation of the poem as an allegory of the love between God (the bridegroom) and the soul (the bride). The Song of Songs has been an inspiration and resource for countless writers, artists and composers, including Morag Galloway and Merit Stephanos in their recent music theatre piece Swimming between Shores. For me it was the portal to a decade of fascination with the Old Testament. I drew on biblical tales for a number of pieces, culminating in The Big Bang in 1989. But the first piece to emerge from my encounter with The Song of Songs was a short trio for soprano, clarinet and double bass called Another Silly Love Song (1976). For this I used a quotation from St Bernard: “I love because I love. I live that I may love.” Much of the vocal line consists of ‘luvava’ and ‘livaliva’ with the full St Bernard text emerging clearly at the climax. In that respect the piece is a little like Berio’s O King, although it doesn’t employ the systematic techniques of that work, and is freely constructed.
The title is taken from Paul McCartney (Silly Love Songs). Titles are not subject to copyright, so no problem there, but I did have to get permission to reproduce the text of the song in my programme note, and that was important to me. The programme note simply reads:
I love because I love. I live because I love. (St Bernard of Clairvaux)
You’d think that people would have had enough of Silly Love Songs. I look around me and I see it isn’t so. Some people seem to want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know? ‘Cause here I go again: I love you…………. (Paul McCartney)
The conjunction of the ancient and modern, classical and popular, ‘high’ and ‘low’, is one of the features of Joyce’s work which I particularly admired. The central character in Ulysses is at the same time Leopold Bloom, a Jewish advertising salesman in Dublin, and the hero of Homer’s Odyssey (‘Ulysses’ is the Roman name for ‘Odysseus’). Every chapter of the book, set in 1904 Dublin, is a modern parody of a chapter from Homer. Bloom’s wanderings, adventures and trials closely follow those of Odysseus. His return to his sleeping wife at 7 Eccles St parallels Odysseus’s return to Penelope in Ithaca. When the blind drunk Irish nationalist (the ‘Citizen’) chases Bloom the wandering Jew out of Barney Kiernan’s public house and hurls biscuit tins after him as he makes his escape on a passing carriage, he is also Polyphemus the blinded one-eyed giant, hurling rocks at Odysseus’s boat as he makes his escape from captivity. This is clever and delightful, but for me it also political and, to a degree, iconoclastic. It tells us that ‘the classics’ are not works to be revered and held apart from ordinary life; that classical heroes have their modern day counterparts; that history is endlessly repeated; that ‘high art’ is not the preserve of the high minded; that the ordinary and commonplace can be profound.
I used the material of Another Silly Love Song in a later piece, revisiting the material rather as Berio did with OKing in Sinfonia. In A Psalm and a Silly Love Song (1979) this became the central movement of three. The outer movements set lines from Psalm 39 which begins: ‘I said, I will take heed of my ways that I sin not with my tongue.’ The setting, for soprano and mezzo with ensemble, combines quite heroic, classical singing with spoken versions of the same material. For the spoken passages I latched on to the opening ‘I said’, repeating it often in mid-sentence as a way of bringing this text down to earth. You hear this in conversation all the time (I do, on the bus) when the speaker is reinforcing their account of an earlier exchange. In A Psalm and a Silly Love Song the mezzo (the brilliant Linda Hirst in the premiere) is instructed to speak quickly and in a comfortable dialect. Being from Huddersfield Linda chose to speak in a broad Yorkshire accent. Imagine it:
My heart was hot within me; while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue, I said, Lord, I said, make me to know mine end. Behold, I said, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth. Mine age is as nothing before thee: surely every man at his best state is altogether vanity. Ha! Surely every man walks in a vain shew: surely they are disquieted in vain: he heapeth up riches, and knows not who shall gather them. I said, surely, I said, every man is vanity, I said. Ha!
What is the meaning of my psalm setting? The refrain of ‘Hear my prayer’, heard many times, would indicate that it is a genuine plea; the psalm ends ‘O spare me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more’. I don’t set the closing lines, however, and I am a half Jewish atheist, so it’s a bit inconclusive. I think it is vaguely about pleading to be heard, and, because of the middle movement, it is about a belief in ‘love’ as a form of redemption. But when all is said and done I think it is simply a meditation on some striking words which can reach across centuries to stir a response in us – in you, in me, and in Mrs Thompson on the bus.