Waltzing Widow

April 22nd, 2012

Our town is given to amateur theatrics, as many were back in the day (and too few are now). In a couple of weeks my sweetheart and I will take part in a musical revue featuring songs from the turn of the 20th century. He — a professional musician — is going to sing “In the Good Ol’ Summertime” accompanied by his own guitar. I — who usually refrain from singing publicly out of respect for the rest of humanity — decided to be grandiose and volunteered to sing “The Merry Widow Waltz.”

This lilting waltz is the grande finale of an operetta by Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehár called “The Merry Widow,” or “Die lustige Witwe.” Based on a mid-19th century play about a rich widow being wooed for her bank roll, the production made its Vienna debut in 1905. In 1934 it became a Hollywood musical under the direction of Ernst Lubitsch with new English lyrics by Tin Pan Alley’s own Lorenz Hart. Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier starred.

Merry Widow Sheet Music

Believe it or not, I’d already decided to sing the song when I came across this sheet music in one of my moving boxes. It belonged to my grandmother, who dated it 1935 in the upper right corner; presumably the year she purchased it. She also had three other lead sheets from “The Merry Widow” — more than she owned for any other musical. What does that say about genetics? Of course I immediately discarded my old arrangement and opted to use this one, along with the new lyrics (I’d been using a 1930 arrangement and translation published in the Maxwell House Showboat music book).

Luckily, a supremely talented friend who is accompanying the rest of the revue has offered to play my music as well. I was trying to both sing and play, but kept forgetting to breathe. Which will be especially important since I’m going to do all this in an outfit that requires a Grecian-Bend corset…

E’en Tho’ It Be a Cross

April 15th, 2012

Today being the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, I was reminded of the beautiful old hymn that famously played while the great ship went down. Namely, Nearer My God to Thee.

Nearer My God to Thee

I learned to play Nearer My God to Thee a few years ago for our annual funeral reenactment at the Merchant’s House Museum. It’s not actually a funereal hymn, but the one we’d been using, When Our Heads Are Bowed with Woe, was too obscure for the participants to follow on first hearing. A few months later, I recorded the hymn on the Museum’s 1850s harmonium so that it could be played at subsequent reenactments. There’s really nothing quite like 75 voices raised in a 150-year-old hymn, marching through the streets of the East Village.

My dear friend over at Costume & Construction sent me a link to this early wax cylinder recording of Nearer My God to Thee.

Sarah Flower Adams
Sarah Flower Adams

The life and story of the poetess who wrote the immortal words is summarized in Illustrated History of Hymns and their Authors, 1875.

This language was the heart-utterance of Mrs. Sarah Flower Adams, daughter of Benjamin Flower, editor of The Cambridge Intelligencer, and wife of William B. Adams, an eminent engineer, and also a contributor to some of the principal newspapers and reviews.

She was born February 22, 1805.

Her mother is described as a lady of talent, as was her elder sister Eliza, who was also an authoress.

She was noted in early life for the taste she manifested for literature, and in maturer years, for great zeal and earnestness in her religious life, which is said to have produced a deep impression on those who met with her. Mr. Miller says: “The prayer of her own hymn, ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee,’ had been answered in her own experience. Her literary tastes extended in various directions. She contributed prose and poetry to the periodicals, and her art-criticisms were valued. She also wrote a Catechism for children, entitled ‘The Flock at the Fountain’ (1845). It is Unitarian in its sentiment, and is interspersed with hymns. She also wrote a dramatic poem, in five acts, on the martyrdom of ‘Vivia Perpetua.’ This was dedicated to her sister, in some touching verses. Her sister died of a pulmonary complaint* in 1847, and attention to her in her affliction enfeebled her own health, and she also gradually wore away, ‘almost her last breath bursting into unconscious song.’” Thus illustrating the last stanza:—

“Sun. moon, and stars forgot,
Upward I fly,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee.”

She died August 13, 1849, eight years after the issue of her popular hymn, and was buried in Essex, England.

*Almost certainly consumption (tuberculosis), explaining Sarah’s subsequent decline after caring for her ailing sister. Very few people who died of tuberculosis during the 19th-century — and there were so many who did — were admitted to have perished from the disease, so great was the fear and prejudice associated with it.

Chante Macabre

November 3rd, 2011

More shameless promotion of the events at the Museum where I work…

Click here for information and reservations.

Brignal Ballad

September 9th, 2011

It’s always a good day when you discover a new song, especially one published in 1829, with words by Sir Walter Scott and arrangement for voice and piano by J. F. Hance!

O Brignal Banks Are Wild and Fair: a Scotch Song

O Brignal Banks are wild and fair,
And Greta woods are green,
And you may gather garlands there,
Would grace a summer queen.
And as I rode by Dalton hall,
Beneath the turret high,
A maiden on the castle wall
Was singing singing merrily.
“O Brignal banks are fresh and fair,
And Greta woods are green,
I’d rather range with Edmund there;
Than reign our English Queen.”

O Brignal banks are fresh and fair,
And Greta woods are green.
I’d rather range with Edmund there;
Than reign our English Queen.

If maiden, though wouldst wend with me,
To leave both tow’r and town,
Thou first must guess what life lead we,
That dwell by dale and down.
And if thou canst that riddle read,
As read full well you may,
Then to the greenwood shalt though speed,
As blithe as queen of May.
Yet sung she “Brignal banks are fair,
And Greta woods are green;
I’d rather range with Edmund there,
Than reign our English queen.”

I found scans of the folio, published in New York by Dubois & Stodart, on this website.

I’ll wager you already know who Sir Walter Scott is, and perhaps have even read some of his work. I prefer his poetry (it seems to wear its two-centuries a bit better), though to be fair, I’ve only read one Scott novel. Here is the Baronet (made 1818) himself in an 1822 portrait by Raeburn. He appeals to the Scott in me.

Sir Walter Scott by Raeburn

But odds are you haven’t got the faintest idea who J. F. Hance is. Neither did I until last year. It turns out Mr. Hance was an American composer, active during the early Romantic period, right about the same time as Sir Walter Scott. History has obscured most of his works, and perhaps deservedly so. He is listed as an “arranger” on this piece, though there is no evidence that anyone else wrote the tune. Perhaps it’s a Scottish folk song that he kitted up for the piano forte? It’s quite pretty actually, unlike many of the things that Hance did take credit for writing…

I first ran into J. F. Hance at the museum where I work. A book of piano lessons was found in the collection, owned by the family who once lived in the house. It’s an obscure pedagogical work called Instruction in the Attainment of the Art of Playing the Piano Forte, comprising lessons in basic music theory, 15 rather quixotic etudes, and two mediocre songs. The author is none other than J. F. Hance. In spring 2010, I reproduced the book (hours of wrangling with Photoshop and rendering in Illustrator to get printable page images). The etudes and songs were then recorded on the museum’s recently restored 1840s rosewood piano forte. This instrument, also owned by the family, still sits in the same parlor where it’s been since the mid-19th century. And it’s almost certain that the pieces in the Hance book were played on it by the daughters!

Thrill of thrills, after many attempts to find a more accomplished musician, I ended up playing for the recording. It makes sense in a way, since the women who played the piano when it was new were certainly not professionals. I’ll never forget the feel of the keys, or the sound of the notes echoing through the room. In some ways, it’s as close as we’ll ever come to hearing what they heard, so many years ago. Same room. Same piano. Same song.

Following the advice of our excellent conservator, we decided not to continue playing the piano at the museum. It’s simply too fragile, and continued use means that the original parts will eventually have to be replaced by modern fabrications. This instrument is too much in tact, too well-provenanced, too rare. They do play the recording for visitors though, and soon it will be available for purchase on CD.

Bless This House

June 24th, 2011

One of my very favorites — nearly a hymn, first published in 1927, by Helen Taylor and May Brahe. I plan to embroider the first verse on a cushion, or maybe to put into a frame.

Have I ever mentioned my secret passion for collecting late-19th through mid-20th century hymnals and Christian song books? It’s a long story…

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