The 1927 musical Strike Up the Band was a flop, but it contained some of George and Ira Gershwin’s best songs. One of the lesser-known ones was “Homeward Bound”, sung by soldier boys at the end of a fictitious war in a satirical story. I am inordinately fond of it. As my last song this week, it strikes me as expressive of the joyful relief some will feel when released from the captivity caused by current travel restrictions. Stuck thousands of miles from home, they long for this moment. Here’s John Musto and me.
Once again the golden sun is shining
On the lonesome soldier boy;
And the heavy heart that knows but pining
Beats again a song of joy.
Soon we’ll be in our native land once more —
There to greet all the loved ones we adore.
On the way!
Home to stay!
What a thrill!
Jack and Jill
Will soon be deep in clover
Trouble’s over for me!
Me oh my!
Misery, say goodbye!
Can’t go wrong—
Won’t be long, boys,
You’re lucky when you’re homeward bound!
“Litany”, from John Musto’s masterful set of songs Shadow of the Blues is, in my humble but educated opinion, a perfect song. I actually find it difficult to describe how I feel about this song—it has a profound effect on me every time I hear it. John, who has been inspired by many amazing poets during his long and productive career, in this case took Langston Hughes’ words and elevated them to another dimension. Not because they needed elevating, mind you, but because John is that gifted. As in Fauré’s “Clair de Lune”, the piano sets the mood beautifully before the singer joins in. The two together make time stand still.
I have heard many performances of this song, live and recorded, and I have sung it myself in recital, so I know whereof I speak. The recording I have chosen is the orchestrated version, which highlights the rich harmonic colors, and features the clear and nuanced vocal interpretation of Jubilant Sykes. The song exists brilliantly in multiple versions. It is a song for the ages.
Gather up, in the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved, the desperate, the deprived
All the scum of our weary city
Gather up in the arms of your pity
Gather up in the arms of your love
Those who expect no love
I’m one lucky singer to be married to such a gifted song composer as John Musto, so I hope you’ll indulge me as I include one of his songs for this blog. Choosing one Musto song out of so many feels a bit like Sophie’s choice. I love them all.
But…there is one song that I especially love, even if it is one that (sadly) I can never sing, as it really must be sung by a man.
One of the solos from The Book of Uncommon Prayer, Old Photograph is a setting of a poem by Archibald MacLeish, one of John’s favorite poets. Not only does MacLeish’s poem describe a photograph of his wife as capturing the fragrance of Antibes, but his poetry itself is steeped in the essence of that particular paradise known as the Côte d’Azur:
Fresh washed gingham in a summer wind…
John’s setting, infused with music from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, adds yet another layer to this wistful perfume. (Listen for Mélisande’s lines, “mes longs cheveux” and “Ne me touchez pas” in the piano part.)
I cherish this song beyond measure because it is the music of my beloved, writing in the key of France. And, like MacLeish, I can almost smell the lavender as I recall the year that John and I spent three months in Nice when I was singing Woglinde and the Forest Bird (not Mélisande, alas). It was a great adventure for us early in our marriage, and we fell in love with France. Like Ada MacLeish in the photograph, I was… thirty, maybe. Almost thirty.
Here is John’s description of the song.
Practically all the music of Old Photograph is based on snippets from the Debussy/Maeterlinck opera Pelléas et Mélisande. MacLeish’s wife Ada was an operatic soprano, and her forced laughter and unsmiling eyes seem to be saying to the camera lens, “Ne me touchez pas”, the first words of Melisande to Golaud in the forest. This five note motif runs through the song, as does the main tune on which Melisande sings “Mes longs cheveux descendent jusqu’au seuil de la tour.” Macleish and his wife spent most of the 1920s in France. The couple alluded to in the poem, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were wealthy arts patrons (Gerald being an accomplished painter) who lived for a time as expatriates in a chalet in Cap d’Antibes that they dubbed “Villa America”. They regularly played host to Picasso, Hemingway, John Dos Passos and his wife, the Fitzgeralds and the MacLeishes, and many other creative luminaries of the early twentieth century. The song is a solo from a larger work for SATB and piano, the Book of Uncommon Prayer.
There she is. At Antibes I’d guess
by the pines, the garden, the sea shine.
She’s laughing. Oh, she always laughed
at cameras. She’d laugh and run
before that devil in the lens could catch her.
He’s caught her this time though: look at her
eyes – her eyes aren’t laughing.
There’s no such thing as a fragrance in a photograph
but this one seems to hold a fragrance –
fresh-washed gingham in a summer wind.
Old? Oh, thirty maybe. Almost thirty.
This would have been the year I went to Persia –
they called it Persia then – Shiraz,
Bushire, the Caspian, Isfahan.
She sent me the news in envelopes lined in blue.
The children were well. The Murphys* were angels: (Gerald and Sara Murphy)
they had given her new potatoes as sweet as peas
on a white plate under the linden tree.
She was singing Melisande with Croiza* – (Claire Croiza, mezzo-soprano, 1882-1946)
“mes longs cheveux.” She was quite, quite well.
I was almost out of my mind with longing for her . . .
There she is that summer in Antibes –
with frightened eyes.
I couldn’t do a week of American song blogs without featuring my friend John Musto. I first heard him at a memorial concert for Paul Jacobs, who had been my piano teacher for a little while. John was playing a duo-piano piece (Schubert, I think) that night. Both guys played beautifully, but there was something special in John’s sound and phrasing that resonated in my soul. I struck up a conversation with him at the party afterwards, and we soon became friends and colleagues. We’re both dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers, and somehow the contrasts in our personalities helped to forge a bond between us.
I hold John in very high esteem: he is a master of the piano, and he is one of the most intelligent people I know. Since our meeting in 1984 he has established himself a leading composer and take-no-hostages soloist and chamber music player. On the occasions when we play duo-concerts I feel like John’s little piano-brother, taken by the hand, indulged and coddled by a trustworthy adult.
John has written lots of wonderful songs, but since we’re playing favorites this week, here is the one I love the most: “Penelope’s Song” from the song cycle “Penelope.” She waits for Odysseus’s return while half-heartedly entertaining suitors who are certain she is a wealthy widow. She has told them that she’ll choose one when she is done with her spinning, but every night she undoes the work she accomplished during the day—keeping them at bay indefinitely. What she most loves is this complex state of limbo: married, and courted, and anticipating a reunion with Odysseus—but for the moment, enjoying all the time she has to herself, time to dream. “I’m in love with beginnings,” she sighs. “Don’t hurry home.”
John’s music is like a stoned 12-bar blues, full of gentle syncopations and subtle changes of meter. It sounds lulling and relaxed, although it is actually a very hard song to master because of its irregularities—and its long-held high note at the end. John’s wife Amy Burton nails it every time, and made this beautiful recording with her husband at the piano.
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