Song of the Day: December 8

Written by Five Boroughs Music Festival

Chamber Music Series

In category: Song of the Day

Published December 8, 2015

5BMFThis week’s Song of the Day selections come from the founders of Five Boroughs Music Festival Jesse Blumberg and Donna Breitzer. NYFOS is partnering with 5BMF in January to bring our NYFOS@Juilliard program Harry, Hoagy, and Harold to Flushing Town Hall.  Welcome, Jesse & Donna!

Oh! What a Charming City…

New York City has been a muse for poets and songwriters since the town’s earliest days. There are literally thousands of titles on Wikipedia’s List of songs about New York City, the majority of these dating from the 20th and 21st centuries. But of course, people were writing and singing about the Big Apple well before Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon, Alicia Keys and Jay Z made it cool. For today’s SOTD, we wanted to go back much further in time, to pre-1900’s New York.

Poking around for really old music is best done in the library, of course, but sometimes the internet does offer up a little gem. In doing a little sleuthing for this blog, we came upon the 19th century ditty “Oh! What a Charming City” by John Allison Gairdner, published in 1831. While we didn’t have as much luck finding a recording, the sheet music (and charming cover artwork) can be viewed online courtesy of Baylor University’s collection of digitized sheet music. The poetry, also by Gairdner, is an earnest ode to NYC:

The ardent, romantic,
The charming god of song,
Cross’s lately th’At-lantic
Nor thought the voy’ge long;
He tripp’d along in shoes of cork,
Singing many a ditty,
But he chang’d his song when he reache’d New York,
To what a charming City.

New York! New York!
Oh! what a charming City.
New York! New York!
Oh! what a charming City.

2. In Bowery, in Broadway,
He rambl’d up and down,
Took byway, and oddway,
Resolve to see the town;
And on he went, he sung this song,
“Now, is it not a pity,”
I should have stay’d away so long,
From such a charming City.

3. Here Freedom, and duty,
And truth, and taste remain,
Here honour, and beauty,
And love, and valour reign;
Then hither Freedom’s friends resort,
The grave, the gay, the witty,
For here I’ll henceforth keep my court,
In this delightful City.

We at 5BMF happen to have our own history when it comes to New York City as musical inspiration: In 2011 we commissioned the Five Borough Songbook in honor of our fifth season in 2011-2012. Twenty unique composers each contributed a brand-new song inspired by places, themes and poetry of NYC, resulting in a wonderfully diverse and compelling collection of vocal works.<

Choosing just one of these 20 songs to share here today is like trying to choose a favorite flavor of ice cream (impossible), but Scott Wheeler's "At Home in Staten Island" seems to fit well: the poem, by Charles Mackay, was published in the weekly London periodical All The Year Round in 1869. Wheeler’s setting for soprano and violin draws on Victorian parlor song and older English folk song styles. Here is the track from our Five Borough Songbook album (GPR Records, 2012), performed by the wonderful violinist Harumi Rhodes and the luminous soprano Martha Guth:

My true love clasped me by the hand,
And from our garden alley,
Looked o’er the landscape seamed with sea,
And rich with hill and valley.
And said, “We’ve found a pleasant place
As fair as thine and my land,
A calm abode, a flowery home
In sunny Staten Island.

“Behind us lies the teeming town
With lust of gold grown frantic;
Before us glitters o’er the bay,
The peaceable Atlantic.
Here let us rest, a little while —
Not rich enough to buy land,
And pass a summer well content
In bowery Staten Island.”

“A little while,” I made reply
“A little while — one summer:
For, pleasant though the land may be
To any fresh new comer,
I miss the primrose in the dell,
The blue-bell in the wild wood,
And daisy glinting through the grass,
The comrade of my childhood.

“Give me the throstle on the bough,
The blackbird and the linnet,
Or any bird that sings a song
As if its heart were in it.
And not your birds of gaudier plume,
That you can see a mile hence,
And only need, to be admired,
The priceless charm of silence.

“There’s drone, I grant, of wasps and bees,
And sanguinary hornets,
That blow their trumps as loud and shrill
As regimental cornets.
And all night long the bull-frogs croak
With melancholy crooning,
Like large bass-viols out of gear,
And tortured in the tuning.

“And then those nimble poisonous fiends,
The insatiable mosquitoes
That come in armies noon and night,
To plague, if not to eat us.
The devil well deserves his name,
That sent them to the dry land;
Let us away across the sea,
Far, far from Staten Island!”

“Ah, well!” my true love said and smiled,
“There’s shade to every glory;
There’s no true paradise on earth
Except in song or story.
The place is fair, and while thou’rt here,
Thy land shall still be my land,
And all the Eden earth affords
Be ours in Staten Island.”

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