The other day, I was coaching one of my GCSE students for her final performance. She's singing Memory from Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber, a standard - and very well known - musical theatre number.
We've been working on this piece for a while. One of the problems with singing musical theatre numbers for a GCSE performance is that the marking criteria require the song to be sung accurately with respect to the published music, but the published music may differ significantly from the best-known recordings. Different editions of the music may also differ musically - I have three copies of Memory, all of which differ in details of rhythm and dynamic markings, all of which have different accompaniments, and one of which is in a different key. The challenge for the teacher is to select an appropriate performing edition and ensure that the student sings accurately in relation to that edition, ignoring everything else. The challenge for the student is to learn the song from the sheet music, rather than by listening to a recording. The trouble with Memory, of course, is that everyone has heard it sung by Elaine Paige (or possibly Barbra Streisand), and it is very hard to airbrush Elaine or Barbra out of your head and learn the music from the dots on the page.
Anyway, my student has succeeded in doing this. At her lesson she sang the rhythms accurately and did all the marked dynamics in the printed edition we are using. But it was boring. I felt she had not really understood what this song is about, and she had not connected with the emotions of the character singing it.
On the face of it, Memory is a nostalgic song about past glories sung by an elderly cat (Grizabella) who is evidently lonely and longing for physical affection. But when my student sang it like that, it didn't work. So I began to wonder if there was more to this song than it appeared.
The key phrase comes in the third verse: "When the dawn comes, tonight will be a memory too, and a new day will begin". I asked my student whether that was a statement of hope or despair. She thought for a minute and then said, "Hope".
I don't think so. You see, Grizabella looks forward to dawn with both fear and longing. The Cats legend is that at dawn, one of the cats will be selected to be taken up to "cat heaven" - what Grizabella earlier in the same verse describes as "a new life". This looks much like death, doesn't it? So Grizabella looks forward to dawn in the hope that she will die - and she both longs for death (because of her belief that it is the gateway to a new life) and fears it. And suddenly we have the key to our character: this disgusting old alley cat with a very nasty nature was adored when she was younger, because of her beauty. Now she no longer has beauty, she doesn't have love either.... and without love there is nothing left to live for, so she longs for death. Dawn may bring hope, but her basic existential position is despair.
So I asked my student to sing the song from a position of despair rather than hope. This is quite advanced emotional expression for a young singer and I wasn't sure she would be able to do it. To my astonishment the song absolutely took off: she sang with commitment and real feeling, and Grizabella's desperate cry for physical contact at the end gave me goosebumps. I really hope she sings it like that in her exam.
The lesson from this is that songs aren't necessarily what they appear to be, and if we don't study the words, the character and the context, we may fail to connect with the real meaning of the song. And if we miss the point ourselves, so will our listeners. This is particularly true in musical theatre and opera, where it is essential that the context of the song and the motivation of the character is understood. When Susan Boyle released her version of "I dreamed a dream", from Les Miserables, I didn't like it - and I still don't. She turned it into a sad personal statement of lost ambition, whereas in the show it is a rage-filled despairing outburst from a dying woman about the abuse and abandonment that has left her destitute.
But it is also true in another genre - the art song. I've been working with students on musical settings of two poems by great English poets: John Ireland's setting of "Spring Sorrow", by Rupert Brooke, and Eric Thiman's setting of "To Daffodils", by Wordsworth. Both of these poems are, on the face of it, about nature: "To Daffodils" containing a vivid description of a swathe of daffodils beside a bay, and "Spring Sorrow" depicting the early signs of spring. But actually, neither poem is really about nature at all.
The key to the Wordsworth piece comes in these lines:
"For oft when on my couch I lie,
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills
And dances with the daffodils".
The memory of such a beautiful sight is enough to lift the poet out of his habitual depression. Really it's the same sentiment as in "Favourite Things" from the Sound of Music:
" When the dog bites, when the bee stings,
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember my favourite things
And then I don't feel so bad."
Would you ever have thought that Rodgers & Hammerstein and Wordsworth would have had so much in common?
Turning to Spring Sorrow, this is a deceptively simple, almost naive poem. I reproduce it in full here.
All suddenly the wind comes soft
And spring is here again:
And the hawthorn quickens with buds of green,
And my heart with buds of pain.
My heart all winter lay so numb,
The earth so dead and frore,
That I never thought the spring would come,
Or my heart wake any more.
But winter's broken and spring has woken,
And the small birds cry again;
And the hawthorn hedge puts forth its buds,
And my heart puts forth its pain.
The greening of the earth at the start of spring becomes a metaphor for the reawakening of feeling after a long period of numbness following deep hurt. Pain returns - but that is a sign of healing, and of new life.
Exactly when Rupert Brooke wrote this song I don't know, but it may have been during WWI: even if it was not, it is so clearly about the start of recovery from grief that I am sure Brooke must have been writing about personal bereavement. John Ireland's setting of it dates back to 1918, not long after Brooke's death, and I wonder if the two men knew each other: certainly Ireland's setting - also deceptively simple - perfectly captures the bittersweet nature of this poem. Because of its simplicity, the Associated Board set it for Grade V: but for me, this song requires far more emotional maturity than a typical Grade V candidate will usually have. A simple song it may be, but it conveys complex and difficult emotions.
So songs should never be judged by appearances. And actually, nor should students - despite what I have just said about Grade V candidates! I am constantly amazed by the ability of young singers to understand and communicate emotions that are not yet, and may never be, part of their life experience. Imagination is truly a powerful tool for a singer.