Monday 15 June 2009


(#42: 5 June 1965, 10 weeks; 16 October 1965, 10 weeks; 19 February 1966, 10 weeks; 25 June 1966, 7 weeks; 1 October 1966, 18 weeks; 25 March 1967, 7 weeks; 20 May 1967, 1 week; 3 June 1967, 1 week; 18 November 1967, 1 week; 2 December 1967, 3 weeks; 27 January 1968, 1 week; 23 November 1968, 1 week)

Track listing: Prelude and The Sound Of Music/Overture and Preludium (Dixit Dominus)/Morning Hymn and Alleluia/Maria/I Have Confidence In Me/Sixteen Going On Seventeen/My Favourite Things/Climb Ev’ry Mountain/The Lonely Goatherd/The Sound Of Music/Do-Re-Mi/Something Good/Processional and Maria/Edelweiss/So Long, Farewell/Climb Ev’ry Mountain (Reprise)

Sometime in 2002 or possibly even early 2003 – the times were hard enough still to blur exactness - I watched the film Last Night on late night television; it was one of those films I only intended to half-watch before turning into bed but something compelled me to stay with it. Briefly, the world is coming to an end, possibly about to be swallowed by the sun, and we see a not too disparate group of people in this city patiently going about preparations for their final hours, mostly without panic or evident distress; not scuttling into bunkers, for that would be fruitless, but trying to have as nice a final time as possible.

But there is this man, Patrick, sitting on the roof of this building, and who significantly is played by Don McKellar, the film’s director, who is simply waiting to die, and off whom the viewer’s eyes or minds cannot be taken; he is a recently and prematurely bereaved widower living in an open air tomb, surrounded by purposeless memories of his former life, drinking himself into earnest oblivion. And there is this woman, Sandra, who has agreed a suicide pact with her husband (David Cronenberg) but for various reasons cannot get in touch with him. Ultimately Sandra and Patrick end up on the same roof; lacking any better alternative, they sip wine, place “Guantanamera” on the stereo, aim revolvers at each other’s temples and wait. But they can’t go through with it; something is pulling them back, perhaps the music, or more probably the slow realisation that they are attracted to each other. So instead of the modified suicide pact they kiss; the sun, which has steadily been growing brighter throughout the film (even though most of it takes place at night), fills the screen with white brilliance and the film ends.

But does the world end? Some years later I am inclined to believe that it doesn’t, but back then I wasn’t in a position to judge. It now seems to me the clearest of metaphors; it is Patrick’s world which is ending, which he wants to end, until the final resolution delivers him (and her) from the darkness and back into the light of a new and brighter dawn. Certainly in those darker days I was in no fit state even to realise that the city in which this rebirth was being played out was Toronto; prophecies don’t always come blaring and waving.

Some of this may go towards understanding why for me the most touching moments on The Sound Of Music soundtrack are those where Christopher Plummer – an actor born in Toronto – sings. This happens only three times; first, and most touchingly, on the reprise of the title song, after his children have found their collective voice and he takes a tentative lead at the end. His is the singing voice of an actor but thankfully – and possibly having learned some lessons from West Side Story - Robert Wise thought better than to dub him; he sings like a child learning to speak for the first time, hesitant and nervous, but when he reaches the crucial lines “I know I will hear what I heard before” and “and I’ll sing once more” and the widower is returned it is impossible for me not to be moved. Here is another of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s post-Rochester superficial beasts whose inner beauty only needs to be coaxed out by the right Jane. Then, in the duet “Something Good,” we reach the equivalent of Rochester ’s marriage proposal. “Nothing comes from nothing…nothing ever could,” Andrews and Plummer reassure each other as their voices slowly stretch out the syllables to the point of quietly euphoric non-/co-existence. Finally, in the defiant reversal (melodically, harmonically and thematically) of the Horst Wessel Song that is “Edelweiss,” he finds his truer and nobler self.

Never mind the implausibility of an Austrian Navy admiral, since this is a fairytale (albeit one grounded in historical reality, but this is Cupid and Psyche, complete with mountain top); Plummer’s Baron is no realer an admiral than the ancient madman firing cannonballs over the roofs of Kensington in Mary Poppins, but is Andrews’ Maria any more substantial a figure than Poppins? So many of the show’s songs are list songs, but most of them come to the same conclusion; after spending three minutes unsuccessfully trying to pin down the character of Maria in “Maria,” the nuns come to the moderately aghast revelation: “She’s a girl!,” and the Cupid and Psyche comparisons run deeper, since this Maria, much more so (if necessarily more fantastic) than the one of West Side Story, is a signifier, a channel of subtexts, a personification of the word “girl,” just ahead of Lennon’s remarkably similar musings on the same subject (see entry #44) and a generation ahead of Green Gartside’s (#319).

But more than that, this Maria appears to be the personification of music. Although the show, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s final one, plays as a pocket summary of their work to date, since the Rochester-Eyre analogy also appears, with varying success, in The King And I and South Pacific, the plot is essentially that of South Pacific seen from the other, darker end of the telescope (Emile goes off to sea to fight, the Baron goes off to avoid fighting at sea, and both do the right thing), the climactic anthem of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” is a more formalised variant on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and the jaunty bounce of “The Lonely Goatherd” and “Do-Re-Mi” both still unavoidably conjure up the plains of Oklahoma! (both are basically bierkeller hoedowns), I cannot recall another preceding major stage musical so concerned with the nature of music itself; certainly Sondheim and others would go on to develop that template but there are no clear precedents (The Music Man does not count but it was fitting that Robert Preston and Julie Andrews should finally meet up in the 1982 environs of Victor/Victoria). The sprite of Maria can only come to life with music, and uses music to bring others back to life. She is lost in music but finds the world again through music.

Is Maria Music? The first sound we hear on the record is birdsong, and slowly the disparate elements of a song build up to reveal her butterfly at its brilliant centre. On “Do-Re-Mi” the modal acoustic guitar introduction sounds strikingly 1965 but MetaMaria is analysing her own elements, explaining how every single one of her aorta work and function together to power a human life, how each individual element of the song she is singing blends and unites to form the song she is singing; not so much deconstruction of music, but more reconstruction. With swift happiness (or with the happiness of a swift?) she brings the children into her orbit.

Even as a spirit, however, Maria is not infallible or insensitive; “My Favourite Things” – another song of lists attempting to make a sense of life out of disparate factors and also a song not forgetting that the first four letters of the word “listen” make “list” – is a song of defiance aimed at her own underlying fear (in a different Sound Of Music it might have been sung by Anne Frank), and it is worth noting that the diatonic point where A minor reluctantly blinks its way into F major seventh (the “bad” of “then I don’t feel so bad”) was the basis of Coltrane’s famous improvisation on the song.

(And for many Coltrane was the embodiment of music as sprite/spirit, living and breathing music to the exclusion of all else, including, finally, his own life; as Frank Lowe has remarked, how hard is it to visualise Coltrane at home on a Saturday afternoon, beer in hand, watching the football? But in 1965, as with so much else seemingly diametrically opposed to The Sound Of Music – from Godard to Ballard, from Berio to Reich – Coltrane’s art was pushing furiously towards a future, coming out of A Love Supreme and stretching its post-Monk modes towards the troubled semi-freedoms of Ascension and Kulu Se Mama)

Stretching another barely stretchable point, there is even congruence between Coltrane’s modal hymnologies – the literal declamation of Part Four of A Love Supreme – and the opening nuns’ choruses which seem to be occurring in a Salzburg which never knew a Mozart (but Maria as Mozart and Baron von Trapp as Salieri, only a couple of centuries out of place?). Perhaps as an in joke, one of these nuns is Marni Nixon, the singer who voiced the part in the film of My Fair Lady which most felt should have gone to Andrews rather than Hepburn (but Andrews got the Oscar for Poppins anyway). There is a hint of “devil’s music” exasperation about their initial reading of “Maria” and perhaps this is what has led misleading commentators throughout the ages to declare the supposedly crushing success of The Sound Of Music as a decisive, populist reaction; the yes vote for continuation of the old faced with the uncertainty of the new (Civil Rights, Beatles, it was all understandable and you knew where you were, etc.; not a feeling unknown either in a Britain which had recently lost its Churchill and whose citizens didn’t necessarily all know or like where they were heading).

That the soundtrack album spent a total of 70 weeks at number one between mid-1965 and late 1968, a total bettered only by South Pacific – for comparison purposes, the single at number one during its first week at the top was Sandie Shaw’s never-chirpier “Long Live Love” while its last week was echoed, tellingly, by Hugo Montenegro’s recording of Morricone’s theme from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly – cannot be denied or avoided. This would not have happened without a general craving for stability, but given that my mother took me to see the film in the local cinema (the George in Bellshill, long gone) at least three times in my extreme youth its renewable appeal was eminently understandable (and if, like my mother, you had lived in the horrific middle of World War II, you would doubly understand it) – and this does not even take into account its subsequent, camper life as a dressing up karaoke repertory cinema perennial.

But stability and conservatism do not always imply maltreated horses or Margaret Thatcher. As we will go on to see, The Sound Of Music tended to keep the number one seat warm when the big boys (and they were always boys at this stage) didn’t have something new out, so this very feminine stability helped balance the testosterone rush developing elsewhere. In addition, it is wrong to deride it for imagined stuffed shirtness. Consider that the musical is about a free spirit who repeatedly finds joy and revelation in natural things rather than man-made ones – listen to those lists in “My Favourite Things” again and compare and contrast with the all too human ones in “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – who comes brandishing an acoustic guitar and singing of flowers and birds in order to shake up a complacent and confused middle-aged man; and consider how remarkable this was coming from the pen of a lyricist who essentially did not live to see the sixties. As with the less-than-subtle central anti-materialist subtext of Mary Poppins, we are faced with something which appears to offer reassurance at a time when much, for many, was drifting apart but in fact predicates what would eventually usurp them as the decade proceeded onwards.

And, as with Mary Poppins, Andrews’ protagonist isn’t quite as uncomplicated as she appears. Her “I Have Confidence In Me” seems to me the record’s key performance; she is in fact paralysed by the newly granted uncertainty that comes with problematic freedom but does her best to square herself with a round world. Her bountiful delivery progressively becomes more unhinged in its forced joy, and the music bounces off rubber walls of rhetorical triplets of high notes and rhythm in a way that is more disturbing than merely overcompensating for an essential lack of confidence. By the time Andrews screams out “WAKE UP – IT’S HEALTHY!” she almost sounds as though she’s proclaiming “Wake up – it’s Hell.” Lena perceives some kinship with Kate Bush in this performance; these steeply sprinting bounds which would in time rematerialise in songs like “Hounds Of Love” balanced with the petrified near-silence of Andrews’ quiet, paused “Oh, help!” See also her bafflement throughout “Something Good”; although it is impossible to imagine Andrews doing so much as steal an apple off a greengrocer’s cart, the song does impose the question of how and why Maria came to the abbey in the first place (although the rest of the show does not really address this issue).

But Music alone cannot shut out the wider and darker world. Though it comes early on in the song sequence, Dan Truhitte and Charmian Carr’s “Sixteen Going On Seventeen” is decidedly creepy in a proto-jackboot manner; here girls are but empty pages for men to write upon, and note the mild dissonance and less mild sense of dread which accompany the “face” and “world” of the line “face a world of men” as well as the second syllables of “I’ll” and “care” in the chorus line “I’ll take care of you.” Given that the only logical sequel to this song would be the rueful self-realisation of Cooke’s “Only Sixteen,” it is scarcely surprising that Rolf, the boy singing the song, goes on to join the Nazis and only helps the von Trapps escape at film’s end with some marked reluctance (a less complex struggle with the evil other than represented in Carousel).

Still, the show’s ending, as represented on this album, is one of the grimmest of any Rodgers and Hammerstein show, despite being a “happy” ending. The perky marionettism of “So Long, Farewell” gradually resolves into a dirge of ineffable loss (“I’m glad to go”), underlining that by fleeing they are losing everything, though in a different, less fatal way than if they had stayed, and the closing choral reprise of “Mountain” sees them fled, somewhere (as Rodgers implies in one of his sleevenote quotes) between Parsifal and My Fair Lady. Dylan may wander, but he literally brings all of his stories back home; whereas the von Trapps are left with no home. There is never any doubt that they will find a new one, but it will not be quite the same home, not really the same life. And, of course, it is impossible to detach the subtext from “So Long, Farewell” of this being Hammerstein’s, and maybe Rodgers’, last throw of the dice. Despite strong individual songs, none of Rodgers’ post-Hammerstein musicals (No Strings, Two By Two, I Remember Mama etc.) made any lasting splash; Cabaret turned out to be a better and more truthful, if less ostensibly placatory, sequel to The Sound Of Music; and the sixties carried on as they would always have done. Think of The Sound Of Music as a generous, if rueful, handshake, a passing of a hard won torch, from one world to its successor, a warm guardian standing at the gate of the sixties, testing commitment and maybe even humanity. Think also that Jane Eyre was indeed spoken of as a fairy, a sprite (and a salamander, but all Rochesters have their wall of protection ready to be gently broken down); but above all, think of “Guantanamera” on that early morning roof in Toronto, how something changed in that air and how long I would have to wait until I realised that the air was not excluding me from its moonbeam song.