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Sunday, October 11, 2015

All the things you are (manifesto 6)

Suppose a singer gives a moving performance of "All the things you are." "You are the promised kiss of springtime / that makes the lonely winter seem long. / You are the breathless hush of evening / that lingers on the brink of a lovely song..." The singer could be male or female, but the singer did not write the words. The lyrics are by Oscar Hammerstein II, the music by Jerome Kern. The implied recipient of the lyric could also be male or female, and this does not depend on the gender of the performer or the gender of Oscar Hammerstein.

To find the meaning or emotional truth of the lyric or of the performance of the lyric, we don't go look at the biography of Hammerstein. He wrote it for a failed Broadway show, and we don't especially care about what he was thinking about when he wrote it. At least I don't. We could say it's conventional sentimentality, but is it? Its conventionality, after all, is what make it work for any performer in any decade. Sometimes I feel that the melodies of these songs are superior to the lyrics, which can become dated, or too specific to their time and place: Gotta get my old tuxedo pressed / gotta sew a button on my vest." Yet not really... The lyrics come alive again in a great performance, and even instrumentalists might be thinking of the lyric when they interpret the melody or chord changes. This song became a jazz standard and was beloved by beboppers.

I suppose we could go back to that Broadway Show and find out who the characters were, and interpret the song in its dramatic context. Nyah. Nobody cares anymore. Not only was the show, "Very Warm for May" (1939) a failure, but the song has achieved independence from those origins.

We could also find meaning or emotional truth in the performer's biography. This, also, might matter to us, or not. We don't have access to the performer's inner life to know whether he (or she) is thinking about as the performance or recording was taking place. We can invent a story about it, but that story is not essential, or will not be significant to those who don't know or care to know.

I don't even know if I have to finish this thought: the conclusion should be obvious. The meaning is in its repeatability and in its immanence, not in its origins or circumstances. Its meaning in one immanent circumstance might be that it is sung at a wedding, and its meaning specific to that occasion, but it will be sung at other weddings as well.

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