Satie, Ravel, Poulenc, Vol. 6 (fin)

Francis Poulenc
In this final installment of Manuel Rosenthal's three-part musical memoir, he considers the witty, melodic music and liberal-Catholic personality of Francis Poulenc, and how he typified the free-spirited café culture of Rosenthal's youth. Previous entry here.

III. Poulenc

Francis Poulenc was a disciple of Erik Satie’s and, for all his adult life, an ardent admirer of Ravel. In turn, both Satie and Ravel liked Poulenc’s natural and rustic musical carriage. As a young man Poulenc tried to study with Ravel, but he never got beyond the first encounter. His jaunty personality prevented him from looking like a studious pupil; he felt that all the fundamental exercises were useless to him, and in a way he was correct.

Poulenc was the son of a wealthy family who had made their fortune in pharmaceuticals—“Rhone-Poulenc.” He was taught piano by his mother, and early became a remarkable pianist. He could have been one of the finest concert pianists of his time; the quality of tone in Poulenc’s playing was equalled only by the great Jacque Fevrier.

It was a joy to hear the sound of Poulenc at the keyboard. It was very mellow and lush, something that is completely forgotten today, when pianists are all hammering the keys. Poulenc was a pianist in the French tradition that included Debussy and Ravel. Poulenc’s chief teacher, Ricardo Vines, was a Spanish pianist who knew Debussy very well. I once asked him how Debussy played the piano: he said Debussy caressed the keyboard. Ravel played in a similar way, always holding his hands flat—wrists even below the keyboard (which is why you’ll find so few octaves in his writing for the piano). That was also Poulenc’s technique. He caressed the keyboard, but in a very masculine, solid way. It was enchanting to hear him play.

Like many people who grow up with wealth, Poulenc was stingy. He hated to spend money. He didn’t like taking the metro or the bus, he took a taxi, but he always tried to get a friend to take it with him. At the destination he would open up his wallet and say, “Oh, I have only a 5000 franc note! The driver will never be able to change this—would you please pay? I’ll pay you back right away.” Of course he never did; that was the game. But he was warm and generous in other ways—during the war he was a member of the underground, and he hid a great many people who needed asylum. Politically his opinions were freedom-loving, and tolerant. It just killed him to spend a cent.

I would meet with Poulenc often at his apartment, in the Rue de Medicis, now Francis Poulenc Square. He had a wonderful penthouse apartment, overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens; it had parquet floors and fine furnishings. Poulenc was a grand bourgeois. You would never quite guess it to see him; he was not ostentatious, but always simply though elegantly dressed, carefree, with the manner of a true nineteenth century gentilhomme. He had not studied at the conservatoire but at the Sorbonne, where he received a literary education, and left versed in Racine, Corneille, Diderot, Chateaubriand and the like.

Poulenc had two very different sides to him. While creating some of the most solemn religious music of our time—his Gloria, Stabat Mater, and Dialogue of the Carmelites—he also wrote some of the most wonderfully absurd and risqué works as well, such as Les Mamelles de Tiresias. These two sides of Poulenc existed in harmony. There is a tradition in France (often perplexing to foreigners) of liberal-minded Catholics, particularly in the arts: Max Jacob, Andre Gide, Charles Peguy, Paul Claudel. They feel free to talk about or to do anything they want, provided they do no harm to anyone else. This explains, in my opinion, a great deal about French music. For the English or the Germans—who are often Protestant—music is a liberation. They have no other way to bare their souls. Catholics don’t need that sort of liberation, because they have confession. Music, then, for many of the French, is not a need but a luxury. French music has always described nature, or love—very different subjects from the English or the German.

Francis Poulenc
For Poulenc, composing was a game. His lively personality shows in his work. Poulenc was extremely adept at creating beautiful melodies, and his vocal writing was unsurpassed. Poulenc is often accused of having an “unoriginal” musical language, but no composer has ever had a thoroughly original one (except perhaps Schumann). Poulenc’s originality lies in his frank cheerfulness, his Parisian gouaille (banter), and his tender nostalgia.

I once asked Ravel his opinion of Poulenc’s music, and he replied, “What I like is his ability to invent popular tunes.” All of Poulenc’s melodies sound as if they are folk tunes, which they are not; they are entirely of Poulenc’s invention. Poulenc was delighted when I related this remark.

Poulenc’s music is very lively and amusing, running from one melody to the next. There is never any development—no “grand architecture” as with Ravel. The sections are always short, but brilliantly inventive.

While conducting Poulenc, I would often think of the man. He was witty and amusing, a cultivated raconteur. He knew Balzac by heart. If you asked him, “What did Madame Vauquer purchase when she went shopping at the Palais Royale, and who was she with?” Poulenc would reply immediately, “Oh, she bought a hat with ostrich feathers and she was with the Countess Ambermesnil.” He was acquainted with the poets of this time—Apollinaire, Eluard, Soupault, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy. Les Mamelles, in fact, had been subtitled by Apollinaire: drame surrealiste. This was the first time the adjective “surrealisme,” which means “to enforce the real,” entered the world of literature. French composers have always cultivated literary contacts. French operas are often written to libretti by excellent writers, and are frequently designed by wonderful painters.

The problem in conducting Poulenc’s Les Mamelles is to make the orchestra interesting in two ways: When the singers are not singing, the orchestra has to come up, in a very brilliant way, almost flashy. That’s also French—with panache. But as soon as the singers sing, the orchestra must recede. Apollinaire’s words in Les Mamelles are very interesting. The audience must hear what the singers are saying; everywhere there are puns and jokes. I told the orchestra, “You will be guilty of a crime if you obscure the voices.” But meanwhile, the audience has to guess, if not hear, that the orchestra is playing something delicate and important. To be discreet is not to disappear. This is perhaps the most difficult part of conducting: to keep the orchestra always interesting, whether it is in the foreground or the background.

This is largely due to the phenomenon of the café. Less so today because café life no longer appeals to youth. But until the Second World War we all went every afternoon and evening to the cafés and brasseries. There it was easy to meet painters and writers. I don’t know why, but I’ve always observed that painters enjoy good food and wine more than other kinds of creative people. Painters, in general, are realists. Perhaps it’s because they always deal with real materials in their work—paints, brushes, canvas—you can touch these. So it is an enrichment for a composer to meet up with painters; it gives them something other composers or musicians can’t give.

One of the characteristics of that time—and the one I am saddest to see disappear—was that contacts were very easily made. When I was only fourteen and still in shorts, I could meet all the great figures. And when you met them they treated you as an equal. Nobody seemed to think he was a “star”—neither Ravel nor Poulenc nor even Stravinsky.

At this time Paris was really a village. As a child I would sneak away from school and go into the city. Today Paris is like any other big town, full of noise and too many autos. But in those days it was really a village, where everybody knew everybody else, and the café was where you all met. Nobody ever stayed home, except to sleep; they lived and worked in the cafés. You never knew if someone lived in a palace, like Poulenc, or in a dingy little room, like Satie; you were really living in the café—the bistro. For just one cup of coffee you could stay all afternoon and all evening, talking. Nobody would ever bother you. Now they watch you every minute, and if you stay more than an hour they put you out, or they ask, “What are you going to drink?” It was a very different time.


Already Burnt Down

As I write this, the nation is on fire, and I am preparing to play music over Zoom for Greenpoint Reformed Church. (Startlingly, today is the most fiery day on the church calendar, Pentecost, and this old minor-key banger will be our main hymn.) I have been contemplating playing this Rufus Wainwright number for some time during the Trump era—I've already trotted out Dylan's "Hard Rain" a few times after particularly rough weeks. But now seems like the day. Though written in 2007 in response largely to the Iraq War, and though written by a Canadian with some sense of remove from the U.S., there's nothing in the song I can't sign onto. Our country's violent white supremacist past is never dead; it's not even past.

Musically it's one of Wainwright's more straightforward tunes, and it's all the more striking for it. That also gives its judiciously employed harmonic surprises that much more operatic power. The song is F-minor but doesn't arrive at that home key until after eight bars, and on the key word, "America." It all flows from there with the momentum of rage and despair, and I would just note two ear-bending chord changes late in the piece. The first is here:
And the second example uses the same three-note figure, bringing home the song with a bursting forth into major, then a crushing fall into an elongated spelled-out F-minor:
I won't be able to reach the full power of that climax sans choir, but I will be feeling it.

Satie, Ravel, Poulenc, Vol. 5

In this installment of Manuel Rosenthal's three-part musical memoir, he completes his recollections of Maurice Ravel in his final years. Previous entry here.

II. Ravel, con'td

I knew Ravel intimately during the last eleven years of his life. Because I was so much younger—almost forty years—I think he told me things he might not have told to friends nearer his age. Perhaps he felt as if he were talking to a child—he was seldom guarded. I remember once, walking on the boulevard, he kept silent for a very long time. I didn’t dare say a word; I was waiting for him to speak. When he spoke at last he just followed his thoughts—it had nothing to do with what we were saying. He said, “You know, I think it’s very difficult for an artist to marry, because you never know how much harm you do to your companion. Perhaps it’s too selfish to marry—you never know how wicked you will be, unwittingly.” I’m sure this was his way of explaining his solitary life.

One afternoon when Ravel was sick, in the last years of his life, he was in a very gloomy mood. All during lunch he had kept silent. It was silly on my part, but as a young man I was without tact, so I said, “If you were asked to choose the music for your funeral, what would you choose?” He smiled and said, “Oh, that’s easy.” I said, “What, you have something in mind?” He replied, “Yes, long ago I decided it would be L’Après-midi d’un faune, by Debussy.” I said, “Why that? You don’t need Chopin’s Funeral March, but The Afternoon of a Faun?” Ravel said, “In my opinion that’s the only perfect piece of music ever written, because it doesn’t appear to have been composed. It sounds as if Debussy were right in front of you, writing it down. It flows like an improvisation, and that’s the best compliment one can pay as a composer. That is real perfection.” With many wonderful composers, even better ones than Debussy—Mozart, Wagner—if you are a composer you know that there is a little trick that enabled him to do this or that, to bring it all together. Ravel said, “L’Après-midi d’un faune is seamless, without tricks.” The dream of all composers is the musical work that seems to have written itself. I dislike the word “improvisation,” but the music should sound unforced. Ravel always said, “If it looks like the work is well built, carefully constructed and thought out—that’s wrong! It always had to sound as if you are improvising in front of the public.”

Ravel asserted that every composer’s ambition was to write a nice waltz but that, in his opinion, only one succeeded: Johann Strauss. In spite of his humility, Ravel himself succeeded three times: in La Valse, in Valses nobles et sentimentales, and in the strange “Danse des Rainettes” from L’enfant.

Ravel sat next to his librettist Colette at the premiere of L’enfant. When it was over, his only remark was, “Isn’t it amusing?” That was a mask; Ravel was hiding. That was part of the French tradition to which Ravel was very proud to belong: restraint. He once said to me, “You know, in the time of Louis XIV, you never said you were ill. When someone asked how you were you always said, ‘just fine.’ You didn’t have the right to bother other people with your problems.” Ravel never complained, even though he was rarely in good health. Even when he wrote a letter (he had a telephone but he loved to write letters), he wrote in a traditional French way, very formal and elegant, and always ending, “je suis votre serviteur…”

Ravel loved young musicians, even those who were always attacking him. When I was young I went to one of a series of performances oganized by Count Etienne de Beaumont. That evening they were playing Salade by Darius Milhaud, a ballet with costumes and scenery by Andre Derain. By chance Ravel sat next to me; this was in 1924, and I hadn’t yet met him. He was with his close friend Cypa Godebski, half-brother of the famous Misia Sert. He was really Ravel’s closest friend, they saw each other almost every day. At the end of Salade Ravel applauded very loudly, shouting “Bravo, Bravo!” Godebski said, “But Maurice, you don’t know what this Milhaud says of your music—terrible things!” Ravel said, “Oh, that’s all right, that belongs to his age. He’s a wonderful composer, very gifted, I enjoyed his music. I don’t care if he insults me—that’s his generation.” It was only after L’enfant that some of the younger composers began to admire Ravel. After the premiere in Monte Carlo, Poulenc came up to him and apologized for having been “anti-Ravelean.” To Poulenc’s surprise Ravel thanked him, saying, “Never mind. There have been too many people writing bad Ravel anyway.”

Until shortly before his death in 1937, critical opinion was often unfavorable to Ravel. Few believed he was a serious composer! Even Georges Auric wrote a few years before Ravel died that Ravel was a “composer of the salon.” Arthur Honegger did not like him either. Ravel had long expected all that. He knew you could not be recognized easily if you were introducing something new to the world. Only once did I see him angered by his critics. We were in Montfort l’Amaury, and the postman brought the newspaper. Ravel said, “Ah, an article on me—‘Le Magicien de Daphnis.’” He exclaimed, “I am not a magician! I’m just a composer. Why can’t they say something serious about what I’m doing! I’m not a sorcerer, I’m just a musician!”

When Ravel’s health began to fail he remained very clear in mind, but his reflexes didn’t function. He couldn’t hold a pen, so I went with him every year to sign for his royalties. In that way I knew how much he was getting—it was very modest! Today his estate collections millions of francs! Well, that’s the way it is.

Next: The lively, liberal, tuneful Poulenc.

Satie, Ravel, Poulenc, Vol. 4

Ravel (Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty) 
In this installment of Manuel Rosenthal's three-part musical memoir, he begins to recount his tutelage under the exacting but expansive Maurice Ravel. (Incidentally I wish to express my agreement with Rosenthal's outlying opinion of the opera L'enfant et les sortileges as Ravel's masterpiece.) Previous entry here.

II. Ravel

Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges suffered a fate similar to Parade: it was booed at the premiere in Monte Carlo, 1928, and at every subsequent performance over the next decade, often to such an extent that poor Ravel could barely hear the music.

Ravel was quoted by Roland-Manuel as saying L’enfant was like an American “musical.” Ravel was much impressed by what he knew of American musical comedy, which was quite different from French operetta. L’enfant is in fact a variety show, a sequence of lively short numbers, each different from the next and each one an important musical idea.

L’enfant is undoubtedly Ravel’s masterpiece; and its music reflects the simplicity and the sadness of childhood. Ravel tells us that a child looks at the adult world in a way we know nothing about. Everything is gigantic and wondrous to him. A child thinks only and always about freedom. A child is always dreaming. That is why he is in revolt against adults.

All his life Ravel remained a child. He never married, and didn’t have a family; he was deeply attached to his mother. Even physically he was like a child—short and slim, very small boned. Ravel was conscious of being small; he was not ashamed of it, but he always stood up very erect. Because of this people often thought he was pompous, which he was not! As soon as Ravel was in the company of children, no matter where, he would get down on the carpet and play with them. He was not like an uncle or a father, but more like another child, and the children were delighted!
Le Belvédère in Montfort-L'Amaury
Ravel’s house in Montfort-l’Amaury, “le Belvedere,” was very small. That’s why he had bought it. It was baldy built, and of no interest as design, except that the rooms were tiny. Ravel had decorated it himself, and in the way a child might decorate a house. When I wanted to give him something for his birthday, I always looked for a highly original toy, and he was always delighted.

Ravel heard my music when I was twenty years old, and he told me he wanted to teach me. He said, “I am not going to be indulgent with you. I know your music; it’s because I like it and because I think you are extremely gifted that I am offering my services. But don’t think for one moment that I am going to be indulgent with you.” Ravel insisted on my learning the basics of solfeggio, fugue, counterpoint, and so on. Many times when I had brought him my assignment he would tear it up without a word, looking me directly in the eye.

There were other composers around Ravel at this time—Roland-Manuel, Maurice Delage. They spent weekends with him, got ideas and hints, but I was his only real pupil. It is often written that George Gershwin and Vaughan Williams studied with Ravel, but this is not true. Vaughan Williams was already a famous composer when he modestly wrote Ravel, asking him for musical advice. Ravel was very flattered but he told him exactly what he told Gershwin—“I have nothing to teach you.”

Ravel was a stern, severe teacher. One day after he tore up a composition of mine, I was in tears. I said to myself, this is really too much, and I left without saying goodbye, slamming the door. Monfort-l’Amaury was about thirty miles from Paris, and Ravel’s house was two miles by mail coach from the train station. It was an old-style mail coach with horses, as in a Dickens novel. I sat in the back of the coach crying. It was pouring rain outside. Suddenly through the glass door I saw a shape, and thinking somebody wished to get in I opened the door and there was Ravel! He was wearing a suit and tie, with no raincoat, no umbrella, rain streaming down his face. And he said, “Why did you leave without saying goodbye to your teacher?”

Ravel believed that when you are learning you are just like a child; it is not the time for opinions or self-expression. When I was young I thought Massenet and Puccini were outdated and worthless. One day Ravel said, “You are absolutely wrong about Puccini, and I will show you why.” He shut the door, sat down at the piano, and for the next two hours he played all of Tosca by heart, explaining every passage. After that I knew it was a masterpiece. About Massenet—one day after lunch Ravel took me to the home of the harpist Carlos Salzedo, who was making an arrangement for harp, flute, and violin of Sonatine. Ravel didn’t approve, but he agreed to that to please his friend. After a few bars Ravel got so excited that he ran to the piano and played for Salzedo the beginning of the Sonatine. It sounded very robust, like Massenet. To me it sounded ridiculous. Afterwards I said to him, “Why did you do that? Now it sounds like Massenet.” And Ravel said, “What’s wrong with that? I dedicated my string quartet to Gabriel Fauré, but my real teacher was Massenet. I owe everything I know to him. His music so influenced Debussy and me that we shall always owe a debt to his genius.” After these remarks, I realized how much Massenet there is in Ravel’s and in Debussy’s music—even in Pelleas or L’enfant. I later found that Ravel knew all of Massenet by heart, even weaker operas, and the Suite for Orchestra. I remember a piece by Massenet written from Lecomte de Lisle’s Les Erinnyes, an air that was played only at the cafés. Oh, how Ravel loved that!

Ravel went less to cafés than to the nightclubs, because he loved jazz. As soon as he had finished whatever he had been working on, he would leave his country place and go to Paris for a bit of nightlife. Not for the sake of socializing, but because there he could find jazz. In almost every piece of his there is a jazz section. Ravel always said that jazz was the most important musical event of our time, one that had brought the most novelty into music. He loved the freedom of jazz—it was all done by intuition, by fe

When Ravel was still young he had begun to compose a four-act opera based on A. Ferdinand Herold’s French translation of Gerhart Hauptmann’s Die Versünkene Glocke (The Sunken Bell). He had already written a large part of it when his father, then sick and dying, said, “Maurice, I would like to see something of your work on the stage—this affair will take you too long.” So Ravel abandoned the opera and composed L’Heure Espagnol—but his father died before the premiere. Ravel was pleased with the music he had composed for the abandoned opera, which was about witchcraft and man-to-animal transformations. When he first thought about L’enfant he said, “I’m going to use parts of The Sunken Bell.” That was why he asked Colette to include certain incidents in her libretto, especially in the second part, in the garden scene, where the music seems to come from another world.

Marie-Thérèse Gauley in the title role of 'L'enfant' in 1926
Ravel had great sympathy for animals. He owned a couple of Siamese cats. I have a picture of Ravel taken in his garden with one of his cats, named “Mouni.” On the picture is written, “a Manuel Rosenthal, affecteusement, Maurice Ravel, et Mouni.” When he was composing the cat’s duet in L’enfant he wrote to his friends, saying, “Tell me, is it ‘menou’ or ‘mounou’?,” trying to get the exact sound of a cat in love. Ravle was also good at imitating bird songs. At Montfort he would walk for miles into the forest—he knew the forest very well—he would listen to the birds, and it amused him to imitate them. You hear them in the garden scene of L’enfant; he knew just how to reproduce them with flutes.

It was not until Ravel was writing L’enfant that I fully understood the life of a creator. He finished the work in Monte Carlo, just days before the opening. When it was finally completed he said to me, “You know, at night when I was walking along the sea, wondering whether something should be in B flat or B major, or how to choose a chord or guide a melodic line, I said to myself, Oh, I am tired of this! I would like to be finished with it, just sitting in a café at last, enjoying an aperitif, looking at the sea. And when I was finally through and could sit in a café having my aperitif, the taste of it was bitter! I was longing for the time I spent walking at night, thinking, should it be B flat or B major!”

Next: Ravel's cheerful equanimity about his mixed reputation, and the music he chose for his funeral.

The Private Canon: Waiting in the Car for Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams is most decidedly not from L.A.—La. is more like it—but I associate her music indelibly with driving all over the City of Angels in the summer of 1989, the first I spent in L.A., when I landed a job as a "runner" (i.e., a car-bound errand boy for a film company) between my junior and senior year of college, making that my first full calendar year in what I think of as my second hometown (after Phoenix). I had picked up Passionate Kisses, a weird cassette EP that cobbled together the studio version of the title track, from Williams's self-titled debut of the year before, with a series of live radio performances, most at L.A.'s Pacifica station, KPFK, most of them blues covers ("Nothing in Rambling," "Going Back Home," and "Disgusted"). "Kisses" towered as a country standard from the first hearing (I especially relished the dissonance on the pre-chorus, on the repeated "Shouldn't I have this"), and the blues covers had a playful and lusty twang, with her smoky voice sneering as well as soaring with a wounded pride.

But the song that stopped me in my tracks was "Side of the Road," an original but also a live recording. Unfolding with a stately, scenic gait, it's a sort of not-quite-break-up song, a wistful farewell to a road not taken. The singer asks her lover to pull over and wait while she goes for a walk in the fields, just to see, "if only for a minute or two," "what it feels like to be without you." She wanders by a farmhouse and wonders what kind of domestic scene is playing out in there, and whether the couple is still happy with each other—if the woman still takes "her hair down at night." (This outside-looking-in scene always puts me in mind of this priceless Seinfeld story.) In case the decisiveness of her opening ambivalence wasn't clear, she doubles down in the final verse:
If I stray away too far from you
Don't go and try to find me.
It don't mean I don't love you.
It don't mean I won't come back and stay beside you.
It only means I need a little time,
To follow that unbroken line
To a place where the wild things grow,
To a place where I used to always go.
Needless to say this expresses an independent, unpinnable spirit stereotypically associated with men, especially in song. I won't pretend that restless sentiment isn't part of the song's resonance for me, but to hear this spiky self-possession from a woman does more than blandly universalize or generalize it. It also renders female subjectivity with undeniable immediacy and force. "Passionate Kisses," come to think of it, achieves a similar feat, albeit in a poppier vein. But "Side of the Road" is the one that really hit me, and in fact may have been the first feminist song to get under my skin and move me emotionally (this was before I'd discovered Liz Phair, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, Fiona Apple, etc.).

Musically the song is pretty straightforward, though there's something about its rising-and-falling progression that feels unpredictable and fresh no matter how many times I hear or play it. The chords of what I think of as the verse are E-B-C#m-A-B, and what I think of as the chorus starts on an F#m—a paradoxical minor lift—before rotating through A-E-B. There are even a few small dissonances—the guitar adds a 2 to the A chord of the verse, which puts a chill right under the word "side"—and there's a nagging second interval in the chorus, a C# over the B chord:

And I can't help but notice a little sixth (G# over the B chord) that curls up off the end of the second line in the second and third verses:

I vastly prefer the arcadian tempo and fraught, frayed vocal quality of this live version to the album version. And as much as I cherish Lucinda's later work (I'm especially partial to this achingly sad and sexy tune), the battered little cassette I hauled around L.A. the first summer I truly lived there unleashed the indomitable original sound that both captured my heart and taught it a lesson.

By the way, it turns out I'm not the only dude who's cottoned to the song:

Best Showtunes Evah

Some years ago Adam Feldman at Time Out New York asked me to contribute some entries for a grand list of "Best Broadway Songs of All Time." I had nothing to do with the voting or the ranking (the Top 3, if you want to cut to the chase, were "Rose's Turn," "O'l Man River," and "Finishing the Hat"), but I was offered a choice from among the chosen 50 songs of which I wanted to write about, and was happy to land some of my favorites (lots of Rodgers, and both Tesoris!). The whole thing is worth a read, featuring pieces by Feldman, David Cote, Raven Snook, and James Gavin. Here are my contributions, with the number in the list they held.

5. “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (1949)
Good music is onomatopoeia in reverse--sound formed from, and hence transmitting, meaning. That’s certainly the case with this swooning mini-aria, which wraps a pro-forma romantic message in a creamy musical envelope; even without Hammerstein’s lyrics, typically warbled by an operatic baritone with a heavy European accent, Rodgers’s tune by itself conjures ephemeral intoxication. And lest this song’s stand-alone hit status and oddly speculative second-person voice (“You may see a stranger”) make us forget: This love bomb drops in South Pacific’s first scene, where it functions as a marriage proposal. Who says no to that?

14. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel (1945)
The best of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s secular hymns had a dual purpose in its original setting: as a bit of grief counseling for newly widowed Julie Jordan after her husband’s suicide, and as a climactic high school graduation anthem for their daughter. To meet both demands, Hammerstein contributed almost entirely monosyllabic lyrics and Rodgers banked his fire, keeping things folk-simple till the arrival of the title phrase, for which he unleashed a cloud-bursting chord per syllable. The song’s repurposing has continued: It’s the official club anthem of Liverpool’s soccer team.

18. “Aquarius” from Hair (1968)
For a musical purportedly running on hippie flower power and gloopy starshine, it’s striking that Hair's bookends are a pair of bad-ass minor-key blues chorales: this funky, driving opener and the rafter-shaking closer “Let the Sun Shine In.” Wafting in like stage fog over a brooding organ and a siren-like wail of guitar feedback, “Aquarius” may proffer dubious astrology and peacenik platitudes, courtesy lyricists James Rado and Gerome Ragni, but composer Galt MacDermot’s churning, darkly tuneful music both grounds and elevates it.

12. “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Some theatre songs are whole plays in miniature; that this is one of them maybe shouldn’t be surprising, as it’s based on one of the Sholem Aleichem folk tales not used for the show’s main plot. As such it’s less an “I want” song than an “I am” song--a wistful introduction not to the things that drive the poor milkman Tevye but to how he sees himself. Amid the affectionate domestic humor of Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics is an insight the original Tevye, Zero Mostel, insisted the writers keep: This is a man whose ultimate idea of luxury is more time to pray and read the Torah.

23. “Lot’s Wife” from Caroline, or Change (2004)
This stunning 11 o’clock number would be overwhelming if it all weren’t so clearly and forcefully laid out by playwright/lyricist Tony Kushner and composer Jeanine Tesori. As Caroline, an embittered black maid who has squabbled over pocket change with the young son of the Jewish family she serves, wrenchingly weighs her complicity in her own misery, she tears through shifting meters and styles, presses words through multiple meanings (“Pocket change change me,” a climactic cry of “Flat!” that piles spiritual and musical connotations onto her hot iron), and reaches a kind of truce with her own rage.

29. “Ring of Keys” from Fun Home (2015)
A great theatre song goes places, but few travel as unexpectedly far and deep as this ebullient epiphany from the musical of Alison Bechdel’s memoir. The first trip is back in time, as 43-year-old Alison recalls her 10-year-old self admiring a butch lesbian she glimpsed at a diner; but the song’s real journey is the steep inward dive inspired by that shock of recognition. Lisa Kron’s lyric judiciously balances childlike precocity with stereotype-free hindsight, as Jeanine Tesori’s music spins subtly swelling cartwheels underneath, but the genius move is to leave blank space for young Alison to literally think out loud: “I feel…” and “I” and “…” Into these spaces a whole heart, and a lifetime, can rush.

39. “Something Wonderful” from The King and I (1951)
Open-hearted, ploddingly earnest Oscar Hammerstein II could be underrated in the indirection department. After all, he gave this strange, and strangely moving, pep-talk anthem to a supporting character, Lady Thiang, at a pivotal point in the impasse between the show’s quasi-romantic leads. As the King’s elder wife lauds, with a mix of damning faint praise and sincere special pleading, her monarch’s fickle, flickering greatness, she somehow makes Anna--and us--feel it. It doesn’t hurt that Richard Rodgers rose majestically to the occasion, crafting a monumental, angular musical portrait of the song’s offstage subject.

44. “People Will Say We’re in Love” from Oklahoma! (1943)
The musical’s version of the screwball comedy trope of the Lovers Who Can’t See They’re in Love, the “Of course I’m not in love with you (yet)” song has many fine exemplars (Carousel’s “If I Loved You,” Brigadoon’s “Almost Like Being in Love,” Guys and Dolls’s “I’ll Know”) but few as witty, playfully reciprocal, and, yes, sexy, as this bit of romantic gamesmanship, which features one of Richard Rodgers’s most felicitously constructed and artfully ornamented tunes (listen for the sly inversion of notes on “Don’t throw” and “Don’t start”).

46. “Anything Goes” from Anything Goes (1934)
Cole Porter wrote more than his share of durable melodies, but arguably his true metier was this kind of brittle, urbane word jazz, a kind of proto-hip-hop in which rhythmic flow and rhyming invention were everything. Though his original lyrics, full of wicked references to scandals and contretemps of his day, have often been censored or substituted with less topical variants, a listen to his original demo reveals that it isn’t arrangers or interpreters who’ve made Porter’s standards rock: The high-wire syncopations, feints, and sheer brass are all built into the original model.

49. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady (1956)
The first act of Shaw’s Pygmalion ends with Cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle indulging in the luxury of a cab ride home to her Drury Lane digs. My Fair Lady’s first scene ends similarly, but not before she imagines--in this jaunty, syncopated minuet, one of many seemingly effortless, ageless gems in Lerner and Loewe’s score--earthly comforts so modest (heat, chocolate, a chair) that the song would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for its warm grin. It’s the “I want” song of someone with little reason to believe she’ll attain it, and it’s all the sweeter for it.

Satie, Ravel, Poulenc, Vol. 3

Erik Satie
In this excerpt from Manuel Rosenthal’s three-part musical memoir, he concludes his recollections and thoughts about Erik Satie, his unique life, and his often prickly relationship with his peers. (Previous entry here.)

I. Satie, cont’d

Satie would often walk at night from Paris to his little room in Arceuil, a distance of about fifteen miles. The tram stopped at midnight and he couldn’t afford a taxi. Nobody ever set foot in that room until after his death, when it was discovered how meagerly he lived. Though he wore the same clothes and shoes, year after year, he always appeared tidy and clean. Darius Milhaud told me that when he opened the closet door thousands of old paper collars came tumbling out, and dozens of black umbrellas still in their wrappings.

Satie realized early that the life of a creative person meant a life of poverty, and he adapted without fuss. Toward the end of his life, Mme Edmond de Polignac commissioned him to write Socrate, which he called a “drame sympathetique.” In the same year she commissioned Stravinsky to write a work. Stravinsky complained that the amount paid was not nearly enough; Satie complained that it was far too much. Actually, she paid the same price.

I never met Satie. I could have, but I was very young and too shy. I saw him often, though. The first time was when he was introducing four very young composers, L’Ecole d’Arceuil, to the public at the College de France. Satie came on the platform dressed like a civil servant, a functionnaire. He wore a black suit with a watch-chain on the waistcoat, a stiff collar, black tie, and monocle. Very correct looking, like someone from the ministry. He was reserved and aloof in addressing the audience, though in fact he was introducing them to revolutionary kind of music. These composers were young and ready to burn everything. Satie was approaching the situation in a very solemn way. At the end he thanked the audience formally, “Madames et Messieurs, j’ai l’honneur de vous…” and departed. He looked absolutely conventional, not eccentric or mad in the least.

Of Parade Satie said, “I like this genre, slightly pompous and feignedly naive.” That modest opinion must not be taken at face value. Satie knew exactly the full worth of his music, but he was not conceited. He had a modest way of speaking of his work: “C’est la musique d’ameublement”—that’s all. Satie saw the artist as no different from anybody else. For him the composer was merely an artisan. None of us used the word genius the way people do today; one merely said someone “had talent.” Stravinsky always said to me that “composer” was a wonderful word because it meant “to organize”: “I am organizing music,” he would say, “I am a composer.” Even “artist” was hardly an appropriate word, let alone “genius.”

Debussy and Satie
Both Ravel and Poulenc said that Satie had a strong influence on their music—on their thinking, even. This is the importance of Satie: not only his music, which stands like a monument in its singularity, but the way he thought about the future of French music—particularly his revolt against Wagner. In late 19th-century France the influence of Wagner was terrific—you cannot imagine! From Wagner’s death in 1883 until the turn of the century there were more than three hundred French-language magazines devoted to him. All you need to do is read Baudelaire or Mallarmé on the subject: this man was a god, even more so than he was considered in Germany. So when by chance Satie met Debussy in a café in Montmartre, and asked what he was composing, Debussy said, “I’m composing a Wagnerie.” What could only be called a Wagnerie. And Satie replied, “I think you are wrong. Wagner is a marvelous composer, a discoverer of new forms and ideas in music. He is fantastic, but he has nothing to do with us. A French composer should avoid Wagner; he is too typically German.” Satie continued, “The orchestra should not grimace because a singer comes on stage, nor should the scenery go into a convulsion. What have to do is create a background, a musical landscape in which the singers can speak and move. No rhymed couplets, no lietmotives, but a certain atmosphere, as in a painting by Puvis de Chavannes.”

Needless to say Debussy was impressed. He said to Satie, “How should we proceed?” Satie replied, “Well, I don’t know about you, but as for me, I am going to write to Maeterlinck for permission to set Pelleas et Melisande.” Now Debussy was well known as a kleptomaniac; when he came to call you hid your valuable possessions. And he carried this practice into his music, constantly purloining ideas and formulas. So when Debussy went home, he immediately wrote to Maeterlinck, and got the permission. Anyway he knew that Satie was lazy, and knew he would never get around to setting Pelleas et Melisande. But it is thanks to Satie that we have Debussy’s Pelleas, which embodies a very different way of writing music after Wagner.

The paintings of Puvis de Chavannes were an important model for Satie; their unemotional attitude appealed to him. All of Puvis’ figures are static, gestureless, especially the women, who resemble statues. That’s what Satie was seeking in music, something more static. Also, he was the opposite of Brahms or Wagner, composers who put all their feelings on the table. Satie is discreet; he doesn’t show much, you have to guess and intuit—but if you listen you will hear something wonderful.

Satie felt when you went to a place to listen to music, the music should be part of the surroundings. This is what he called musique d’ameublement: music as furniture. For a joke, he once wrote some music to be played during an exhibition of furniture. This music was also meant to be repeated, something not unlike today’s musique répétitive. Nowadays, we have many composers who follow that principle.

Next: Studies with Ravel.