Friday, June 3, 2016

The NRR Project #11: ‘Gypsy Love Song’

Poster from a Depression-era revival of The Fortune Teller.
Gypsy Love Song
Eugene Cowles
1898 (recorded 5/4/1906)


Victor Herbert was only the most popular of many composers whose operettas straddled the transition between opera and musical comedy in America. “Gypsy Love Song” is Herbert’s first “hit,” from his 1898 The Fortune Teller. Others of his smashes included Babes in Toyland, Mlle. Modiste, The Red Mill, Naughty Marietta, Sweethearts and Eileen. Here’s it sung by the man who originated the role onstage, Eugene Cowles. (Oddly, the designated National Recording Registry recording was made by him in 1906, albeit its official Registry listing is 1898, the year The Fortune Teller debuted.) With Sigmund Romberg and Rudolph Friml, Herbert formed a triumvirate of tastemakers whose lush and corny melodies would inspire affection – and contempt – from generations to come.

Between DeKoven and Smith’s Robin Hood in 1890 and Romberg and Hammerstein’s The New Moon in 1928, operetta’s spun-sugar settings, silly plots, and sentimental ballads dominated the musical scene. It was a reflection of the zeitgeist. Suspicious of high culture, Americans wanted less challenging fare in the post-Civil War boom era. Operetta was something polite society could sit through and get its cultural fix from, without straying into disturbing content, or arias in foreign languages. (For the rest, there were minstrel shows, circuses, and pre-vaudeville variety.)

 Musically, the genre is descended quite unapologetically from the pre-established European template. Jacques Offenbach, Johann Strauss II, Emmerich Kalman, and Franz Lehar set the mold with works such as Die Fledermaus, The Merry Widow, and The Land of Smiles. It breaks no new ground, but within its limitations those who grew up on it still hear it as a sensuous indulgence. The sprightly wit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s works pushed tendencies toward the comic as well.

Operetta still required trained operatic voices, thus the familiar herniated, nasal tone of Cowles’ voice. This is the kind of timbre that would project into an unamplified theater; it sounds unnatural today and contributes to that popular concept of high culture being tight-assed.

It doesn’t help that the lyrics are of the kind common in the Victorian era: “The birds of the forest are calling for thee/And the shades and the glades are lonely/Summer is there with her blossoms fair/And you are absent only . . .” Ouch. These precious, convoluted rhymes would dominate until the slangy vernacular of Tin Pan Alley lyricists started to invade the public consciousness.

And what’s with all the gypsy mania? The culture of the time is filled with musical, visual, and literary use of the gypsy stereotype – emotional, mystical, cunning, charming, and criminal. They make a great plot device, usually kidnapping children before curtain’s rise to set up some lost-prince or mistaken-identity kerfuffle. In a culture that was composed of immigrant elements seeking assimilation, identifying a culturally exotic “other” was necessary to foster group identity. This is a role in American culture that would be assigned to “gypsies,” Jews, “negroes,” “Irishmen,” Italians, and “Indians,” and continues in the demonized representation of Muslims and Hispanics today. Aggression, transgression, and feeling are all projected safely onto the exotics.

The list of memorable songs from the genre is long, and many of them have crept into the Great American Songbook, if only for use as a starting point for many instrumental jazz covers. Here’s a quick sample: “Softly, As in A Morning Sunrise,” “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “The Streets of New York,” “Serenade,” “Indian Love Call,” “One Alone,” “Kiss Me Again,” “Rose-Marie,” “Deep in My Heart, Dear,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The  Donkey Serenade” – passionate schmaltz.

This music permeated the minds of those growing up at the time. They crowded the music rack of my great-grandmother’s piano in the front room; we listened to them on 78 r.p.m. records, and my grandparents warbled them as they worked. Later 33 1/3-r.p.m. compilations such as the Reader’s Digest Treasury of Great Operettas, and Gilbert and Sullivan, were always on the turntable. Mitch Miller and his Sing-Along Gang covered them. They were part of the cultural furniture of our household. (My cultural childhood apparently took place largely about 75 years before it should have.)

It was a fragment of German-culture respectability as well, the dominant one from which my ancestors migrated. Before Germany forfeited all claim to cultural respect by winning Worst Nation of the 20th Century honors, it was seen as the epitome of learned, literature society. German was common speech around the house until World War I, when anything Teutonic was seen as suspect. (One grandfather tossed the umlaut from his name, planing it down to a more American-sounding twang.) "German" charicatures in vaudeville overnight became "Dutch" comics instead; sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage" and frankfurters turned into hot dogs. "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" became "Yours Is My Heart Alone."

Of course, they were outmoded soon after they debuted. Comics such as the Marx Brothers and others mocked their conventions in their own musical-comedy spoofs. Mel Brooks cites bold operetta marches such as "Stouthearted Men" or "The Song of the Vagabonds" in Robin Hood: Men in Tights and famously makes reference to Friml’s “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” in his Young Frankenstein. Equating the female orgasm with the tender sensibilities of the song works even without context, but is even funnier if you know where Brooks is coming from. He grew up in the time when MGM's filmed operetta adaptations starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were the top box-office draw in the country (1935-1942).

And I still find myself crooning them. They represent a time so innocent it can hardly be comprehended now, little soap bubbles of melody that never pop, as long as disbelief is suspended. Here are dashing tenors, comic basses, and stately sopranos. Dashing swains, flirtacious coquettes. Singing soldiers, waltzing royalty. And gypsies. Don't forget the gypsies.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Honolulu Cake Walk.

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