Metrics, Music, and Memory

All right, I confess: I'm a hopeless romantic and rabid fan of the great American songbook--especially the great composers and lyricists like Rodgers and Hammerstein. Color me an unrepentant geezer, but I have always been enamored of the lush beauty of the love songs in many of their musicals.

Pondering the other day about the power of vivid metaphors, I thought (and here's where the memory part of my title comes into play) of that marvel from "The King and I"'s "Hello Young Lovers." I had always remembered the lines in question as "a soft mist is sleeping on an English hill." That "sleeping" is a killer, and that's where the focus of my admiration always lay--what a metaphor from Hammerstein.

(Stop me if you saw this coming.) But my shock was considerable when I saw the lyrics to that work of genius printed out on line. The actual phrasing? "The soft mist of England / Was sleeping on a hill."

Well . . . in my rush to concentrate on the aesthetic imagination--the astounding cleverness--of Hammerstein, I blindly ignored what should have been obvious: namely, that the character's poignant longing for her home in England, and all the memories of her husband Tom and how those memories of love chimed so beautifully with her warm acceptance (celebration, really) of the young lovers of the musical's sub-plot were matters of the heart--the emotional arc of the story's characters. It is, after all, "The" soft mist. Using the definite article, she sees that mist as a definite property (if you will) of her English hills and her English love.

Chalk one up, then, against smarty-pants focusers on technique at the expense of the beating heart of the stories we tell. And those metrics? A strict formalist should have seen (and remembered) that music (and its lyrics) is/are composed to the rhythmic phrase and not the "rules" of written prosody.

Enough. Go straight to You Tube and enjoy Marnie Nixon's wonderful voice being lent to Deborah Kerr.