Saturday, 10 July 2010

Moments of Magic Number 7

Moon River performed by Frank Sinatra

I find that beautiful music is one of the greatest stirrers of memory. When I was regularly playing hotels in London, the masculine half of a very polite and well-dressed older couple asked me if I knew a song sung by Nat King Cole called 'Too Young.' Being rather a fan of that era of music, I confessed that I did and even had the sheet music handy to make sure I was faithful to the tune. Surprised and somewhat overjoyed, he returned to his wife excitedly in anticipation.

When I came to their request, I looked over halfway through my somewhat exaggerated performance and to my astonishment saw that the couple were holding hands over the table, watery eyed and wobbly of lip; when I concluded the piece, I was quite taken aback and launched into a few more jolly numbers. After a while, the lady of the couple rose to leave and her husband scampered over to the piano brandishing a five pound note. "Not necessary" I said quietly, smiling. "Oh rubbish, buy yourself a drink!" I continued to play as he stood by holding out the note and I concluded the piece and thanked him for the gesture. "You know" he began "that really meant something to me and my wife. When we got married, that was a top tune and you see, we had married very young. I always thought it was being sung about us!"

There is one piece of music that fundamentally altered my perceptions of music appreciation and creation, one piece that enticed me to my first sheet music purchase, one piece I never tire of and one piece which has such warm, long-ago-and-far-away memories that I find it hard not to well up when I hear it. Moon River, the theme from Breakfast at Tiffany's composed by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, is known to most people.
I first encountered it during a viewing of the film with my mother, who adores old movies. A mere whippet of a lad at the time, it was very unfashionable to be so visibly affected by music but affected I was - slightly tearful in fact - and I soon made a trip to the sheet music shop in town where I purchased a copy for £2.50. At my next piano lesson, I placed it silently on the piano and waited gravely for my tutor's reaction. I had expected disapproval as she was a Chopin and Mozart sort of musician and 'popular songs', I believed, would be distasteful to her. To my surprise she adopted a girlish smile, turned to me and said quietly; "I remember this one. I'm glad you want to play it."

It is a love song, certainly, but not one which gushes meaningless phrases of admiration or worship; it is about an understanding, a blushing moment of recognition between two people. It sounds less like a person discovering the love of their dreams and more like someone finding love in their best friend; "We're after the same rainbow's end/waitin' 'round the bend/my huckleberry friend..."

There is certainly an intentional reference to the Deep South in both the music and the lyrics - many versions include plucked guitars and harmonicas - but this song has a power beyond Savannah, Georgia. This recording, though not the original, is particularly moving. Sinatra's idiosyncratic voice is showing age but this weariness is peculiarly appropriate for the song. This sequence is the most heartbreaking in the entire recording. Frank's voice and the strings swell for the climax; and a beautiful arrangement by Nelson Riddle comes to the fore - a lilting string melody that comes after ''rainbow's end" leads into a beautiful acoustic guitar which sits perfectly next to Sinatra's last few lines and then wanders up the scale and off into the sunset. Music making par excellence.