Beg, Steal or Borrow

I happened to be playing background music during lunch the day that Victor’s daughter brought him by for a tour of the retirement complex. I’m sure she was pleased with her timing because her nonagenarian father, it soon became clear, was a music connoisseur. She had arranged for him to join a few of the men for their midday meal, to hear about the place firsthand. But instead of grabbing his elbow and steering him to the table, she looped her arm through his and they made their short journey there as a team. To me, this small, loving gesture spoke volumes about their relationship: she was both at his side and on his side. They made a tall, dignified pair.

After lunch, Victor approached me at the piano and asked if I took requests. I responded with my usual line: “I don’t play by ear but I might have the sheet music with me. What would you like to hear?” He responded, “Invitation to the Dance.”

This was not a typical request, but Victor wasn’t a typical listener. “Invitation to the Dance,” by 19th century German composer Carl Maria von Weber, is an advanced classical piece that I studied decades ago. I tried to tactfully explain that although I had the sheet music for that piece at home, it was something I would need to practice for a long time before performing. I was flattered that Victor thought me capable of playing it.

Later, it occurred to me that I could have offered Victor a substitute of sorts: the 1935 swing tune “Let’s Dance,” theme of Benny Goodman’s radio show of the same name. The “Let’s Dance” melody was derived from the waltz section of von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance.”

Humorist Kin Hubbard wrote, “Classical music is the kind we keep thinking will turn into a tune.” Well, if it’s true that classical music doesn’t leave us with memorable melodies, why are there so many popular songs derived from classical pieces? Here are a few:

  • “Till the End of Time,” a 1945 hit, used the melody from a Chopin polonaise.
  • “Full Moon and Empty Arms” (1946) is based on a Rachmaninoff piano concerto.
  • The music in the 1953 musical Kismet (“Stranger in Paradise,” “And This Is My Beloved”) was adapted from works by Russian composer Alexander Borodin.
  • Melody from the 1898 Italian song “O Sole Mio” turns up in both “There’s No Tomorrow” (1949), and “It’s Now or Never,” recorded by Elvis Presley in 1960.
  • Part of “Avalon,” a 1920 song usually associated with Al Jolson, was lifted from a Puccini Tosca aria. Puccini sued the publisher of “Avalon” and won $25,000 in damages and all future royalties from the song.

Victor decided to move in after his visit that day, and now that I know him a bit, I’m sure he wouldn’t have been satisfied hearing “Let’s Dance.” He appreciates the genre of music I play, but he hasn’t given up requesting his classical favorite, “Invitation to the Dance.” I should practice it. And I better not wait too long.

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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This entry was posted in Audiences, Piano performance, Song requests, Volunteering. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Beg, Steal or Borrow

  1. Riff Noggin says:

    And then there’s “A Lover’s Concerto” recorded by the Toys in 1965, and later by the Supremes (“How gentle is the rain/ that falls softly on the meadow…”). It made playing Bach’s “Minuet in G” bearable for a young guitar-learning Beatlemaniac. Kudos for conveying the wisdom of Victor’s daughter’s arm gesture: Victor retains agency while knowing she is right there for him. Beautiful.

  2. Thanks for the reminder about “A Lover’s Concerto.” I liked it as a teenager, too, especially The Toys’ rendition!

  3. Aunt Evie says:

    A touching story, Paulette, as so many of yours are. Keep them coming.

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