December 21, 2017

How Cole Porter drew on Robert Schumann in "Kiss Me, Kate"

Virgnia Opera recently finished a seven-performance run of Puccini's Girl of the Golden West. It's no secret that a phrase in one of the opera's tenor solos seems to have been cloned in "Music of the Night", a big number in Lloyd-Webber's music theater behemoth, Phantom of the Opera.

Music history is filled with examples of melodies by one composer being duplicated by another. It seems to me there are three basic categories of such cloning:
Schumann: Küss mich, Kate!
  1. Outright plagiarism - always a taboo! 
  2. A deliberate homage, often executed with ironic intent; and
  3. An unintentional accidental "echoing". In this case, a composer might simply be undisciplined, failing to fully "vet" his inspiration to ensure that it's truly original. We musicians hear tens of millions of notes and thousands of musical phrases as we become familiar with a large body of compositions. They can influence the creative juices in ways not always registering in the conscious mind.
As an example I noticed only recently, let's consider the song "So in love" from the classic Cole Porter musical Kiss Me, Kate.

I think it's highly possible - even likely - that Porter was familiar with Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe and based the climactic phrase of "So in love" with a corresponding phrase from "Ich grolle nicht".

Here are the two passages in question.
First, the Schumann:
 Now, the Porter song:

There is an obvious connection the two; the phrase beginning "Decieve me, Desert me" in Porter is a virtual twin of the Schumann beginning at bar 23. In both, the vocal line climbs via a sequence of three phrases based on upward leaps of a perfect fifth, culminating with a dramatic high note. At that point, even the harmonization seems "suspiciously" familiar to Schumannites.

Would Porter have manufactured the same passage had "Ich grolle nicht" never been written?

Doubtful, says I.

So into which of my three categories would this particular bit of "cloning" fall: plagiarism, homage, or happy accident? A comparison of the two texts being set may indicate an homage.

In the phrase in question, the unhappy lover of Schumann's song says:
"I saw you truly in my dreams, and saw the night in your heart's cavity."
That seems fairly close to the complaint of Porter's character, who has been taunted, hurt, deceived and deserted. Takes a big old night-filled heart to do all that!

Finally, recall that Cole Porter was a cultured, classically-trained musician who played both violin and piano as a boy growing up in Indiana. It's a safe bet he had at least a nodding acquaintance with the great masters, Schumann included.

I find this kind of analysis interesting - obviously! I hope you do as well, but if not -

HAPPY HOLIDAYS ANYWAY!

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