Very Random Access Musical Memory ©2010 2

JISHOU, HUNAN — OK, so here’s another one of my musical treasure hunts. Tonight, I heard the students of my friend in the music college perform. Among the songs were two from Western operas. Both I recognized right away, and I could even sing along (not very loud, of course), but I could only remember the name of one of the operas.

The first was from Bizet’s Carmen — the “Habanera”. Even if you’re not an opera buff, you have to know this aria, because of the distinctive chromatic glide down the scale as the cello plays “ba ba ba bum ba ba ba dum.”

Opening of Carmen Habanera

And for those who can’t read music, here’s an Old School video of Maria Callas singing it in 1962.

That one wasn’t so hard, but the second, a duet, was a mystery. I knew the tune well enough to sing the man’s part (not the lyrics, though), but why did I know the tune? And who wrote it?

This is the kind of thing that can keep me up at night.

The program was not all that helpful, since it only provided the title in Chinese and the names of the performers. The Chinese title is “让我们携手同行 rang women xie shou tong hang” or “Let’s walk hand in hand,” which was my loose translation into English.

If you are a real opera buff, you probably have already guessed the correct title and the source, but my spotty musical education left me perplexed. So, off to the Internet I went after I came home.

First, I went to baidu.com and entered the Chinese title, and found videos of singers performing the song, such as this one by Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel (the best part is about halfway through this clip). From there, I worked backward to find the English — and the Italian — title.

Got it yet, opera fans?

Là ci darem la mano (“There we will entwine our hands”), from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

[Did you know Sheryl Crow once sang it with Luciano Pavarotti? There’s a match I would have never even guessed.]

Big confession here. For most of my life, I hated opera. Sure, I knew some bits and pieces of opera, largely from Looney Tunes parodies (OK, laugh, I don’t mind), but no way can I rattle off composer, opera, aria/duet title, like a real opera maven can. I’ve never even watched or listened to Don Giovanni. How did I recognize the melody of tonight’s duet well enough to sing along?

Memory is a funny thing. Here’s my suspicions. When I was a kid, hanging out in my dad’s TV repair shop on Saturdays, his best friend, Barney, would come by also to hang out. (And no, Dad’s name was not Fred, thank you.) Now, every Saturday there would be a radio broadcast of that day’s Metropolitan Opera performance, and Barney was a real opera buff.

So, he subjected Dad and me to opera every Saturday he came by. My father, being a good friend, bit his tongue when Barney was there, but privately he told me opera reminded him of someone stepping on a cat’s tail. Perhaps that subconsciously colored my opinion of opera.

Anyways, years of hearing opera out of the corner of my ear must have planted that melody somewhere way way back in my very random access musical memory (VRAMM). Hearing Wang Hui (my friend) play the piano and her students sing the duet stirred up the VRAMM, but not the memory containing the name of the composer, opera or the duet’s title. That’s assuming it was ever there in the first place.

And while I’m showing off my spotty cultural education, I did recognize the composer of a German lied sung by one of the baritones. The Chinese title is 春之梦 (chun zhi meng) or Frühlingstraum — “Dream of Spring.” That’s by Franz Schubert, although I mistakenly assumed it was part of his Die Schöne Müllerin. I owned that Deutsche Gramophone LP at one point, though I guess I didn’t play it often enough.

The rest of the night’s musical repertoire was Chinese, and I’m even more of an ignoramus when it comes to classical Chinese music. I wish I had a recording of the work for piano, erhu, xiangqin, six guzheng, and percussion to share here. It was damn good.

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2 thoughts on “Very Random Access Musical Memory ©2010

  1. Reply eljefe Nov 28,2010 11:52 pm

    These comments are from my Facebook Notes. I still have to import them manually.

    Janice Quinn wrote: “I grew up with the Met with Milton Cross on Saturdays. My Daddy was an opera buff. I learned to love the music. I am not a lyrics person so I listen to the voice as another instrument. They told stories of opera performances in Poughkeepsie NY, probably in the 30’s and 40’s with piano only accompainment. You can keep the tenors. I prefer baritones and basses.” (November 27, 2010)

    David Hochman wrote: “Là ci darem la mano is so sublime it survives any interpretation. I have a truly bizarre one featuring Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson — both did pretty well on technical, vocal grounds, but overall it sounds like it had been orchestrated for a circus calliope or something. Yet it has an oddly appealing quality. This sounds like a beautiful experience you had.” (November 27, 2010)

    Peter Kretzman wrote: “La ci darem plays a bit role in Joyce’s Ulysses. Not being an opera buff myself, that’s the principal reason I know it.” (November 28, 2010)

  2. Reply eljefe Nov 29,2010 3:09 am

    Well, Janice, I sang baritone in high school after about the 8th grade, so thanks for recognizing our superiority.

    And, David, you’re right. It was a good concert. The singers doing the Bizet and Mozart did a passably good job with the Italian lyrics, but the fellow singing the lied had some trouble with the German. There were also dancers, comedy sketches, and as I said a lot of Chinese classical and modern compositions. Look for CD/DVDs of Song Zuying. She is a native of these parts who has sung all over the world, mostly Chinese and ethnic Miao songs, but also Western works, too. She’s the soprano who closed the Olympics with Placido Domingo.

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