Nostalgia In Song Form—Part 1
July 1, 2010
Not many seven-year-olds are nostalgic for times past, but I was. There were summer afternoons spent lying on the hammock listening to my little transistor radio with the one tinny speaker, religiously writing down song titles on a yellow legal pad for no other reason than that I could look at that list later and remember that day. Later, there was a reoccurring memory I had as a ten-year-old of some other summer when I was very small, laying on the beige, corduroy couch at the lake condo my parents shared with friends. There was a crystal pendant hanging in front of the sliding glass door beaming flickering rainbows across my hands. Christopher Cross’s Sailing was playing on the record player. I was happy. The people around me were happy. No cares in the world. But, there was also a photograph of me in my baby album taken around four or five-years-old laying on that couch in the rainbows. Was this a real memory—or an invented one? It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was I was happier then. Life was easier, made more sense. And somehow, at ten, I knew it would never be that good again.
Hence, nostalgia–believing that all the good moments are already gone and feeling the constant ache of the current moment sliding away while you helplessly age–has always been a part of me.
I have started to put together a list of songs that capture this feeling of nostalgia to me.
1. Clair de Lune – Claude Debussy
Debussy wrote this gorgeous solo piano piece when he was 28, a bohemian in Paris hanging with Symbolist poets like Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stephane Mallarme. In fact, Debussy originally named his song Promenade Sentimentale (Sentimental Stroll), after a Paul Verlaine poem. Symbolist poets, much like Impressionist painters of the same period, longed to capture feelings and small moments in their works rather than portray reality or make grand statements. And, to me, the memories captured in Clair de Lune (moonlight) are rich and visceral, even if I don’t actually know the memory behind the notes. My first exposure to Clair de Lune was on a my grandma’s Swiss music box that rested on the dressing table in the guest room at their grand old house. After doing a brief search on youtube, I’ve sadly discovered that Clair de Lune has been co-opted by the teenage vampires of the Twilight series. Sigh.
2. September Song – Kurt Weil
Kurt Weil, famed German composer of Berlin’s Cabaret heyday in the twenties, is probably most famous for composing the music for the Threepenny Opera, a collaboration with legend Bertold Brecht of Theater of the Absurd fame (the opera features Weil’s most famous song, Mack the Knife). He wrote September Song after he had moved to New York in 1935 to compose for Broadway and Hollywood, narrowly escaping the War. September Song was his first American success from the Broadway Musical, Knickerbocker Holiday. I first heard this song as a small child; my grandma used to play it on the piano, sans lyrics. The melody is sad–in a minor key. A song about the changing of seasons and time marching on, September Song is rich with nostalgia. In fact, it’s one of those songs that predicts the feeling of nostalgia one will have later in life when “these precious days” are gone. A classic jazz standard, September Song has been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan to Lou Reed. Here’s a link to 38 different versions. My favorite has to be Ella’s though. Strange, because I don’t usually love Ella’s ballad’s. But this one is special.
3. Stardust – Hoagy Carmichael
Could there be a more fitting homage to nostalgia than Stardust? Composed by Indiana boy Hoagy Carmichael in 1927, the song wasn’t actually recorded until 1931 by Bing Crosby. It was an instant hit. The lyrics were written by Mitchell Parish, beloved Tin Pan Alley lyricist who also wrote the words to the Christmas favorite, “Sleigh Ride” and another of my favorite standards, “Sophisticated Lady” (a Duke Ellington tune). The lyrics center on dreamy memories of young love: “When our love was new, and each kiss an inspiration. But that was long ago. Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song.” Here’s Nat King Cole’s seminal performance.