There is a temple in heaven that is opened only through song.
My good friend Fran at the Jewish Home is not wholly herself. Her 90 years are catching up with her and she's having some trouble with her voice. When I come to play the old jazz standards on piano, they’re just not the same without her singing them. And so I bring my “Classical Fakebook” and sight-read through some of the 800 melodies and make up the left hand parts shown as chords.
It’s extraordinary how many melodies I recognize, but can’t place why I know them or where I know them from. Some surprise me: “Why, Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette was the theme song for Alfred Hitchcock’s TV show! Fucik’’s (yes, that’s his name!) Entry of the Gladiators is the archetypal circus music! Borodin’s Theme from Polovetzian Dances is the song Stranger in Paradise!” Some I recognize the melody but never know the composer: Delibes Pizzicato Polka, Gabrielle-Maries’ La Cinquantaine, Gossec’s Gavotte, Meacham’s The American Patrol. Waldteuffel’s Skater’s Waltz. There’s the old familiar melodies by Sousa, Strauss and Saint Saens and then the slow haunting melodies that stop time: Bach’s Arioso, Bach-Gounod’s Ave Maria, Offenbach’s Barcarolle, Saint-Saens The Swan, Schubert’s Impromptu.
So many beautiful melodies and such comfort we all feel in the room because we recognize them. They bring us back to a time and place and feeling we can’t always name, but have some muscle memory of that moment when the music stopped the clock and brought us into some happy place of contentment and warmth and meaning. As a jazz improviser always looking to expand, elaborate, play around the melody, it’s a nice change to simply play the notes as written and dig deeper into the beauty of each tone and the way it moves inexorably to the next.
I’m noticing that in my teaching with the kids, I’m almost always beginning a piece or game or dance with everyone learning the melody. Of all the musical elements, melody is the most central because it holds the rhythm and the harmony and the form. Embedded in its notes is the blueprint for all accompanying rhythms, harmonies, bass lines, counter-melodies, color parts and more. It hits us dead-center where music lives, in the feeling heart and the imaginative mind taking flight on the wings of melody. If there are words, it’s the melody that sings them out to the depth of their meaning and carries them home to the listening heart.
I’ve noticed that if I learn West African rhythms as abstract patterns without a song, they don’t stick in my memory and I don’t understand their context and meaning as deeply. Same with learning dances as just a series of steps. And if I’m at a jazz jam session and someone just shows me the chord changes to a song, my improvisation will not sing out as true. Melody is the queen of the music palace who holds the power and the beauty and the soul of the whole kingdom.
The rain is falling outside the window, Bizet’s exquisite flute melody from Carmens Entr’ Act III sings out over the accompanying harp. The violin’s counter-melody joins in, the bass plucks its foundation, the harp outlines the chords, but it’s the flute that lifts me up and sets me down into that forever home where everything makes sense and is true and is beautiful. There is beauty in gamelan melodies, Ghanaian songs, Bulgarian folk music, blues laments, but none of them carry me back to my childhood where I heard these strains coming from old movies, TV shows, my parent’s record player or the radio driving at night to the Staten Island Ferry after visiting my grandparents.
In short: There are temples in my personal heavens that can only be opened by song. And there are some rooms in the temple that can only be opened by certain kinds of songs. And so on this rainy Sunday, I step through the gate, delivered by that most extraordinary of human inventions, musical melody.