18 February 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/8

I've received some hints that it's been a bit gloomy here at Poem of the Week, so I thought I'd lighten things up with a song about syphilis:

Oh my darling Paquette,
She is haunting me yet
With a dear souvenir
I shall never forget.
'Twas a gift that she got
From a seafaring Scot
He received he believed in Shalott!

In Shalott from his dame
Who was certain it came
With a kiss from a Swiss
(She'd forgotten his name),
But he told her that he
Had been given it free
By a sweet little cheat in Paree.

Then a man from Japan,
Then a Moor from Iran,
Though the Moor isn't sure
How the whole thing began,
But the gift we can see
Had a long pedigree
When at last it was passed on to me!

Well, the Moor in the end
Spent a night with a friend
And the dear souvenir
Just continued the trend
To a young English lord
Who was stung, they record,
By a wasp in a hospital ward!

Well, the wasp on the wing
Had occasion to sting
A Milano soprano
Who brought home the thing
To her young paramour,
Who was rendered impure,
And forsook her to look for the cure.

Thus he happened to pass
Through Westphalia, alas,
Where he met with Paquette,
And she drank from his glass.
I was pleased as could be
When it came back to me;
Makes us all just a small family!

John La Touche / Richard Wilbur, from Candide

This might be the wittiest song ever written about venereal disease, with the possible exception of the other song in Candide that's also about syphilis. Two songs on STDs might seem excessive, but Bernstein's musical has such a convoluted textual and staging history that directors can probably use either, neither, or both numbers. And given how many musicals have multiple songs about love, why not more than one about the possible consequences? When the San Francisco Symphony performed the work several years ago, V and I took her daughter, who turned to me at intermission and said, "Am I to understand that syphilis is a major plot point in this work?" I assured her that she was indeed to understand that. This sort of subterranean transmission of disease underlies much of the sexual anxiety in works that predate the discovery of a cure (just part of the biological imperatives behind our morality). Perhaps a song with this light tone could only be written once a cure had been discovered; on the other hand, dancing on in the face of disease and death is a common and even praiseworthy reaction. The short, two-beat lines and the clever rhymes move us through rapidly; rapidity, as well as elaborate rhyming, are hallmarks of light verse in English, a language which is famously less rich in rhymes than some other European languages, but perhaps the very difficulties in rhyming are what make them seem so smart and witty when they're done right. I love the line "And she drank from his glass," which reminds me of a comic I once heard (I can't remember her name) who said that if she ever came down with an STD she was going to tell her mother by saying, "Oh, Mom, you were so right about toilet seats!"

For reasons I'm still pondering, I don't really respond to Bernstein's persona or most of his music, but I love Candide and it's been one of my favorite musicals since I first heard it. These lyrics are taken from Bernstein's 1989 recording. It's complete, and authorized, and all that, and that's usually enough for me, but I'm not crazy about some of the singers, and the recorded sound itself is odd (and that's usually not something I'm really picky about): mostly very recessive except for the loud parts, which are way too loud (this might have changed, of course, on a re-release; I bought it when it first came out). The original cast album is a classic - Barbara Cook is still the gold standard for "Glitter and Be Gay" - but it's nowhere near complete. I think I read somewhere that Wilbur wrote these particular lyrics alone, but the booklet attributes them to John La Touche as well, perhaps because they are embedded in the auto-da-fe scene ("What a day, what a day / For an auto-da-fe!"), and that might be what La Touche wrote. (If anyone knows for sure, please let me know). Pangloss is about to be publicly hanged by the Portuguese inquisitors but insists that they can't hang him since he's too sick to die. The crowd, reluctant to be cheated of the expected entertainment, demands an explanation, and he launches into the song. (I have omitted the choruses.)


Michael Strickland said...

John La Touche and John Van Druten are two obscure 20th century theatrical names who both had a touch of genius about them, and they are both overdue for a major biography because they seemed to know everyone in gay New York of the 1930s-1950s. If you ever get a chance to see or hear "The Golden Apple," John La Touche's sung-through musical, jump at the chance because it's great.

And thanks for the syphilis rhymes. They are a much less turgid treatment of the subject than Schnitzler and La Ronde, etc.

And I think that recording of "Candide" with Bernstein conducting is one of his most successful efforts, even with the overbright sound.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the John info, but to give credit where it's due, I'm pretty sure these lyrics are the work of Richard Wilbur, and the booklet's joint attribution is only because they were embedded in another scene. I haven't been able yet to find where I read this, though.

I actually have a CD of The Golden Apple and the booklet writer laments that the show was not more successful and isn't better known. And I think, as with the original Candide cast album, the recording is not complete.

I almost referenced Schnitzler as a contrast but he's fairly acerbic himself, just in a different way.

I didn't find the sound on that recording overbright, I found it underloud -- it sounds very distant except for the loud parts. I haven't listened to it in a while, but my recollection is that it did sound better over earphones as long as you remembered to turn it down on the climaxes so you didn't burst your eardrum. But I'm not crazy about some of the singers anyway. I often have mixed feelings about Hadley, for one thing.

Unknown said...

Those lyrics are so great. My young and innocent children and I have you to thank for our love of Candide. So, thank you.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

My pleasure! "Makes us all just a small family!"