I had supper recently in a restaurant named after the American novelist Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). His life was every bit as colourful as his literary works, as were the restaurant’s table mats. They carried a collection of his quotations. My dining companion and I happened to get the same one:
“I didn’t want to kiss you goodbye—that was the trouble—I wanted to kiss you goodnight, and there’s a lot of difference.”
As a diversion before the appetisers arrived, my fellow-diner challenged me to name a clutch of classical music works that carry kisses in the title or in the body of the work. My response was pretty underwhelming. How about yours? No peeping below.
First to the frontal lobe was Stravinsky’s 1928 score for the ballet Le baiser de la feé (8.557503), which gets amplified in translation to: “The Fairy’s Kiss, Allegorical Ballet in Four Tableaux, Inspired by the Muse of Tchaikovsky.” The fairy-dust of the plot, however, isn’t all cute and gossamer. This is how Stravinsky summarised the action:
“A fairy imprints her magic kiss on a child at birth and parts it from its mother. Twenty years later, when the youth has attained the very zenith of his good fortune, she repeats the fatal kiss and carries him off to live in supreme happiness with her ever afterward.” Here’s music from the opening scene.
Next up was a madrigal by the 16th-century English composer John Farmer. The word-setting in Fair Phyllis I saw sitting all alone (8.553088) creates a miniature masterpiece and is often used to show students how different textures can be used effectively to reflect the text. After haring up and down the mountainside, Amyntas eventually finds his beloved Phyllis, who has simply been tending her sheep, all alone; united again, the two naturally fall to kissing, all the voices locked in sync, just like the lovers’ lips, as can be heard in this clip.
I imagine that not many people reading this blog will be familiar with the name of Archibald Joyce (1873–1963), but he enjoyed a colourful career and considerable stature as a London-born composer of light music, to the extent that he became known as The English Waltz King. By the start of the 20th century he had formed his own successful dance band, which expanded or contracted in numbers according to the finances of those who booked the ensemble. In 1911, for example, he directed a 100-piece orchestra at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens for the Coronation Costume Ball, held as part of the celebrations to mark the coronation of King George V.
Joyce’s waltz titled A Thousand Kisses (8.223694) must have been popular, since it was clearly familiar to the actor Charlie Chaplin, who incorporated it into the subsequent music soundtrack for his 1925 silent classic, Gold Rush, in the saloon dance scene. This extract is from the start of the piece.
Kisses are always harbingers of joy. Right? Not always. In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem I fear thy kisses (8.572426), the speaker seems uncertain over the gesture, worrying that the woman of his desire may not return the affection in equal measure. It was set to music by George Butterworth, who caught the hesitating, ambivalent tone of expression so beautifully:
I fear thy kisses, gentle maiden;
Thou needest not fear mine;
My spirit is too deeply laden
Ever to burden thine.
I fear thy mien, thy tones, thy motion;
Thou needest not fear mine;
Innocent is the heart’s devotion
With which I worship thine.
William Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss (8.559244) couldn’t be more contrasted in style. Bolcom arranged two movements from his Garden of Eden suite for solo piano, turning them into music for two pianos. The Serpent’s Kiss uses various ragtime effects such as heel-stomping and knocking on the wood of the piano in addition to some appropriate tongue clicking—multi-tasking at its musical best. Here’s the riotous end to the piece.
It’s difficult to know how to bow out following music like that. I thought perhaps something from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (8.120788), but I finally plumped for a song by Harry Ruby (1895–1974), the American composer and screenwriter who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970. He was a friend of Groucho Marx and wrote the song A kiss to build a dream on (8.120818) for the Marx Brothers’ film A Night at the Opera in 1935, but it failed to make the final cut. It had to wait until 1951 before becoming a hit, when Louis Armstrong performed it in the film The Strip. Over to you, Satchmo.