I am lucky to be a part of a fundraising effort around the commemoration of the 100-year anniversary of the Titanic catastrophe. The recital will feature pieces from the actual songbook that was known to have been enjoyed onboard during that fateful trip.
Even though I spend most of my time immersed in old [old!] music I find myself amazed by how pieces of cultural familiarity have their roots in opera. For example, in this fundraiser I will be performing a song called Home, Sweet Home. Yes, it’s the origin of the phrase you all know. The one that features on hundreds of thousands of samplers: Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home. The phrase we closely associate with Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
I bet you didn’t know that it’s from an opera.
This is a song that has been known on a subconscious level throughout the English-speaking world for the last 150 years. The most famous version of the song was adapted from the American writer John Howard Payne’s 1823 opera Clari, Maid of Milan. There are several famous operatic versions in existence as it was a popular song for opera singers to use as a final encore. Apparently, many people owned the Nellie Melba gramophone version during the Edwardian period.
Interestingly, it’s also hugely famous in Japan as it was used to devastating effect in the anti-war anime film Grave of the Fireflies.
Also featured in this Titanic tribute is the song Glow Little Glowworm. Many years ago, I spent Thanksgiving at my friend’s farm and his German mother sang us the German version of this song. The German version of the Japanese movie is known as Das Glühwürmchen. It is more familiar to modern English-language listeners in the form of the jazzy Johnny Mercer update. Mercer did such a fine job with new lyrics he now gets co-writing credit. The Mills Brothers had a hit with it back in the 50s. Many of my readers may remember growing up with that famous version.
But I bet you didn’t know that it’s from an opera.
Paul Lincke was a hugely famous German composer and his song The Glow-Worm comes from an operretta Lysistrata written in 1902. It was also used in an American musical a few years after that. Here is an instrumental version of the song from the Titanic songbook.
[I must admit it’s a lot more fun to sing this one in German. Das Glühwürmchen just rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it?]
So knowing these musical connections through time does create a kind of auditory thread back to the people of the Titanic. How strange to know that they sang these songs that featured in a small way even in my own life. My friend’s mother crooned a song she remembered fondly from her own childhood and I was unknowingly connected to the people from a past disaster we now commemorate.
And next time I meet a Japanese person who speaks no English I will try singing Home, Sweet Home just to see if they sing along.