As we all look forward to the approach of the new year (it has to be better than 2017, right?) I thought it might be a good time for another edition of one of my favorite Special Features, Anatomy Of A Song. The featured piece of music is one that has a history that includes Russia and a power-mad ruler or two, so you could even say it’s relevant to today’s world.
I don’t think that the newly remodeled GMC will see the return of all the Special Features from before, but I’ve always had a special fondness for Anatomy Of A Song. It seems to be the sort of thing that just fits perfectly into what we’re all about, including a fascination with how things change through the years. For example, today’s spotlight falls on a piece of music that began life as a small part of a Russian opera and went on to become a much-loved instrumental and a chart-topper for Tommy Dorsey’s big band.
Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is probably best remembered for his 1888 symphonic suite Scheherazade, based on One Thousand And One Nights (The Arabian Nights). It was the story of a sultana who managed to save her life on a daily basis by entertaining the sultan with a series of fascinating tales. It seems the gentleman in question was going through his many wives at the rate of one a day — and then having them executed — before she began weaving her spell and won the day. (Well, at least a thousand or so of them — not sure what happened after that.)
But let’s leave that unsettling thought behind. About a decade later Rimsky-Korsakov premiered his opera Sadko in Moscow. It was based on an epic poem about an adventurer by that name, a merchant and musician from Novgorod who ran afoul of the Tsar but managed to escape his wrath by proudly exhibiting a talent for strumming his gusli. (I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but a gusli is an ancient Russian stringed instrument.) Sounds a little far-fetched but no more so than the tale of the clever sultana mentioned earlier.
In any case, one of the arias in Sadko was titled “Song of the Indian Guest” and its haunting melody seemed to have a life of its own even if the opera itself was destined to fade in popularity. A couple of decades later it showed up on the other side of the globe as the melody of the official Ohio state song, “Beautiful Ohio”. Later still the tune — now called “Song Of India” — began to appear in a variety of other spots, such as on a record by Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, but it was still pretty much the same sweet and exotic song. Its big moment arrived in 1937 when Tommy Dorsey went into the studio and recorded it as a swinging instrumental, leading with his glorious muted trombone, followed by a stunning solo by trumpeter Bunny Berigan. The resulting record — with the equally popular “Marie” on the reverse side — became one of his most successful and helped his band break through to super-stardom.
Below is a video of Dorsey’s band performing his famous swing version of “Song Of India” (from an old movie) and below that — in case you’re curious about the original operatic aria — is a video that features Mario Lanza’s 1953 recording, which seems to be something resembling the original. . .I think. Luckily for most of us, it’s in English, not Russian.