Slim Sings Schubert?
I was kidding around on Facebook this morning, telling my friends I was going to honor the late Slim Whitman by playing his sensitive traversal of Franz Schubert's great song cycle "Die schöne Müllerin" ("The Lovely Milleress") today on WFCR. You may have read in today's New York Times that the singer, born Ottis Dewey Whitman, Jr., died on Wednesday at age 90, after endearing himself to generations with his country yodeling and the once-ubiquitous (and quite successful) late-night TV commercials for his record albums. Those commercials. combined with his keening tenor and squeaky-clean image, made him the butt of many a joke from media celebrities ranging from Eddie Murphy to Rush Limbaugh. Like another target of much laughter, the late Eduard "Mr. Trololo" Khil (earlier blog on him here), Mr. Whitman didn't mind being in on the joke, which is why I thought a little gentle ribbing was apropos. They also, by the way, were both really terrific singers.
But as I thought about it further, it struck me that there was a semi-serious issue of class and culture embedded in my feeble humor. Why should it be risible that a country crooner would dare approch a classical masterwork like Schubert's cycle? I mean, read what "Die schöne Müllerin" is about. A wandering journeyman miller, a lovely mill girl, love, rivalry, jealousy, despair and death. Sure sounds like country music to me! Thing is, the country is 19th century Austria, not present-day America, in particular the red-state America where Mr. Whitman and the like find their largest domestic audience. So, we have traditionally accorded Schubert a level of cultural prestige that our own vernacular music, even at its most sophisticated, could once never have hoped to attain, though that's slowly changing.
Why? Yes, Schubert was among the greatest of composers, very high on my list of favorites. But as I collected and listened though the monumental Hyperion complete recorded edition of Schubert's songs as they came out a few years back, it struck me that for all their exquisite refinement, these songs were just that — songs, about the same things that most songs are about. Wonderful as they are, I placed them not ahead of, but right alongside the other songs and singers I had come to love. Like Ella Fitzgerald singing Rodgers & Hart. Like the blues of Robert Johnson. Like Simon & Garfunkel. Like Stephen Sondheim. Like Laura Nyro. Like Elliott Smith. And like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline ("our Callas," in the words of the late Philipp Naegele), Jimmy Webb, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, George Jones and the other great singers and songwriters of our country music, it all its many and varied genres and sub-genres.
OK, none of the above wrote or sang a symphony, oratorio or opera. But song for song, you can't tell me that they didn't touch on the human condition every bit as movingly as Schubert. Yes, they worked in commercial genres. So what? That's a relatively recent and, I think, irrelevant distinction. They may have lacked the conservatory training necessary to compose or perform long-form classical compositions. But what they did still took musicianship, smarts, experience and huge amounts of talent.
And what they did means every bit as much to me as Schubert, Bach, Mozart, and the whole world of classical music. For, to my ear and in my heart, the meaning of any music is not in what the composer and performer put into it. It's in what I as the listener get out of it. So could ol' Slim, may he rest in peace, have taken a crack at "Die schöne Müllerin," in translation, and maybe with some editing and musical modifications? I bet he could have. While the results may not exactly have equalled Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, they probably would have revealed the rough country lives portrayed in the words and music more faithfully than a typical recital performance would have. And — most importantly — they would undoubtedly have reached Mr. Whitman's large audience right where they live. Isn't that what music is supposed to do for its audience?
"Slim Whitman Sings Schubert?" Oh, all right...maybe a little far fetched. But before we in classicalworld make definitive judgments about such things, maybe we could first question our certainties, to see whether they really hold up. Rest in peace, Slim. And if you call now...