#nowlistening: to songs about tea.

63907815496faaa5e6d2dfc8eae82bc0I write this as I do most things, perched atop a mug of Earl Grey and in the company of a highly-strung black cat. If tea is a vice, I am in its grip and I’m fairly certain my tiny cat thinks it’s a very large dog. Life is confusing, you know?

Anyway, in the mid-20th century, tea flowed like cultural penicillin here in Blighty as we kept calm and carried on – defined as a nation by our love of a nice cuppa. In Ambridge, this is made clear in the way that its not Fallon’s cafe or coffee shop, it’s her tea room and the episode on the 29th March made tea a central musical feature. First was Doris Day’s version of ‘Two for tea’ (1950) from her eponymous film and later was Mario ‘harp’ Lorenzi’s arrangement of  ‘Everything stops for tea’ (1936).

In this episode the lyrics of ‘Two for tea’ clearly speak on behalf of Emma Grundy who is battling with her loyalty to the Grundy brood with growing dissatisfaction of the constant need for positive thinking that everything to be ok. In his latest scheme, Ed Grudy had bought Texel sheep for breeding and Emma tells Fallon they are ‘unremarkable’ — another almost-but-not-quite moment for the Grundy clan. Emma admits frustration, loneliness and confesses a wavering in her familial requirement infinite faith.

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‘unremarkable’ (enormous?).

Vocally, Day’s silky, mezzo-soprano can be heard to represent Emma’s sense of obligation too. The song’s forever-unravelling and always-twisting melody dreamily imagines a quieter time as the supporting harmony subtly changes key but always repeats that same, simple, apparently endless little melody.

1579In this way, ‘Two for tea’ certainly fits with the idea I keep coming back to about The Ambridge Tea Room operating a space for the members of the village to express their existential angst. But a pause in the dialogue at 6mins 10secs is echoed in the songs’ arrangement (at 1min 42secs here) and points toward something slightly different here.

Until now, Day’s soft yearning had been covered by a rich blanket of vocal harmonies from the Ken Lane Singers, an ensemble that made that warm (if not sonically rather overbearing), texture such an iconic sound in Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby’s late-40s/early-50s recordings.f898f25de8e391a4d81b610f9d932571

Day takes a moment of rest from her singing duties and the vocal group sings staccato and in unison which breaks up the previous powerful surges of harmony. Earlier in the song there had been a swooning violin countermelody, playing second fiddle to Day’s tune, but this moment of the song is harmonically framed by a flute which rhythmically skips around the like a tap dance solo. The desired effect is that kind of ‘knowing wink’ comedy, where we know it’s a ridiculous musical trope. In the same way, you don’t have to listen to The Archers for long to understand that the humour is encoded into the way that endless Grundy plans are eternally doomed.

At 6mins 23secs in the episode there is a final flurry of notes, and as the flute ascends Emma sighs and remains firmly back in the family fold, hopeful that perhaps when the lambs grow a little they’ll be able to spot a prize-winning one. This regained positivity is mirrored both in the dialogue with Fallon, and some tinkling stride piano which replaces the flute’s arpeggio. The Ken Lane Singers return to their thick harmonies again too as Emma explains the complexities of rearing these kinds of animals. At 6mins 44 secs, a chromatic shimmy on the piano underlines Emma’s returning doubts and these are reiterated by the return of Day’s smooth voice. Where we might have sensed resolution, it is certainly back to square one again here as Emma concedes:

‘This is the way life is and you’ve just got to learn to put up with it’.

24971But, it’s been hard to ignore the waft of feminism around the village in the past few weeks. And so, at 8mins 45secs when Robert Snell and Emma discuss both the controversy around ageism and sexism in the cricket team; how he loves getting involved in the running of the B&B and how she feels lumbered with it because of the domestic setting, the scent of a longing for gender equality is strong.

Hearing about Robert’s passion for cooking and working with his darling Lyndie operates as a wake-up call to Emma who recognises an imbalance Chez Grundy. There’s certainly a blog post brewing here about the problematic ridicule of the Grundy’s working-class sexism in contrast with Robert Snell being coded as a middle-class (apparently) modern man, but that’s for another day (or, dear reader, if you’d care to write it?!).

d497a49efe0efadaad8f7ec3b9a33131However, at this moment the choice of recording is certainly fascinating, a swinging, ragtime-infused, light-music styled, harp centred interpretation of ‘Everything stops for tea’. A song originally written by three Americans and originally sung by a Scotsman, it seeks to concretise the Englishness of tea drinking. Brilliant.

What interests me here, and is certainly at the centre of the PhD I’m trying to write, is how rules about identity are seemingly made solid through musical performances but that certain qualities or elements can be heard to (either accidentally or deliberately) transgress musically inscribed socio-cultural norms. ‘Everything stops for tea’ is precisely this kind of text, especially in Lorenzi’s rendition of the song as we hear it in the tea room. The harp’s unusual instrumental context is proudly coded as Other by Lorenzi, much in the same way that Robert is delighted by, while Emma is shocked with, being part of domestic life in the Snell household.

And so, as Robert leaves the tea room, Emma is jolted from her Doris Day reverie – exasperated by her inability to offer her kids ‘the simplest of things’. Might Robert, with a helping hand from Lorenzi’s harp solo, have encouraged her to start hatching plans that demonstrate her emancipation by breaking the conventions of the House of Grundy?

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#nowlistening: Purcell with Jenny and Fallon

“Land”, Jennifer’s absurdly vague theme for the party celebrating Brian’s vaguely absurd purchase, wasn’t much for Emma and Fallon to go on. They got there in the end, of course, with Jim’s help, and the cornucopia theme went down well enough. But what was the significance of the music Jennifer was enjoying a minute into Wednesday’s episode while Fallon presented the menu?

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Not to be confused with the composer

Jennifer might have meant ‘land’ in the sense of physical space, and Fallon turned to land’s physical capacity to nourish, but ‘land’ is also a cultural concept. In 1904, the German writer Oscar Schmitz described England as “Das Land ohne Musik”: “The land without music”. And so he identifies Englishness itself as lacking in original musical capacity.

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Last Night of the Proms: propped up by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Parry, and other composers of the “English musical renaissance”.

 

Today, the English composers contemporary to Schmitz are at the centre of English musical identity. With Elgar’s pomp and circumstance and Parry’s new Jerusalem, they are the soundtrack of the establishment. Historically, Purcell stands apart, a lone English name in the musical canon. And his shadow looms long into the twentieth century over notions of musical Englishness. Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra; the main theme in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange; the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Love Is A Bourgeois Construct’: all of them start at Purcell.

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Tamsin Greig in between Debbie Aldridge moments, as Malvolia in Twelfth Night at the National

He is to music what Shakespeare is to theatre, and it is apt indeed that the opening of Twelfth Night accompanied the scene, for the quote is surely one of the most iconic of the Bard’s. With it, Purcell manages to piggy-back on the existing English-cultural capital of Shakespeare, and in turn it is the legacy of both of them that occupied the sonic space behind Jenny and Fallon. In Twelfth Night, the speech comes from the Duke Orsino, musing over an unrequited love; it’s very little to do with food, and much more to do with his self-indulgence, in love, food, and anything else going. Eventually, as @muchadoambridge puts it, “love conquers all and snobby authority (Malvolio) is put in its place”. Perhaps this foretells of Lillian and Justin’s ‘love’ triumphing, and Miranda-as-Malvolio being shot down. Alternatively, if Jenny’s party is itself all about her snobbishness and the importance of reputation, then perhaps it is her pride and her fall that are in such dangerous proximity.

If the Shakespeare text is Purcell drawing on the timelessness of what has gone before, his “Sound the trumpets” represents a point on which others draw in turn. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the castrato voice dominated the operatic stage and church music practice. These voices, preserved in their youthful state by medical intervention, were highly prized and highly paid, in Italy especially. Conversely, the adult male voice singing high without such intervention—what we now call the countertenor—was considered a pretence, a falsity (hence the word falsetto). But in England the politics of voice types were somewhat different, and it was the countertenor for which Purcell wrote this duet. By the mid-twentieth-century, both castrato and countertenor were voices of the past. But when, in 1943, Michael Tippett heard Alfred Deller singing in Canterbury Cathedral (perhaps the most ‘eternal’ of Christian structures), he pointed to Purcell as a point of origin: “I recognised absolutely,” said Tippett, “that this was the voice for which Purcell had written.” And so Deller acquired validation for what was then a very unusual voice.

Purcell stands not just for the imperial Britishness of Elgar et al., which rises and falls in violence, but for the timelessness of England, the unspoilt land, the beauty of rolling hills. In the context of The Archers, he stands for an idea of rural England as untouchable, sacred, eternal. This is surely the myth that Jenny Darling buys into—the inevitability of her lord, Brine, surveying his land; of her managing the household and organising the servant caterers; and of the entire social system of Ambridge relying on this feudal relationship.

Now, if they want any DJing for the party itself, they know where to find us….