No one I know has personally encountered Lehrer, but everyone I know admires him. He was a prodigy in the sciences as well as music, matriculating at Harvard at age 15. Like Cole Porter at Yale about thirty-five years earlier, Lehrer wrote songs that flashed with lyric wit and musical inventiveness while he was still an undergraduate. His background was quite different from that of Porter, who was a Midwesterner born to wealth and privilege, but equally fortunate: He grew up in New York City, one of those quirky places where intellectual gifts were valued rather than stigmatized, and where being Jewish was deemed almost acceptable. He studied both classical and popular music at an early age. Can there be any doubt that he honed his razor-sharp songwriting style well before college, perhaps inspired by a delicacy shop directly across town, on Broadway, called “Everybody’s Nuts”? Think of the dinner parties! Lehrer’s parents could introduce guests to their son, who was tearing through the curriculum at the prestigious Horace Mann School, then invite him to play something.
While Cole Porter received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1960 (he was 69), Lehrer never completed his legit doctoral studies, probably because he was too busy learning and lecturing at Harvard and MIT in both mathematics and theater while still in his twenties. At Los Alamos National Laboratory he worked with other scientists who were creditable musicians — Richard Feynman, another annoyingly multi-talented polymath, played and wrote songs featuring bongo drums — but you can bet that Lehrer had the best cabaret act and fullest recording career of anyone there. He was one of those performers whose fans are often unaware of their heroes’ full range of achievements. Though he was an academician for whom entertainment was at first something of a side-hustle, he still managed to turn out wickedly sophisticated satire for club-goers, animated learning songs for the Children’s Television Workshop Program “The Electric Company”, and mainstream political humor for NBC’s “That Was the Week That Was”. All of it is still popular and still current, animated with joyously offbeat wit, and wicked rhymes. For sophisticated urbanites he notes, in “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”, that “When they see us coming / The birdies all try an’ hide / But they still go for peanuts / When coated with cyan-hide.” For kids learning to spell, he explains, in the Silent E Song, that “He turned a dam — alakazam! — into a dame / But my friend Sam just stayed the same.”
In the spirit of full disclosure I must mention, without judgment but with regret, that Lehrer left the East Coast for California. In the 1970s he taught at UC Santa Cruz, lecturing on musical theater history and mathematics. There must be radio lectures on classical music in there somewhere, because I came across one by accident a few years back. Brilliant, of course. Now, at age 95, he’s speaking out about living with parkinsonism. And in a typically rebellious yet wise gesture, he has transferred his original lyrics and some of his juiciest recorded performances to the public domain and made them freely available at the website tomlehrersongs.com. Hurry up and visit — there’s far more there than you might guess, including songs from decades past that remain all too fresh and relevant now. But be sure to consult the full text of his rights disclaimer before launching your own cabaret act.
Three or four generations younger, depending on how you count, our second birthday honoree has already achieved prominence in the classical music world: Aksel Rykkvin, whose recordings of Baroque arias were recognized for their excellence when he was in his teens. Rykkvin was one of two boy sopranos whose remarkable performances of a gorgeously difficult Bach cantata aria, “Mein gläubiges Herze” gained a following on YouTube. Rykkvin, at age fifteen, performs with piano and cello accompaniment; Elias Mädler, at age fourteen, has the Concentus Musicus Wien behind him. Both performances are spectacular; both performers are now baritones with recordings of Schubert songs on disc and YouTube. (Rykkvin’s performances of Baroque soprano arias are also well represented on CD.)
Since junior high days I’ve had an almost obsessive love for some of Bach’s sacred arias, and “Mein gläubiges Herze” ranks high among them. It is from a sacred cantata (BWV 68) and, as in the case of the better known “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (BWV 5l), it pairs a vocally demanding, nuanced soprano aria with an instrumental obbligato of equal difficulty (for cello in “Mein gläubiges Herze, for trumpet in “Jauchzet Gott”). I’ve enjoyed dozens of versions on YouTube (the best are those by Elisabeth Grummer and a very young Joan Sutherland, recorded before she was famous), but until recently hadn’t encountered these two staggering renditions from several years ago by boy sopranos — two blond, angelic-looking northern European kids who could be siblings with slightly different haircuts. Both possessed ravishing voices and showed phenomenally mature musicianship. They were born within about a year of each other. What were the odds?
There’s an almost mysterious affinity between the child soprano voice and sacred Baroque arias. Part of it is the combination of musical complexity and emotional directness. The child who sings “Mein gläubiges Herze” must master its phrasing and breathing challenges while interpreting some pretty grownup emotions — essentially the same ones expressed in gospel-inspired songs like Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Get Happy” or Stuart Hamblen’s “This Old House.” As in these songs, Bach’s aria looks upon death with cheerful directness: It is the believer’s end of suffering and gateway to eternal, blissful peace in the presence of God. And, as in many of the Lutheran verses in Bach’s chorales and arias, this idea is projected with a force that can seem almost brutal. Bach’s soprano has no sympathy for human suffering; she sings “Weg Jammer, weg Plagen, / Ich will euch nur sagen: / Mein Jesus ist nah”, dismissing our earthly suffering as nothing with the nearness of Jesus. The soprano almost shouts the musical exhortation to exult, sing and rejoice: “Frolocke! Sing! Scherze!”
Today many critics and musicians feel Bach’s music is unsurpassable, and I’m like totally down with that, man. But I also believe that the greatness of Bach’s music cannot be fully experienced without understanding that every note he ever wrote, whether secular, sacred or instrumental, was written as an act of faith to praise and glorify God. Even the Coffee Cantata, the comical mini-drama about the disgruntled dad Schendrian and his caffeine-addled daughter Lieschen? Yes, even that one. After all, the father of all creation is certainly the source of all humor. For Martin Luther and for most of Bach’s contemporaries, the question of whether to interpret scripture as metaphorical or literal truth didn’t exist; one either had faith or one didn’t. That question was pursued in earnest only later, with the Enlightenment. Poised at the crux of these two faithways was Mozart, a believer who looked death in the face in the Requiem yet fashioned an archetypal hedonist in the character of Don Giovanni, who defies God and neighbor to find fulfillment in earthly pleasures.
This kind of thinking would surely have been incomprehensible to Bach. In “Gläubiges Herze” we hear him do something outwardly simple but inwardly amazing, imbuing the textless portions of the aria with religious meaning to glorious effect. The aria begins with a simple melody stated by the cello with great emphasis: two beats are accented in each four-beat measure, like a pulsing heart. When the soprano enters after an eight-bar introduction, we hear the vocal line sung in counterpoint against the cello. But in contrast with many of Bach’s sacred arias and chorales — take, for example, “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott” (BWV 80), which foregrounds a slow, majestic choral part against a fast-paced accompaniment — the soprano’s melody in “Gläubiges Herze” proceeds at the same pace as the instrumental line and is equally melodious, but less emphatic: Only one beat per measure is accented. The soprano’s message is simple: rejoice. The instrumental message is more complex, and Bach forces us to listen: It demonstrates the abundance of God’s grace, which is all around us, but we must take notice. In fact, it is greater than we can comprehend — as demonstrated by the small astonishment of Bach’s eight-bar coda at the end of the one-minute sinfonia that concludes the aria. It exceeds anything we could anticipate.
The child soloists Rykkven and Mädler sing with convincing sincerity and emotional depth in interpretating “Mein gläubiges Herze.” These qualities are not as fully realized in versions by the great adult sopranos Elisabeth Grummer, Joan Sutherland and Kathleen Battle. And as we enjoy their singing, the ironies are almost scary. In Bach’s day, when life was an brutal struggle for many of the faithful, it wasn’t unusual for boy sopranos as talented as Rykkvin and Mädler to be sold into service as singers in church choirs. They were castrated, of course, sometimes even kidnapped from their families of origin or from competing choirs. If we view this as an outrage now, our attitude might baffle Bach’s employers. After all, what is the worldly suffering of such boys or their parents compared with importance of their praising and glorifying God in the brief time before their eternal reward? This kind of fundamentalism evolves from one era to the next, but somehow its tyranny remains with us.
Which brings us back to Tom Lehrer. With a tip of the hat to his brilliance, we note that behind many of his funniest jokes there’s trenchant social critique. The songs aren’t naughty for the sake of naughtiness; they make us think. Lehrer’s irreverent “Vatican Rag” outraged many in the 1960s, but it forced us to question whether a hierarchical system claiming moral authority can be hypocritical or outright immoral. Today, as the Vatican continues to struggle with atrocious crimes of abuse and concealment, the question still stands.
— Michael Clive
Michael Clive is the editor of Operhound.com. His performance reviews, previews, and cultural commentaries appear on that site.