An ORPHAN MELODY is remembered in POMPEII

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Mark Twain.  Pompeii.  An orphan melody.  What connects these three disparate things?

Wait, what do I mean by an orphan melody?

A week ago Ed plunked the latest Smithsonian magazine next to my breakfast dishes and pointed to its front page article: “The Fall and Rise and Fall of Pompeii”, a richly detailed and illustrated piece about the history of Pompeii’s destruction, its discovery hundreds of years ago, and the new destructive peril it faces because of mismanagement and corruption by the Berlusconi government, plus recent efforts to reverse the second falling of the ancient Roman city.   Ed said: “You could write about this article and your song ‘Remember Me’ from the Mark Twain musical.”

“Remember Me”, the ruins and long lost inhabitants of Pompeii seem to be calling out yet again as their long lost glory and horrible fate, once unearthed to great acclaim, now appears fated again to suffer destruction not due to a massive volcanic eruption but to garden variety human neglect and incompetence.

So let me explain “Remember Me” and how this orphan melody became part of a Mark Twain musical, and why a Mark Twain musical describes the fall of Pompeii.

images-10“Orphan Melodies” are what I call tunes I’ve composed, usually idly humming to myself, which stay with me, haunting me.  Again and again I will think of those unfinished melodies.  Some have been with me for over thirty years even, knocking on my consciousness every now and then so I may sing them again to myself, perhaps with a word or phrase of lyrics attached.  Eventually some find a home in some musical project.  They become complete songs with lyrics; they are performed.  Once that happens, these melodies stop haunting me.  They’ve found completion.

The melody I would later call “Remember Me” came to me on holiday in Israel in 1993.  I was celebrating Passover with my parents and my cousins at a Kibbutz on the Mediterranean.  While I took a walk by the sea, this wistful, romantic melody came to my head.  Unusually for me, it sounded not like a sung melody, but a tune played on the piano.  Even more unusual was that I didn’t hear just the melody line, I also heard accompaniment figures that seemed inextricably tied to the melody.  I imagined this was the love theme of a Gay romantic movie (ironically I would meet Ed and embark on my first full fledged Gay romance myself only a month later).  I located a piano and quickly found the melody and the accompaniment figures on the keyboard.

Remember Me piano theme

I didn’t think this piece would be a song.  It sounded like a piano piece to me.  For years I would play its themes whenever I found time to play for pleasure, “noodle about”, on any given piano, but the music would never evolve beyond the main theme and the B – theme you hear in the above track.  I would play the A theme, the B theme, then repeat, but never found satisfying ways to develop the ideas as a complete solo piano piece.  I toyed with the idea of turning it into an Evocation, a viola piano duet for Ed, but that didn’t seem right either (although now that “Remember Me” is a song, Ed and I have played it for fun, substituting the vocal line with the viola).

beTWAINIn 2006 the Metropolitan Playhouse announced that its second annual Literary Theater Festival would focus on Mark Twain.  I already had had a good experience composing and performing “The Tell-Tale Heart – a musicabre” for their Poe Festival the previous year.  What might I attempt with Mark Twain?  My first thought was this title: “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN” (and its spell-check defying lettering).  What kind of Mark Twain musical would have that title?  How about one that adapted not his famous novels, but many of his lesser known short stories into a revue style musical?  I started reading a whole lot of Twain short stories and finding those I liked which either sparked new song ideas or attached themselves winningly to existing orphan melodies for further development.   Eventually Act One of “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN” would focus on stories from Twain’s frontier experience in the American West, and Act Two would adapt “The Innocents Abroad”, Twain’s episodic account of the first American cruise ship journey all around the Mediterranean.

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Centerpiece of Act Two would be Twain’s account of his visit to Pompeii.  He poured a lot of his satirical wit to the descriptions, but also quoted the famous eye witness account of Pliny the Younger at length.  Twain’s preoccupation with the past, the wanting to be remembered but being doomed to be eventually forgotten, which colors much of “The Innocents Abroad”, finds its strongest expression in the section on Pompeii.  And I realized already while reading the book that that piano melody which had been haunting me for over a dozen years now could find perfect expression here, as the song “Remember Me”, or rather “Pompeii (Remember Me)”.

Below is the track and the text of this section from “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN”. Twain’s observations are in the dialog, while the song’s lyrics embody the longing of the past to be remembered, Twain’s descriptions of the site and Pliny the Younger’s devastating eyewitness account of the ancient tragedy.  Many who saw “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN” would count “Remember Me” as their favorite song from the show.

(By the way, you can explore/hear more from “beTwixt, beTween & beTWAIN” by clicking onto the TWAIN page.)

POMPEII (Remember Me) – audio:

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POMPEII _- REMEMBER ME – Text Excerpt

 

PASSENGER(S):

I had an idea that you went down into Pompeii through gloomy tunnels with lava overhead.  But not so.  One-half of the buried city is fully exhumed and thrown freely to the light of day; and there stand the long rows of solidly built brick houses just as they stood eighteen hundred years ago.

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Pompeii’s streets have ruts up to ten inches deep worn into the thick flagstones by the chariot wheels of generations of swindled taxpayers.  Yes, swindled!  The ruts testify that street commissioners of Pompeii never attended to their business!  I speak with feeling on this subject, because I caught my foot in one of those ruts, and the sadness that came over me when I saw the first poor skeleton, with ashes and lava sticking to it, was tempered by the reflection that maybe that party was the street commissioner.

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No – Pompeii is no longer a buried city.  It is a city of hundreds and hundreds of roofless houses, and a tangled maze of streets where one could easily get lost without a guide, and have to sleep in some ghostly palace that had known no living tenant since that awful November night of eighteen centuries ago.

 

WOMAN:
Memory, Reverie

History, sweet humanity

Tragedy from an olden day

Blown away, flown away

 

WOMAN:                                                               MAN:

Think of me, Sing of me             Hear the call, hear it all

Traveler to my history                To retell where we fell

Visitor of my tragedy                   Still we call, still we fall

Hear of me, Come to see             Still we lie, still we die

And uncover me                                                                       

Sweet humanity                                                                       

Tell of me                                                                       

Remember me                                                                       

 

The streets still run where I used to roam                                                                                 

And the walls still stand where I once called home            (MAN):                                   

With the floors clean swept               Memory, reverie, history           

The mosaics clear                                  Family, you and me, olden day

With designs of flowers, of lions, of deer      Far away, blown away, flown away

          

 

Here wine was poured, here they baked the bread

Here enshrined the gods, here entombed the dead

Here an oath was sworn                 Mother, Father, Brother

Here a chance was missed              Sister, Daughter, Lover,

Here a child was born                      Can you see, see me now, now and here

Here a lover was kissed

Here someone cried

Here someone sighed

Here someone died

 

PASSENGER(S):

I saw the skeleton of a woman, and two young girls.  The woman had her hands spread wide apart, as if in mortal terror, and I imagined I could still trace upon her shapeless face the expression of wild despair that distorted it when the heavens rained fire in these streets so many ages ago.

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The skeleton of a man was found with ten pieces of gold in one hand and a large key in another.  He had seized his money and started toward the door, but the fiery tempest caught him at the very threshold, and he sank down and died.

A Roman soldier in complete armor stood at his post erect und unflinching, till the hell that raged around him burned out the dauntless spirit it could not conquer.  Let us remember that he was a soldier – not a policeman – and so praise him.  Being a soldier, he stayed – because the warrior instinct forbade him to fly.  Had he been a policeman, he would have stayed also – because he would have been asleep.

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A shrill whistle and the cry of “All aboard – last train for Naples!” woke me up and reminded me that I belonged in the nineteenth century, and was not a dusty mummy.  The transition was startling.  Compare the cheerful life and the sunshine of this day with the horrors of the 9th of November, A.D. 79.

 

WOMAN:

Long ago, far away

Let me show what I was one day

If you know, maybe I will stay

Near and true here with you

 

WOMAN:                                                               MAN:

See the day, olden day                              Memory, reverie

Cruel day that took all away                   Tragedy, history

Time and life losing all their will          Olden day, far away

Standing still for the kill                          Taking me, telling you

For calamity                                                  Calamity

To deliver me

Finally

Eternally

 

MAN & WOMAN (adding others):

The murky darkness has robbed all sight

Like a blackened chamber or moonless night

From all sides one hears                   Mother, Father, Brother

The complaints of women                Sister, Daughter, Lover,

The wails of children                          Can you hear, hear me now,

The crying of men                                Here in the crying of men

 

They call their father, their son, their wife

In the dark their voices are proof of life

As they cry out: Mercy             As they, calling all, stalling all, falling all

Let death come quickly            Crying all, trying all, dying all

The world is ending                   World and all, all and one, come undone

This day is our last                      Day is our last

Bury the past

Smother the light                          

Enter the night

 

WOMAN:

Memory, Reverie

History, sweet humanity

Tragedy from an olden day

Blown away, flown away

 

ALL:

Think of me, Sing of me      Heed the ancient call, Sing it one and all

Traveler to my history          Sing the songs of how we stand and fall

Visitor of my tragedy             Tell the tales of how we live and die

Hear of me                                  How we laugh and cry

Come and see                             Where we all lie

And uncover me                         Uncover me

Sweet humanity

Tell of me

Remember me

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 30 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
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2 Responses to An ORPHAN MELODY is remembered in POMPEII

  1. howlevmuso says:

    I didn’t think it was germane to post this as a comment on the blog, but as soon as I heard your orphan melody I was struck at the similarity of its beginning to the song, “Non, c’est rien.” For the heck of it, here’s Streisand’s version of it (and she did it really well!).

    HL

    >

    Like

    • Hadn’t heard this song before. Barbra belting out the french chansons is a new one for me. But yeah, she’s great!
      However at the risk at sounding slightly defensive, I’ll point out the similarity really only is sorta in the rhythm of the three first notes, but not the exact pitches. Close enough to be reminded of the other, I guess, but not to suggest a copy (not that you were, but at the risk of sounding a little defensive…)
      Although I guess my melody does have something of a french chanson flavor…

      Like

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