I attended a matinee screening of the German movie “Phoenix”. As the movie began and the screen was still black, I heard a lone upright bass picking out two notes a major sixth apart, followed by four more notes bounding down and back up to the sixth. A piano added isolated chords as a spare accompaniment. I recognized this melody. This was “Speak Low”, in a film noir-esque bass/piano version. I was quietly thrilled. “Speak Low” is the song I would name if I was ever forced to answer – gun to my head or not – the impossible question of what is the best song ever written. And in this movie it is being used as the main theme, the melody that will define and haunt this story set in post-war Germany as much as “As Time Goes By” haunts “Casablanca”.
Speak low when you speak, love
Our summer day withers away too soon, too soon
Speak low when you speak, love
Our moment is swift
Like ships adrift we’re swept apart too soon
Early on in “Phoenix”, the lead character, Nelly, a concentration camp survivor returned to Berlin after the war, listens to this recording of “Speak Low” on a phonograph:
I wondered how likely it was that Germans would have heard “Speak Low” after the war. The song was written in 1943 for the musical “One Touch of Venus” (music by Kurt Weill; lyrics by Ogden Nash), and was a hit in the USA. But Germans didn’t really start to discover Weill’s “Musik im Exil”, the French chansons and Broadway scores he composed after fleeing Nazi Germany, until the 1980s (my mother, the opera singer Catherine Gayer, was one of the first to introduce Weill’s American songs to German audiences in a cabaret program at the Berliner Festwochen in 1980).
Still, the theme of lovers having been separated by the horrors of war was already revealing itself in “Phoenix’s” narrative, so the use of “Speak Low” made sense, and it was possible a vinyl record could have made it’s way to Nelly’s friend’s possession. But why a mere piano vocal recording? And who was this awkward singer warbling with a thick German accent?
Turns out it is none other than Kurt Weill himself, from a recording never intended for public consumption, but a demo recording he made to help attract financial backing for “One Touch of Venus”. The recording wasn’t pressed on vinyl for public sale until 1953 (three years after his death).
So it is impossible that Nelly would have been listening to that recording in 1945. But it doesn’t matter. The choice of song is perfect for the movie, and that it is none other than Kurt Weill himself singing on the record, as if he were some aging German cabaret singer recording the latest American hit for post-war German audiences, casts a particularly haunting spell. I can see why the director Christian Petzold couldn’t resist using this particular recording of “Speak Low” to anchor “Phoenix”.
Various versions of “Speak Low”, the bass/piano rumination, a solo violin nightclub serenade, the Kurt Weill solo, will accompany the strange tale of “Phoenix”. But it will finally be heard in an incredibly dramatic fashion at the climax of the movie. The lyrics, the way the song is performed, and the reaction to the performance are as revelatory and devastating as any climactic movie confrontation you could imagine. There are not many non-musical movies that use the singing of a song so effectively, for whom the climax or turning point of the drama hinges on the performance of a song. One example that springs to mind is Doris Day singing “Che Sera Sera” to rescue her kidnapped child in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much”. The comparison with Hitchcock is also apt because “Phoenix” bears a strong kinship with another Hitchcock masterpiece: “Vertigo”.
Nelly (Nina Hoss) had survived the camps, but not without grievous wounds requiring facial reconstruction surgery. She seeks out her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), who may or may not have betrayed her to the Nazi’s during the war. He does not recognize her; but he does offer this stranger who looks a lot like his (presumed dead) wife a deal: she will pose as Nelly, and as the imposter she will claim a large inheritance waiting to be claimed by the real Nelly, and they will share the money. Shell-shocked by her camp experiences, still desperately in love with Johnny, and uncertain whether he did betray her or not, Nelly goes along with the plan to become her own imposter…
Sounds pulpy? So does the plot of “Vertigo”. But its filmmaking brilliance and levels of psychological exploration have long established it as one of the masterpieces of cinema. What makes “Phoenix’s” echoes of “Vertigo” stand on their own and not seem like merely overt borrowing, is the unique post-war German context. Who is victim and who is victimizer, who is secret holder and who is uncovering secrets, is played out differently than in “Vertigo”, with its own unique narrative ramifications. More importantly, the “Vertigo”-esque role playing in “Phoenix” dramatizes with dark irony and subtlety the post-war German struggle of how to confront (or not) the crimes of the recent past, both for the criminals, the victims and the not-so-innocent bystanders. For someone who grew up in Germany and often witnessed Germans grappling (or not) with the history and reverberations of the Third Reich, these themes tucked into the film noir narrative of “Phoenix” resonated very strongly. I highly recommend seeing Phoenix (as do all the US critics tallied so far on Metacritic).
Meanwhile my love affair with the song “Speak Low” will continue, as will my search for the perfect recording. Note how Kurt Weill sings the final notes as he composed them, with the last word “soon” landing on the 6th, and not the tonic of the chord. That is a very unusual note for a melody to end on. Most melodies end on the tonic (or at least the third, maybe the fifth above the tonic). “Speak Low”‘s final line requires the repeating of the same note, the 6th, nine times, and just when you expect the singer to modulate to the tonic, they don’t and conclude, hauntingly, disconcertingly, wistfully on that same strange note. Or they should at least. Kurt Weill does, but so many singers feel compelled to end the song more conventionally instead.
Anne Sofie von Otter does a wonderful, traditional version of “Speak Low”, even using Weill’s brilliant original arrangements for the most part, but she doesn’t honor the 6th in the end (and she sings the ending twice, sliding down to the fifth the first time and going up to the tonic the final time). Every time I hear it I wish I could reach into the recording somehow and just hold her lovely voice steady on that 6th:
Lotte Lenya, Kurt Weill’s wife (well, widow at the time) recorded “Speak Low” for her American Theater Songs album. But what’s with the arrangement? So busy (all that manic flute chirping) and driven, the orchestra is practically rushing her off the stage. Kinda kills the mood. A steadier, less hectic approach may have suited Lenya’s particular voice better. At least she hits the final note as written, albeit with a vocal scoop…
In the Broadway musical “LoveMusik”, which recounts the story of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, Michael Cerveris as Weill and Donna Murphy as Lenya sing a relatively faithful version of “Speak Low”, although shifting vocal ranges force an awkward key change in the middle of the number. Cerveris and Murphy do amazing vocal mimicry, sounding just like Weill and Lenya, well, maybe an idealized Weill and Lenya. And yet their own real voices are so much sweeter in real life that I would almost prefer to hear either of them sing “Speak Low” alone, simply, as themselves.
And speaking of duets, here is Tony Bennett and Norah Jones’ too-cool-for-school jazz club version; the yearning pull of the melody doesn’t quite come alive here for me – perhaps because Tony and Norah rewrite so much of the melody, and the final 6th is nowhere to be heard:
And then there is Barbra’s take. Streisand’s recording on the Back to Broadway album may have a tad too much of a smooth jazz radio station vibe for my taste, but I do like the way she caresses the melody. She also doesn’t sing the final notes with Weill’s sincere steady-6ths, in fact she adds a whole mess of extra phrases with silly rhymes and a whole bunch of final “soon”s, practically one for each note in the scale, including if only barely the 6th. All that said, I admit (even with all my caveats) I find this the most enjoyable recording I have heard of “Speak Low”.
Except I just came upon Billie Holiday’s take on it. And I must say Billie Holiday’s incomparable lilting world weariness seems tailor made for “Speak Low”. The jazz guitar arrangement is rather jaunty – I wonder what Holiday singing with Weill’s original arrangements might have wrought – and Billie does do her Billie phrasing with the melody as Billie is wont to do, meaning she occasionally zags where Weill originally zigged, but much less so than Bennett and Jones and even Streisand, and she does honor that final 6th I obsess so much about. Billie’s jazz cafe may just trump Barbra’s fm jazz.
But I have yet to discover a recording that fully captures “Speak Low”‘s sad, haunting, romantic power. Perhaps in “Phoenix” Nelly and Johnny might have come close, but for (brilliant, devastating) dramatic purposes the performance is rendered with gaps in the music, and the final lines are never uttered…
Darling I wait
Will you speak low to me
Speak love to me
So I post this article which generates conversations with people and leads to the discovery of many more versions of “Speak Low”, three of which – from Sarah Vaughn, Frank Sinatra and Eartha Kitt – are distinctive enough in their own ways to share as an addendum:
I may have indicated that I find a lot of the arrangements for recordings of “Speak Low” to be too fast or too distracting. Kurt Weill’s original arrangements have a slightly off kilter drive and a restrained pace that requires a certain subtlety, which I feel gets lost in the busyness of most later arrangements.
However this next example takes the opposite tack. This live recording of Sarah Vaughan is not only notable for her magnificent vocals, but also for the spare arrangements and the way she slows and stretches the melody almost to infinity.
And then there is Old Blue Eyes, when he was still a young buck. Frank Sinatra sings “Speak Low” in this 1940’s “Columbia Years” recording. This is vintage 40’s crooning at its best. Although Sinatra sings the melody pretty faithfully, he oddly omits two words (listen in and see if you can tell which two) and the orchestra seems to be deciding between two arrangements, changing style during the last 40 seconds of the short recording.
And finally, there’s Eartha Kitt pouring, or purring on the sultry in this recording. I like Eartha Kitt, normally I like her a lot, and I don’t want to be catty, however… this is more Catwoman yowling than Chanteuse crooning. Especially some of the times she sings “soon” her voice does something quite inhuman.