Speak Low, Phoenix, Speak Low…

Phoenix 1I 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:

Phoenix 2I 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?

Kurt Weill - TryoutTurns 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”.

Roland Zehrfeld & Nina Hoss in

Roland Zehrfeld & Nina Hoss in “Phoenix”

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…

James Stewart & Kim Novak in

James Stewart & Kim Novak in “Vertigo”

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).

Kurt Weill

Kurt Weill

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 OtterAnne 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 LenyaLotte 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…

LoveMusikIn 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.

Jones and BennettAnd 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:

StreisandAnd 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”.

Billie HolidayExcept 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…

I wait

Darling I wait

Will you speak low to me

Speak love to me

and soon

——

——

POSTSCRIPT 8/18/2015:

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:

VaughnI 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.

images-4And 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.

KittAnd 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.

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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39 Responses to Speak Low, Phoenix, Speak Low…

  1. howlevmuso says:

    I learned a lot about a song I thought I knew well. Thanks, Danny!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Kurt Steiner says:

    What a brilliant article. Thank you.

    I’ve been searching for the perfect version ever since seeing “Phoenix”. Incredible movie, and even more incredible ending.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kurt Steiner says:

    Just found a version on Youtube by Carme Canela. Quite amazing, imo.

    Like

  4. Lukas Grec says:

    still searching searching for the bass/piano version of this song…

    Like

  5. Ellen Devens says:

    This is one of my favorite songs. When the movie opened and I heard the first few chords, I knew I was in the right place and in for a beautiful piece of art…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Richard R. says:

    I recommend you view the Charlie Haden acoustic bass performance of Speak Low on YouTube. It starts with Haden’s solo bass (like the Phoenix movie) and then mixes in the version sung by Kurt Weil, to a video of dancing that is, well, you have to see it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMWsWtd2cfU

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: 經典翻新 – Phoenix (火鳳凰) | To Each His Own Cinema

  8. Desiree says:

    I just finished the movie, interrupted by work and sleep and was blown away. The searing pain thinking of Nelly’s pain in the camp, the betrayal of her life. All in a song and a look. Thank you for your brilliant article! Yes the aging cabaret singer……also brilliant. I lived in Germany from 1975 to 1991. Spent hours at the library trying to learn everything I could about Nazi Germany. I was part of an acting class in high school where we performed a play by Kurt Weil. The memories are slowly trickling back. I don’t remember the name yet, but I remember feeling uncomfortable, dark, sad, relieved, warm all at the same time it seems, then some years later I saw readings of his work at the Thalia Theater, HH and had the same feelings. Since then I have inhaled his music when I came across it. Never seeking it. I haven’t listened to all versions of this song. The ones I have heard are just too happy. Even when the singer is subtle the orchestra chirps and bounces, making it just another love song. Nelly and Johnny capture Weil perfectly.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. noni.m says:

    The original liner notes of “Tryout” said that these recordings were from 78 rpm acetates.

    Like

  10. Tom Johnston says:

    It’s been months, yet I cannot get over my love affair with this film, Nellie’s lost, existential, confusion, the haunting melody of Sweet Low, and the film’s haunting ending. Her halting start to the final song, her sudden flowering of voice that startles to the realization,her sweet German accent on “wherever ayh goh…”, the trailing off and stopping… As wonderful as other recordings are, and I am especially thankful to you for the Kurt Weill and Ann Sofie Von Otter renditions, I wish that Nina Hoss would do a full version of the song, complete with awkward start, and a long pause after “I wait”, before finishing. I wonder if is was already recorded in many versions that were never used.
    Was no sounctrack ever released for this film??

    Like

  11. Simon says:

    There is an astounding version by Marisa Monte. Find it on YouTube. I have been a MM fan for years but only just found this recording. I can’t believe that I’d never heard this song in my life (almost 60 years pro-am jazz bassist). Check it out. And while you’re at it give Miss Monte a wider listen too! She has the most beautiful voice.

    Like

  12. There are a couple YouTube videos of the fine Ms. Monte singing Speak Low. I prefer this one:

    (Although my bugaboo about the ending notes finds another example here yet again… 😉 )

    Like

    • Desiree says:

      You must love Svante Henryson’s last note. It’s perfect!
      I can’t listen to her Speak Low. I can only hear it. So I don’t. Listening sears at all the sadness and disappointment in me.

      Like

  13. simon says:

    btw, thanks for your lovely analysis of the song. By the same token, I have always fancied the Gershwins “A Foggy Day”. Not being a trained musician I am guessing somewhat, but look at what the tune does (straight into the verse): minor interval over major chord. Theme of lyrics is ‘sad’. Vowel sounds all in back of throat – eh, ow, o, ow. Then it gets to the second part “. . . suddenly I saw you there”. Minor interval over dom 7th chord (major-ish). Theme of lyrics instantly brightens. Vowel sounds all become ‘open’ ah ee aw air, and the pace of the lyric doubles “and through foggy London town the sun was shining everywhere”. It is exactly like the sun has come out! This is just about the most completely written song ever. (But George and Ira were geniuses, and that helps.)

    Liked by 1 person

  14. constance says:

    hi, my favorite is by the oh-so-berlin Ute Lemper…She has Weil running through her veins…I first saw her at the Carlye performing “A Walk on the Weil side”

    Like

    • In the video below I really appreciate the true to Weill arrangements and felicity to the original notes (esp at the first run at the coda; but alas not the final approach); but unfortunately Lemper’s vocals come across as hurried and under-prepared to me. I’ve seen and heard her perform really well over the years but also have lamented how under par some of her recordings are, like she was rushed to churn them out at the time and didn’t get the opportunity to perfect her vocals through seasoned study. Unfortunately this performance gives me that latter impression. I imagine by the time you saw her at the Carlyle, Lemper gave a much more mature, solid rendering of “Speak Low” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BW2ACd6w2U

      Like

  15. Tony Durham says:

    Fascinating blog and comments. I have listened to most of the tracks and your reviews are spot on. I was powerless to resist Streisand. She has incredible control, and a couple more emotional gears than most singers. Wouldn’t it be nice if a clean track of Lotte Lenya existed? I’d like to know your opinion of the Carmen McRae versions (one with Cal Tjader). But for me, Sarah Vaughan remains The One.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. mohamad says:

    hi

    thanks for complete review and explanation

    Mohammad : aerospace engineer from Iran

    Liked by 1 person

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  18. Chris Foul says:

    Thanks a lot for all those very interesting informations about this song I love. I discover it on french tv when I saw Phoenix last spring and I asked my song teacher to learn it. It’s a great film ans Nina Hoss is really a wonderful actress.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. H. Becker says:

    until I saw the movie last week on German TV and did some ‘research’ subsequently I only had known a version by Nils Landgren – completely unaware that it was written by Weill. Having read your interisting article, I wonder what you think of this version.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. H. Becker says:

    link to Nils Landgren’s “Speak Low”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTmpTXsyExw

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing. A worthy singular addition to the canon. I was first a little taken aback by the occasional grammatical mangling of the lyrics (“our summer days withers away”?), but mostly appreciated the eerily moody arrangements and soft vocals. And of course also applaud the adherence to the final sixth at the melody’s conclusion. I’m assuming Nils Landgren is also singing as well as playing the trumpet (on which he has a rich smooth sound)? His voice has a nice Chet Baker like quality. I wish he’d put just a little more care and finesse into his singing. He is fine; I just suspect he could do better. Dig deeper in learning and interpreting the piece and in result make a stronger emotional impact.

      Like

  21. Pingback: Jazzmodes

  22. tonydurham says:

    Last October I commented on this brilliant post and fascinating comment thread. I have now mentioned it in my own blog jazzmodes.com, where I compare it to ‘Invitation’, a great song by Bronislaw Kaper who, like Kurt Weill, worked in prewar Berlin and then escaped Nazi Germany to settle in the USA.

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  23. David C Randall says:

    This song has been in my head almost every day for two months, since first hearing Anita O’Day sing it on YouTube (I have been rather obsessed with her supple voice and rhythmic originality for a couple of years).
    Her version wouldn’t please you I’m sure, as it has a persistent, jumpy bossa nova background. And she doesn’t land on the 6th.
    But I’ve listened to dozens of others, and I have landed on the velvety sexuality of Peggy Lee, and also DeeDee Bridgewater. I’m a lifelong fan of Mark Murphy, but his breakneck speed and kaleidoscopic scatting will likely offend you.
    Still, as a framework for interpretation, this may well be one of the most perfect songs ever written. Thank you for your analysis!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comments and directing me to these additional recordings (there are so many!) Actually Anita O’Day does honor the final 6th on the first go around at least (if not the finale), but you guessed right that the “jumpy” jazz band accompaniment would irritate me, if only a little. Dee Dee Bridgewater’s slower smokier jazz arrangement pleases me better (despite the lacking final 6ths), Peggy Lee’s even more so (not just because of the honored 6th). Mark Murphy… didn’t offend me in the least; but I didn’t finish the track either.
      But in all this, I’ll once again direct our attention to Mary Martin’s version from the original Broadway recording! Lovely (and reminds me of the time I got to see the lovely Melissa Errico recreate the performance in a City Center staged reading concert performance): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ohc5vCrrWo

      Like

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