'Mad Men' (Season 2) stirs unexpected memories of Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Song of India'
Robert (my better half) and I are trying to catch up with the rest of the oh-so-with-it world by Netflix-ing our way through "Mad Men." Can't say I like a single character in the show, but I love the acting, the whole look and mood of the thing. One element that I find quite impressive is the telling use of popular music from the day, especially each choice for the final credits.
In the first show of Season 2, which we just saw, I was startled by the appearance of a classical golden-oldie that has long been out of favor and earshot, the so-called "Song of India" from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Sadko." An instrumental ensemble was playing the piece as Don Draper met his wife in a hotel lobby for their Valentine's celebration, and it was used again for the credits at the end.
I can't remember the last time I thought of this music, which is so out-of-fashion that even unadventurous classical radio stations probably don't think to play it. Hearing it on that "Mad Men" episode brought back memories of learning the tune in a simplified version at the piano as a kid (it was the sort of thing you used to find in beginner books).
Later on, I associated the piece with Ethel Mertz hamming it up through the melody when she and Fred were auditioning for something, or, with Tommy Dorsey, who did a fab big band arrangement of it (no, I wasn't around when he recorded it -- I just got hooked on music of the '30s and '40s when I was young, decades and decades after that era).
Eventually, I discovered Rimsky-Korsakov and "Sadko" and several
wonderful recordings of this tenor aria, which occurs in Tableau IV of the opera when townsfolk of Novgorod gather at a pier to hear foreign merchants tell of their wares. One of those merchants sings about the diamonds, pearls and rubies "of miraculous far-off India." Rimsky-Korsakov was such a master of musical atmosphere that it's easy to believe the music really is exotic, from that far-off place.
I think the melody got such a workout over the years, in so many, often cheesy arrangements, that it must have seemed kitschy, rather silly. It didn't help that, in the West, no one staged "Sadko," so there wasn't much chance for people to discover where the aria came from. Today, I suspect a lot of folks would still consider this more pops than classical, not something to take too seriously. Well, I think the "Song of India" retains enormous charm and quality, revealing the hand of a master composer.
Don Draper seemed to be afraid someone might start warbling it in that hotel lobby, but I'm sure you'll be delighted to stick around for the two vocal performances I've retrieved from good ol' YouTube. Neither is in the original Russian, but never mind that. The first gives us the aria straight, sung (in Swedish) with his usual elegant styling by the incomparable Jussi Bjorling, my all-time favorite tenor. The second, by Miguel Fleta (in Spanish), offers much more rhythmic freedom and some very individualistic phrasing by a singer who ought to be better known today. I think both versions honor the simple beauty of the music and serve as reminders that the "Song of India" deserves fresh respect.
Oh, yeah, I also couldn't resist tagging on the Tommy Dorsey arrangement, just for fun. You weren't in a hurry, were you?