Don’t Close the Door Just Yet

December 06, 2018
 

I found it!  And I was surprised that it didn’t take that long. I had thought about it now and then over the decades. I’m not sure I ever paid attention to the title. But the cartoon was still rather vivid in my memory.

It was one of those “Merrie Melodies” cartoons. They were made for the big screen. Eventually they appeared on local TV cartoon shows around the country.

Rhapsody in Rivets was first shown in theatres in 1944. So we’re just shy of celebrating its 75th anniversary.  I learned of the title weeks ago, having searched with a simple description of the plot. It was inspired by Franz Liszt’s famous Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. For me - and I’m guessing for many others - it was an amusing introduction to the Rhapsody.  Animals (mostly dogs) portrayed as construction workers/musicians are led by a foreman/conductor, who enters at the outset with a blueprint/musical score. Together they build a towering skyscraper in a matter of about 7 minutes accompanied by or playing along with the soundtrack orchestra.

There’s lots of silliness and slapstick synchronized with - and interrupting - the music. This was not meant to be a music appreciation video, although it seems to accomplish that in a fun sort of way. If you come to the cartoon knowing the Rhapsody, it can be amusing as well.

Revisiting the cartoon online was a bit of a letdown, though I did have a couple of good laughs.  I had seen it as a kid as often as they showed it on the old cartoon shows. It may have had more to offer these days if I had seen it on a big screen with a theatre sound system. But satisfying my curiosity after all the years was enough. 

In case you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil the ending. Let’s just say that I came away with a lesson: never close the door on a piece of music. If I had stopped exploring the Rhapsody after my early encounters with the cartoon, I would have missed out on some fine arrangements and performances over the years, including the original version for solo piano.

Earlier this year I came to a similar conclusion about not closing the door on a piece of music that featured a closing door. December 11th marks the 50th anniversary of the award-winning 2nd album by the jazz/rock group Blood Sweat and Tears.

The album opened with an instrumental piece titled “Variations on a Theme by Erik Satie.”  Dick Halligan, who was a flutist, trombonist, composer and arranger for the group, wrote the Variations. He chose the tune of the first of the 3 Gymnopedies by French composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), which were written for the piano. Halligan’s variations feature flute and guitar and then brass and percussion. The Variations make use of studio techniques to create a layering of flutes and some flashy effects in the brass and percussion variations.

It’s a captivating piece with a simple and rather quiet opening, like the original Satie work. Even the opening of the brass variations is rather solemn.  But the work ends like a fanfare. The album won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year. The Variations won a Grammy for Best Pop Intstrumental Performance of the Year. I remember the album being sampled in a high-end audio equipment store to show off the dynamic range capabilities of turntables, amplifiers and speakers. I was there to purchase supplies to help maximize the capabilities of less than high-end equipment.

I listened to the Variations so many times, not knowing anything about Erik Satie or the piece that inspired Halligan’s variations. Years later I came to know all 3 of Satie’s Gymnopedies, Claude Debussy‘s famous orchestration of 2 of them and other more recent arrangements of the pieces. But the BS&T Variations have always remained special to me.

Earlier this year I became aware that the album was celebrating its 50th anniversary. It’s funny how much of it came to mind, even without listening to it again. And after all these years of working with classical music and listening intently to music, a thought came to me. A shorter version of the flute and guitar variations returns at the end of the recording, though not the brass variations. And I remembered that there were footsteps and a slamming door at the very end of the record.  Suddenly, I wondered if there was still something to discover just before the door closes.  I had to scramble for a copy of the album at the time, finding one in a used record shop. Scratches had been added to the copy I found, but I still was able to listen to the ending.

Sure enough, it seemed to me that the footsteps sort of substituted for the opening of the brass variations in rhythm & tempo – almost like a parody. Perhaps it was obvious to some, but I had never really heard that before. If it was intended to be a subtle musical joke, it’s clever. If it’s purely coincidental or just my imagining, maybe I’ve listened to the album too many times – or maybe not.

I had a blast just chasing after the footsteps. I’ve come to know that there are all sorts of rewards for listening attentively to music, as well as to the the echoes of that music in your memory. 


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