Classic Mornings

Song All Along


It’s not exactly karaoke. But it might serve the same purpose for some listeners.

You may have heard me use a generic sort of description whenever I play an instrumental version of a piece that otherwise has words. “Song without words” is a nice label. It’s the collective title that 19th century pianist and composer Felix Mendelssohn gave to piano miniatures with song-like melodies that he wrote over the years (He used the German version: Lieder ohne Worte).

There are other terms that suggest singing without singers. The Latin word “carmen” means “song,” but it’s been used in various ways over the centuries. One of those is for instrumental pieces that were derived from songs. Yes, it made me wonder if you would call a piece inspired by an aria from Georges Bizet’s opera Carmen, which I talked about in my previous blog post, a Carmen carmen.  Anyway, if you’ve ever hummed or whistled along while listening to a song, you’ve created your own carmen or “song without words” version, even if you didn’t give it a fancy name.

Do listeners actually sing along with classical music pieces? I know that I occasionally invite listeners to sing along when I play Mozart’s variations on the tune Ah, vous dirai-je maman. It’s the same tune as Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, the Alphabet Song (copyrighted in 1935 as The A.B.C.), Baa Baa Black Sheep, Morgen kommt der Weihnachtsmann (Santa Claus is Coming Tomorrow) and who knows how many more.  I also have extended the invitation when I’ve played Fernando Sor’s Introduction and Variations on ‘Malborough s'en va-t-en guerre (which translates to Marlborough – as in the Duke of Marlborough – Has Gone to War).  Some know it as the tune of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, or Let’s All Go to the Lobby.

Whether or not some listeners do attempt to sing along with those pieces, it might be a little difficult.  After the tune is heard at or near the beginning, it sort of disappears. The real treat in a set of variations is to hear how creative a composer or performer can be with a tune. If you’re concentrating on the lyrics you’re singing, you may be distracted from recognizing the tune each time it reappears in yet another disguise.

People do like to sing. Many join choirs or look forward to sing-alongs, including the annual sing-along performances of Handel’s Messiah. There are even sing-along versions of film musicals that have attracted large crowds. And, as you probably imagined, there are karaoke versions of classical music works.

Song writers have borrowed tunes from classical music and added lyrics. And suddenly, the original versions of those pieces have become “song without words” versions, even though words never were a part of them to begin with. 

The more I mulled over it, the more complicated it seemed to get and the more the “words” got in the way. I was rescued by the thought of listeners who are new to classical music. Over the years, I’ve heard them simplify the whole thing. They may not be comfortable with distinguishing among symphonies, sonatas, suites and serenades, operas, semi-operas, operettas and oratorios, concertos and cassations, rounds and rondos, adagios, allegros, vivaces, prestos, fancies and fantasias. 

Like those who tune in to most other types of music on the radio, they just call everything a “song,” without making any distinction between those with and without words. And that doesn’t seem to get in the way of enjoying the music. That’s not to say that there isn’t enjoyment in getting to know all about the many forms of classical music. Even documentaries about legendary pop music performers or recordings have borrowed the vocabulary once reserved for classical music. At some point, occasional listeners might become comfortable or excited by all the terms. But in the meantime, they find it refreshing to enjoy the “songs.”

One of the meanings of “song” is simply a musical sound, like those made by birds. Birds don’t bother with words, even as words have been added to tunes that come from birds. To them it’s just song and has been all along.