Friday, January 12, 2007

To Fly! To Sing!

I have a new favorite song.

I've been desperately trying to learn some Italian molto velocemente before I go to a conference at Pavia, and I thought a good way to learn a smattering real quick would be to memorize a song.

So I got a wonderful Rhino CD of a song that came out when I was a little boy, Volare (To Fly), composed and sung by Domenico Modugno (pictured here). (To hear a short clip on the above link, click on the line for "Pepino the Italian Mouse." The order of the labels for the clips doesn't match the order of the clips.) [Added later: you can see a video of Modugno singing Volare here on Youtubel.] I remembered it as a lovely song, even though, like the many thousands of Americans who bought this record in 1958, I didn't understand any of the words. What I didn't realize was that it was one of the really great songs ever.

It is an attempt to put into words and music the half-mystical experience of falling in love (as opposed to love itself - quite a different thing), or as Plato would say, of perceiving The Beautiful. It reminds me of the Vision of the Beautiful in The Tempest, the monster Caliban speaking:
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
My teacher William B. Macomber, used to tell us that memorizing a poem is the best first step to understanding it. He was so right! I'm ready to give you my verse-by-verse commentary on this Volare:

Penso che un sogno così non ritorni mai più
Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blu
Poi d'improvviso venivo dal vento rapito
E incominciavo a volare nel cielo infinito.
I think that such a dream will never return
I painted my hands and my face with blue
Then suddenly, I was taken by the wind
And I began to fly in the endless sky.
It begins with in an atmosphere of mystery. Aside from the utterly baffling line, Mi dipingevo le mani e la faccia di blu, the speaker seems, like Caliban, to have no idea where this force comes from. It is overwhelming, it sweeps him away, into the infinite. It wipes away any sense of being in control. The phrase nel cielo infinito suggests death and eternity. This is the sort of experience that could be terrifying. There are timid souls who would block such an experience with all their might! What will our hero do?
Volare, ho, ho!
Cantare, ho, ho, ho, ho!

Nel blu, dipinto di blu
Felice di stare lassù
E volavo, volavo felice più in alto del sole ed ancora più su
Mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiù
Una musica dolce suonava soltanto per me.

To fly....oh oh...
To sing...oh oh oh oh!
In the blue sky, painted in blue.
So glad to be up there
And I was flying and flying, happily higher than the sun and more
While the world was slowly fading away down there
A sweet music was singing only for me.
Ah, this is ecstasy. But it is a different sort of ecstasy. The refrain soars operatically on Volare, ... Cantare, but Modugno's voice is not operatic. He has a Sinatraesque way of cutting terminal vowels short, as if unwilling to take the risk of a sustained note, and he puts a little jazz swing into the oh oh oh oh! This is not high-mimetic art, art that is consistently noble in tone. It is about The Beautiful, but The Beautiful as seen from below, a frog perspective. But Modugno/Caliban is happy to be up there, willingly flying further and further from earth, completely out of touch.

There is a moral hazard here. We've already guessed that the ecstasy is that of falling in love (what else?) but she has not even been mentioned yet. Very interesting! It's as if he is in love with the feeling she gives him. She hardly matters. There is a temptation here: falling in love with falling in love. That is what the legend of don Juan is all about. Don Juan is not mainly interested in sex. If he were, he would be less destructive. He wants that ecstatic turning of the attention to a new woman. Once the insane ecstasy part of a relationship is over, don Juan loses interest, and passes on to the next woman, and the next episode of ecstasy. Finally, the father of one of the women drags him down to Hell. What will our hero do?

Ma tutti i sogni
nell'alba svaniscon perchè,
quando tramonta la luna
li porta con se,
ma io continuo a sognare
negl'occhi tuoi belli,
che sono blu come il un cielo
trapunto di stelle.

But all the dreams
Fall away in the dawn because
The moon brings them
Away when it sets,
But I'm still dreaming
In your beautiful eyes
That are blue like the sky
Painted with stars.
At last she appears! And now we can see what all the talk about the color blue was about. She has blue eyes. Love exploded the blue of her eyes into the infinite expanses of heaven. But wait a minute! Maybe something like the reverse has happened. The moon took his dreams with it when it sets. She is just a substitute for the true Beauty he knew before and lost. He is projecting it into her eyes. Which is it? We really can't be sure. It's perfectly ambiguous.

The final verses might give us the answer:
Volare ho ho
cantare ho ho hoho,
nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu,
felice di stare qua giù,
e continuo a volare felice
più in alto del sole
ed ancora più su,
mentre il mondo
pian piano scompare
negl'occhi tuoi blu,
la tua voce è una musica
dolce che suona per me.

Volare ho ho
cantare ho ho hoho
nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu,
felice di stare qua giù,
nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu,
felice di stare qua giù
con te.
To fly....oh oh...
To sing ...oh oh oh oh!
In the blue sky of your blue eyes,
So glad to be there
And I don't stop flying happily
Higher than the sun and more
While the world is
Slowly disappearing
In your blue eyes
Your voice is a sweet music
That sings for me.

To fly ....oh oh...
To sing ...oh oh oh oh!
In the blue sky of your blue eyes,
So glad to be down here
In the blue sky of your blue eyes,
So glad to be down here
With you.
He's now describing life down here in the sublunary realm in the same language that he earlier used to describe flying through the blue of the heavens before. The most amazing moment in the song is when the line mentre il mondo pian piano spariva lontano laggiù, "as the world gradually disappears far below," morphs into the line mentre il mondo pian piano scompare negl'occhi tuoi blu, "as the world gradually dies away in your blue eyes." This is a song that is obsessed with directionality or, more exactly, with hierarchy, with the higher and the lower. Here the phenomenon of falling far below is transformed into -- what? -- fading into another dimension? One thing seems to emerge: "here below," qua giù, seems to be given the attributes of the heavenly. What happens in her eyes is what happens in the heavens. She has made the earth a sort of second heaven. Even if this is just a substitute, he will treat it as the real thing!

Or maybe not. Notice that Modugno's intonation changes completely in these last two verses. It becomes more Sinatraeque and conversational, less beautiful. He says (I can't quite say sings) nel blu degl'occhi tuoi blu almost as if it were a parody of the earlier and more euphonious line, Nel blu, dipinto di blu. This is the part of the song that is clearly low-mimetic. Also notice that the last two words, con te, are sotto voce. In the recording you can barely hear them, nearly concealed by the last two pizzicati of the double bass -- because they don't fit into the metrical scheme of the song! This is the only time that any form of the word tu, you, appears in the song. So it ends with a hint of ambiguity. I love you but you don't fit into my metrical scheme. You're good, but you're not that good!

We don't retreat into the drug-like ecstasy of the first two verses. Unlike Caliban, we do not cry to dream again. But the possibility of doing so is still there, just over the phenomenological horizon. Beckoning us...

Alright alright! I know what you're thinking. I've earned a life membership in the Society of People Who Read Way Too Much Into Things. Here's all I would really want to insist on here: Volare depicts romantic love in a way that reveals both its glories and some of its traps and temptations. Like most great art, it does not moralize. But, like all great art, it represents the world in a way that empowers you to seek further enlightenment in your own way, to "follow your own genius" as Thoreau would say. I've given shown you my way. Now, what is yours?


Anonymous said...

That's beautiful! Thank you.

Lester Hunt said...