It was just a feeling at first. Listening to Carmen McRae singing Invitation I was reminded of another lovely song: Speak Low by Kurt Weill.
You don’t need to dissect the music on a technical level to notice a kinship of mood and style. As soon as I compared the life stories of the respective composers, it all made sense.
Bronislaw (or Bronislau) Kaper and Kurt Weill both worked in pre-war Berlin, composing music for film and theatre. Both fled Nazi Germany for the United States, Kaper settling in Los Angeles and Weill in New York. It seems certain that they knew of each other, likely that they met, and plausible that they were friends. Please forgive me for not doing enough biographical research to clinch the matter.
There is something assured and elegant about the way both songs delineate a narrative with a few simple, strong harmonic moves. They are movie tunes, but they offer superb material for a jazz vocalist. Weill wrote many famous songs. But I wish we had more from Kaper. Probably the only other tune of his that we all know is Green Dolphin Street.
A tune written by Kaper for the 1950 film A Life of Her Own acquired its current title, and became a jazz standard, after it was recycled in another film, Invitation, released in 1952. Both movies are described on Wikipedia as melodramas.
Weill wrote Speak Low for an otherwise unmemorable (and frankly daft) 1943 Ava Gardner vehicle called One Touch of Venus. But you can’t keep a good song down.
I am particularly fond of the Sarah Vaughan live version. It tingles with romance. I find it easy to imagine this as the last, slow dance of the night at a wartime hop. Nobody knows whether they will be alive this time next week. Lines like ‘Everything ends, too soon’ have an all too obvious meaning.
The song is a long AABA form, 56 bars plus coda. Just once through the form takes nearly 5 minutes. It is a slow ballad, and Sarah starts it as if there was all the time in the world. But in the final A section the rhythm section gently injects a sense of urgency. We’re late, darling, we’re late. As the final notes fade away, the room clears fast. Amorous couples pile into the backs of taxis and drive off into the blackout. Love is a spark, lost in the dark.
The lyrics are by Ogden Nash, in a serious mood for once. (Nash is better known for the humorous verse anthologised in The Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery.)
Needless to say, I am not the first person to sense the tune’s mood of angst-ridden wartime romance. Director Christian Petzold chose Speak Low as the theme tune of his 2014 film Phoenix, set in Berlin just after the war. Whatever reviewers thought of the film, writers like Michael Phillips (in the Chicago Tribune) praised the choice of music. Phillips’s piece includes footage of Weill himself singing
Composer and prolific blogger Danny Ashkenasi would name Speak Low as the best song ever written – if forced to choose at gunpoint. He reviews several versions, commenting that the 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.” Ashkenasi likes singers who end the song on the sixth, the way it was written. I can only agree.