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Begin the Beguine

Summer 2023

Summer Cruise 2023 The Beguine Where do I begin with the beguine? Let’s start with the origin of this song: Begin the Beguine was composed and written by Cole Porter during an around-the-world luxury cruise that he undertook in 1935 with playwright and librettist Moss Hart. This cruise on the Cunard Ocean liner Franconia was a working/family vacation in that families, friends, and professional assistants accompanied Porter and Hart. A new musical was to be written and composed during the voyage, with songs and scenes inspired by various ports of call.


Reputedly, somewhere along the leg of the journey from Kalabahi, Indonesia to Fiji, Porter penned Begin the Beguine. It must have been smooth sailing for the birth of this song, with its sensuous lyrics and calmly tropical melodic line. This ersatz anthem of exotic imagery formed a buoyant, yet tenderly hauntingly romantic tune. The love-struck could longingly unpack it after the trip had ended and they were forced to return to that inferior place called reality. In October of that year between the guerres, 1935, Begin the Beguine was first introduced, to the paying public, by American actress and singer June Knight, in the Broadway musical entitled Jubilee. This theatrical production took place at The Imperial, one of the many Shubert Brothers theaters in New York City. The Beguine is a dance and music form, akin to a slow, sinuous rhumba. The uniqueness of the melody and tempo met its match in Cole Porter. He was an innovative musical genius, a vastly original talent that forged ahead with rhythmic patterns, witty lyrical schemes, and memorable auditory structures. Born in 1891 to a wealthy family in Indiana, Porter rebelled against the family wishes and studied classical music to enter the somewhat seedy profession of American musical theatre. His fame and artistic fulfillment were realized by the 1930s as he became one of the major songwriters for the Broadway musical stage. Porter not only composed the music; he penned the lyrics. He was a double-threat to the royalty companies.

Initially, Begin the Beguine was an oddball of musical composition, one that attracted little attention or love or comprehension. One noteworthy composer, Alec Wilder, referred to it as a “maverick, an unprecedented experiment . . . one, which . . . after hearing it hundreds of time, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music . . . about the sixtieth measure I find myself muttering another title: End the Beguine.” Begin the Beguine might have lived out its life, somewhere on a lonely, neglected Broadway stage, had it not been for the man born in 1910 as Arthur Jacob Arshawsky: Artie Shaw, for byname-short. Ornery Artie would never be known as a happy camper, a happy clarinetist, a happy musician, a happy man. He was a musically gifted curmudgeon, and had probably been one since his childhood. His forte seemed to have been in cutting against the grain, of just about everything: women, music, orchestration, composing, performing, committing to composing, committing to performing, commitment to retiring from his métier, commitment to comebacks, commitment to women, commitment to non-commitment.

Shaw was a brilliant clarinetist and scintillating innovator of various new “sounds” within the Big Band genre. He conceived, developed, and arranged unique instrumentations that had theretofore been unheard of — the incorporation of a string quartet with a rhythm section (drums, cymbals, bass); or strings and woodwinds with a jazz band (engendering his hit, Frenesi). For years, swing-and-strings, or any other unique sound that he devised, was enjoyed and admired, but it wasn’t always popular and, worse — it wasn’t commercial. Shaw set his iconoclastic store on experimental, inventive, cutting-edge, improvisational music, not dance tunes or love-songs or even love. He hated many things and many people, including himself. Artie was always in his own orbit, an egocentric orbit that didn’t let anyone else near it, much less into it. This distrustful rarefied world, of his own harshly exacting making, was, at the same time, in a sorrowful and unending concert, emotionally empty yet filled with cruel emotional carnage — of which he never rid himself. Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, but the icy heart within that breast, or beast, would not be soothed by any music, least of all his own. No one else could blissfully, or sanely, live with him in that world. A woman ought not to have tried. Artie probably had a rough enough time living with himself.

It was his way, or no way, which was a tragic way to live because his heart was unable to give or receive love. How that cold, cold heart prevailed over the impassioned artistic impulses in this musician remained an unsolved mystery, most of all to Shaw. Against rather fierce odds, he succeeded in a ruthless profession through a ruthless force of will, a will that would not submit to the soothing touch of another human being. Maybe the emotion all came out through his clarinet. I doubt even Mr. Shaw knew the full truth of that one. He initially thrived through the flight of change, frequent change, unexpected change. For a long time, the uncertainties of wherever he was going floated his band-boat. During the year of 1938, his small band-boat sailed straight toward that Cunard ocean liner, the Franconia, birthplace of this long and unusual tune. Artie’s jazz-and-dance boat swiftly sailed into the unknown, a strange, unnoted, uncharted land of unexplored and uncharted mystery that composes life at its most vital, its most romantic, and most unforgettable. That region of mystery and kismet is completely uncontrollable, in accord with the Master Creator. It’s my hunch that Mr. Shaw chafed every inch into submitting to that profound wellspring of inspiration and imagination. Fame only made him more heartlessly controlling of the world around him. His well consequently ran dry, no matter how many love goddesses he married and attempted to master. He thrillingly mastered equilibrium in music but wasn’t much of an equilibrist in life.

In 1938, however, those mystifying and unfathomable waters of this vocal ditty by Cole Porter would yield an utterly new arrangement of Begin the Beguine. All Artie had to do was to toss out the lyrics of this anthem longing for the return of a lost love, and he’d be home-free. For certain instrumentalists, rejecting the lyrics of a song is instinctive. For this clarinetist, it was compulsive. He was about to hit a home run, a blockbuster score he’d come to detest. Artie had, once again, re-formed, or re-re-formed his band. This time, the formulation produced a more conventional sound, blended with swing. The style was tailor-made for all of the smoldering romance and mystery that had remained hidden within this song since its inception in 1935. Such a swaying, steadily-calibrated anthem of yearning could, and did, all too quickly turn into a monotonous ode of monotonous length, searching somehow for an end, a merciful finale. The 1938 recording of Begin the Beguine by Shaw, on his clarinet, fronting his swing-band orchestra, was an arrangement, with orchestration, by Jerry Gray (with some input from Shaw). This American violinist, composer, and big-band orchestra leader created arrangements for Glenn Miller as well as for Artie Shaw.

Until that momentous year of 1938, a musical identity, or signature sound, had eluded Shaw and his band(s). His recording contract at Brunswick Records was not renewed at the end of 1937. Mr. Shaw had hit an acoustic wall. With the insistent persistence of the irascible Shaw, Bluebird Records, a subsidiary label of RCA Victor, took the chance that the parent company wouldn’t: they issued a hard copy of this long, drawn-out, humdrum tune, one that no one could remember from beginning to end anyway — on the “B” side of the record. This newly arranged and recorded version was a huge smash hit, in America, and around the world. In no time at all (maybe less time than it took for the original song to find a fitting ending), Begin the Beguine peaked at No. 3 on the record charts. It soared as the best-selling record in 1938. This recording released by Bluebird Records would become one of the most famous and popular of the entire Swing Era, launching Artie Shaw to fame and financial wealth. This song never looked back, once it had sailed away from the exotically tame waters of the Cole Porter tune and entered the wild captivating harbor of Artie Shaw and his band. The full tone and intriguing shadings of the notes emanating from the clarinet of Shaw put a stamp on the song that’s never left it. The clarinet makes its entrance, riding the rhythm section in a signature move.

That’s how a classic is created — and does not die. Through some mystical force all its own, it cannot die. Beauty, youth, loveliness and love: they last forever, as does the true art that inspires them and are inspired by them. That circle, of life, and of art, abides and triumphs, unbroken, prevailing over all that sought to destroy it. Despite, and because of, the ensuing wishes of Mr. Shaw to kill his phenomenal hit, “The Beguine”, any way he could, this melodic number defiantly survived, and thrived, and soared, and still soars, in perpetuity. The Beguine became much much bigger than the control-freak clarinetist that played it, and he wasn’t having any of it. It’s one thing to begin the beguine, but quite another to stop it. Shaw’s Begin the Beguine possesses a spectacular synthesis of sound that revolutionized the rhumba into a romantic rendering of heart and soul — in dance halls, in supper clubs, on records, on the radio, and, right on cue, on the Hollywood stage:

In the 1940 Hollywood film, Broadway Melody of 1940, Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire performed a flamenco dance to this melody; then they tap-danced to it in a more jazzy style with Big-Band accompaniment. They hit just about every note and every beat that the Beguine could offer!

With this breakout performance, and breakthrough to stardom, Artie Shaw found his signature song, and his band — of that moment — arrived at their signature sound (one that Shaw would deride). All of the other major Big Bands subsequently recorded their versions of this beguiling, velvety-smooth composition — with the arrangement that was invented for Artie Shaw. As a vocal song, Begin the Beguine achieved pop standard status, to the point of becoming as monotonously manufactured as the renditions pre-dating the Artie Shaw masterpiece. The Shaw/Gray arrangement remains the gold standard against which any new interpretation must be measured. It’s worth its weight in gold.



Begin the Beguine by Cole Porter When they begin the beguine

It brings back the sound

of music so tender,

It brings back a night

of tropical splendour


It brings back a memory

evergreen.

I’m with you once more

under the stars


Down by the shore

an orchestra’s playing


Even the palms

seem to be

swaying


When they begin

the beguine.


To live it again

is past all endeavour

except when the tune

clutches my heart

and there we are

swearing to love

forever

and promising

never

never

to part.


What moments divine

what rapture serene,

Till clouds come along

to disperse the joys

we had tasted.

Now when I hear

people curse the chance

that was wasted,

I know but too well what

they mean.


So don’t let them

begin the beguine

Let the love that was once

a fire

remain an ember


Let it sleep like the dead desire

I only remember

when they begin the beguine.


Let them begin the beguine,

make them play


Till the stars that were there

before

return above you


Till you whisper to me once more,


“Darling, I love you!”


And we suddenly know

what heaven we’re in . . .


When they begin

When they begin


When they begin

the beguine.

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