It’s not often that I get to quote William Congreve (1670–1729) once in a week, let alone twice, but I’ve been reflecting on his most famous quote, “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” (Contrary to how it’s often quoted, the final word is indeed “breast”, not “beast”; if anyone reading this has tested the calming effects of music on a cougar, bear, or any other savage beast, please let me know how it worked out for you.)
I listen to a lot of music while I’m working, and am constantly casting about for something a bit different. I recently rediscovered the delights of Classic FM, a radio station that started up in Britain while I lived there in the mid-1990s. It bills itself as playing “The world’s greatest music”, which means it plays “popular” classics: those pieces that many people can hum along with, even if they don’t know what it’s called or who wrote it.
There’s an old joke along the lines of “An intellectual is someone who can hear the William Tell overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger.” Classic FM plays music for people who hear that piece and don’t think “Rossini”, they think “Hi ho Silver, away!” That’s no bad thing, although the station did come in for some stick from snobs who feel that if a piece of classical music has achieved that level of popularity and familiarity it must be terribly common, if not downright vulgar.
The truth is that many people only know anything about classical music because of its use in other settings, whether that be The Lone Ranger, or Bugs Bunny battling with Elmer Fudd in “The Rabbit of Seville”, or the castaways on Gilligan’s Island staging a musical version of Hamlet set to tunes from Bizet’s Carmen (all together now: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be / Do not forget, stay out of debt”), or the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I discovered Vivaldi’s magnificent Gloria (both versions) because of the use of the haunting “Et in terra pax hominibus” from RV 589 in the 1985 film Runaway Train, and Elgar’s similarly beautiful and elegiac “Sospiri for Strings” because it was used in the TV version of Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier in 1981.
The truth is that you never know where or when you’ll stumble across a new piece of music that strikes a chord with you (pun intended). I recently pulled up on YouTube an album of World War II songs, and nestled amid the familiar (“White Cliffs of Dover”, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition”, “Bless ’Em All”) there was a Fats Waller piece I had never heard, and immediately fell in love with: “Cash for Your Trash”.
It was written late in 1941 by Waller and Ed Kirkeby, and is obviously meant to be a public service announcement encouraging Americans to recycle material — and get paid for it! — to help the war effort. However, it is an amazingly jaunty and infectious jazz composition with some virtuoso piano and a wonderful trumpet line, which makes a PSA about recycling far more catchy and memorable than it has any right to be, which was probably the point.
Wonderfully, Waller and Kirkeby also work in a verse showing how romantic recycling can be. Nestled among lines telling people to “Save up all your pots and pans / Save up every little thing you can” and “Save up all your iron and tin/ But when you go to turn it in / Don’t give it away”, there’s a much more enjoyable suggestion. “In between we’ll do some lovin’,” Waller sings, “Wide handsome turtle dovin’ / Will you listen to me honey / Get plenty of the foldin’ money.”
Frankly, this song needs to be adopted and slightly adapted for recycling outfits everywhere, pronto. I guarantee it will be much more effective than 99 per cent of the recycling campaigns currently out there. As for soothing the savage breast: it certainly put a smile on my face. I’ll have to play it for my cats and see what they think.