Meno Mosso

Jonathan Bellman

Phil’s meditation on tempo here has much to chew over. To the discussion of “I Kissed A Girl” (a song I find creepy but, then again, I’m old) I would add another example. I don’t know how many of us remember “Jennifer Eccles,” a chirpy pop song (1968) by the English band the Hollies. Schoolyard crush, except they’re clearly of different classes:
I used to carry her satchels
She used to walk by my side
But when we got to her doorstep
Her dad wouldn't let me inside
So: childhood thing about the cute rich girl—fairly close to a universal, I suppose. Never a big hit in the U.S., I think; class issues simply don’t have the cultural resonance here that they do there in the Land of Hope and Glory, with the divide between the vocational schools and the elite public schools, the European heritage of caste and birth and all that. (Yes, I know “Society’s Child” by Janice Ian, but that’s about race, not just class). The 1995 cover of “Jennifer Eccles” by the Eels, however, is at about 1/3 tempo, and its agonizingly off-center, I’m-not-a-singer vocals make it (to me, at least) heartbreaking. The class divide is now high tragedy, because the singer does not sound like a kid, he sounds like an adult shattered by a childhood experience. This is the dead opposite of chirpy, and it gives the song something the Hollies’ version denies it—real pathos. I wish I could attach both versions here; it makes for a striking comparison, and the difference in tempo is the key element.
The question of what exactly constitutes slow practice, as raised by Phil in the same blog, is a complicated one. Certainly, the usual mechanical and unthinking drudgery of getting the fingers in the right places and nothing else—time after time after time—is not real practice at all, because the mind is soon so deadened that the benefit is down to about 5% of what practicing ought to be. I would suggest, though, that finding the way for the slower tempo to be expressive is only part of the task: the pianist should experiment with a wide variety of such, and should make sure to intersperse enough quicker “checks” on the passages to make sure that the fingerings etc. will work at faster tempi. Practicing become a much more multifaceted discipline this way, and especially for people like me much more about the journey than the arrival. In the odd moments I have been snatching to wrap my fingers around Brahms Two I find myself thinking this again and again. Different tempi produce different reactions, understandings, thoughts, whether one is practicing or hearing a familiar pop song done in a very unfamiliar way.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to Meno Mosso

  1. Matthew says:

    Holy cow, I was just listening to “Jennifer Eccles” yesterday. Weird.
    There might be an argument that the Hollies’ quicker tempo is bound up with the greater British sensitivity to class issues, that the semiotically “happier” pace makes for an ironic overlay that Americans wouldn’t necessarily want to pick up on right away. I really get that in probably my favorite Hollies song, the tragic little lower-class character study “Charlie & Fred”; the bright, poppy rhythm is what really turns the knife in that one.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I don’t know “Charley and Fred,” but I guess I’ll have to find out. I take your point–although those of us steeped in irony from birth and long interested in things English would NOT have any trouble with the ironic counterpoint of the British-invasion-in-post-music-hall mode and a real pathetic image. Another example would be, I imagine, the Kinks’s “David Watts,” and one where the humo(u)r wins out is “Sunny Afternoon.” Layers upon layers of irony are available when you have the varieties of vernacular style to draw on that the Brits did.
    All that said, I can’t tell if you’ve heard the Eels’ “Jennifer Eccles” or not. By the break, the Hollies’ version has dispersed whatever energy the ironically chirping melody generated. The Eels still have a trick or two up their collective sleeves. I’ll still vote with that one.

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