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William Silk

My Funny Valentine

The most famous version of the romantic balled "My Funny Valentine" was perhaps that recorded by Chet Baker. The song originally is a show tune coming from the Rodgers & Hart 1937 musical Babes in Arms. Also, Frank Sinatra also recorded an iconic version as well.

Here in Japan, in the run up to Valentine's Day (February 14th), romantic couples, out on nostalgic or clandestine dates, give me this request more than any other. And then once Valentine's Day has passed, the song is dropped immediately and not revived until late January the next year. It is quite an odd little song. The chords are unusual, the melody quite angular, with some awkward steps overall lending the song its wan melancholy appeal. It is this feeling the Chet Baker really brought out in his iconic recording.

But to me it is the lyrics of the song that are quite puzzling. Despite the love interest of the Valentine figure, we are given an overall image of something quite pathetic, whose "figure is less than Greek". Somehow Ravel's "Pavane pour une infante défunte came to mind and I wanted to blend the harmonies and feeling of the two songs together. Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a Dead Princess) is a well-known piece written for solo piano by the French composer Maurice Ravel in 1899. I recall my school teacher introducing the song to me when I was about 15 and thinking two things: that it was incredibly beautiful and it was somehow jazzy - the impressionistic harmonies, no doubt, resembling the the flatted blues notes of jazz in my mind. And yet it predates Jazz. So I wanted a sound that went back to a pre-Jazz time to conjure up this "favorite work of art". With harmonic coloration of the 1890s present, it is not a big step to listen and feel the art of the period: Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau is an international philosophy and style of art, architecture and applied art—especially the decorative arts—that were most popular during 1890–1905. The name "Art Nouveau" is French for "new art". it is characterised by organic-- especially floral and other plant-inspired-- motifs, as well as very stylised, flowing curvilinear forms. The style was influenced strongly by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, when Mucha produced a lithographed poster, which appeared on 1 January 1895 in the streets of Paris as an advertisement. It popularised the new artistic style and its creator to the citizens of Paris. Initially named Style Mucha, (Mucha Style), his style soon became known as Art Nouveau. And so we have the blending of French impressionist (in turn influenced by the import of East Asian culture into Paris the late 1880s) with Art Nouveau and 1930s Hollywood musical in the William Silk version of My Funny Valentine. Here we take it from the Great American Songbook and give it a more cosmopolitan lingering aroma of European and East Asian influences.

Valentine's Day itself is a festival of all sorts of courting rituals and images, from frolicking arrow shooting cupid infants to dozens of red roses, a romantic dinner for two, secretive unsigned anonymous cards and letters as well as the standard fare in Japan of chocolates given by the maiden to the beau of her choosing. I could have gone with chocolates and roses but I just had to go the Art Nouveau route - I hope you can indulge me this one little Valentine whim.

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