The Corner

A Song Sublime

Today, I conclude my series on Mark Helprin’s latest novel, In Sunlight and in Shadow. (For this final installment, go here.) Some readers have said, “You didn’t address the title. It’s a lyric from ‘Danny Boy,’ right?” It’s almost a lyric from “Danny Boy.” The song says, “I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.” Helprin drew his title from other sources.

But since people think his title is from “Danny Boy,” and have been snotty about the song, Helprin has been put into the position of defending the song. Which he is happy to do. Can you imagine that something so great, so sublime, as “Danny Boy” would require a defense? People have said, “That’s that treacly song they sing at Irish funerals, right?” Mark’s answer: “You wouldn’t find it so treacly if you had a son who didn’t come home from the war.” Plus, “it’s a beautiful song, musically and otherwise.”

It’ll outlive its critics, that’s for sure. It already has.

The tune, as you may know, is called “The Londonderry Air.” Which has given rise to many a joke about “her London derriere,” etc.

Anyway, my favorite recording of “Danny Boy,” probably, is not from an Irish tenor at all. It’s from a German soprano, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. She would sing an encore or two in the language of her audience. “Danny Boy” was one of her encores for English-speakers. (Another was “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes.”) It’s common for singers to sing encores in the language of their audience. In “Danny Boy,” Schwarzkopf was pure and heartbreaking. She sang the song with basically the same taste she applied to Mozart, Schubert, et al.

No link to her recording is available. But fret not: For my money, the number-one exponent of “Danny Boy” today is an Italian-American tenor, Matthew Polenzani. (Helluva golfer, incidentally.) Hear him, for example, here.

That song doesn’t have a drop of treacle in it — not a drop. You can perform it in a sappy way; but then that’s your fault, not the song’s. I can think of two leading conductors — Maazel and Gergiev — who told me, in interviews, exactly the same thing about Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and others.

Anyway, enjoy Matt, and have a great weekend.


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