Sunday, January 06, 2008

Moonstruck: A Tale of Two Lunar Tunes

“It’s la luna!”

That’s what Vincent Gardenia’s character cries out in the 1987 film “Moonstruck”, while taking his dogs for a walk on a moonlight-illuminating evening. Soon thereafter, Cher falls in love with Nicolas Cage in the movie.

Song composers have also never underestimated the power of the moon to seduce and bring lovers together. Witness the numerous “moon June” ditties that graced the music charts in the 20th century: Blue Moon, Moon River, and Mr. Moonlight come to mind, to name a few. And lately, I’ve been seduced by two vintage moon songs myself: Moonglow and Moonlight Serenade. Both were released during the same era and have haunting, heart breaking romantic melodies that feature prominent clarinets and have stood the test of time. But which is the better song?

Moonglow was written in 1934 by Will Hudson, Irving Mills and Eddie De Lange and originally recorded by the Dorsey Brothers (before their squabbling caused them to go their separate ways) but the most well-known rendition is by Benny Goodman, who recorded the song with his quartet in 1936. This version was most recently heard in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Aviator when DiCaprio, playing Howard Hughes, takes Cate Blanchett, as Katharine Hepburn, for a soaring evening airplane ride. But according to the website SpaceAge Pop, the song enjoyed a period of immense popularity in the mid-50s when it was featured in a William Holden movie called Picnic. It actually dissolves into the theme from Picnic, which resulted in those two songs being recorded together after the movie was released. It also features a dreamy sounding instrument that isn’t commonly heard anymore: the vibraphone.

Moonlight Serenade was composed by Glenn Miller in 1939 with lyrics by Mitchell Parish as an accompaniment to Sunrise Serenade. Miller originally wanted to call it “Now I Lay Me Down to Weep” (having a bad day, Glenny?) and indeed, the song is more somber in tone than romantic. It eventually became the trademark opener for the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Where Moonglow is punctuated by a single clarinet melody throughout the song, Moonlight Serenade is a perfect example of the classic “Miller sound” of layering saxophones over a clarinet section. And the lyrics, which are not commonly known since they are often not recorded with the song (two exceptions are Frank Sinatra’s and Carly Simon’s versions) are as every bit as lovely as the instrumentals:

I stand at your gate
And the song that I sing is of moonlight
I stand, and I wait
For the touch of your hand in the June night
The roses are sighing a moonlight serenade.

Moonlight Serenade’s presence in pop culture seems to have endured more than Moonglow. The song has cropped up in numerous television appearances including All in the Family, The Simpsons, Growing Pains, and even Doctor Who, and films such as Big, Jack the Bear, The Notebook, and The Aviator.

So which is better? The answer is neither. Or better still, both. They just don't write those moon Junes like they used to.

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