BBC’s resident singer/interviewer Claire Teal welcomes Proms stalwart and all-around “shouty scary” (her description) conductor John Wilson to the studio to talk about his new CD album Cole Porter in Hollywood and his orchestra’s 2014 tour, as well as spin a few swing platters, none of which we hear in entirety. Toward the end of the interview John’s mate and orchestra drummer, Matt Skelton, rips through “Begin the Beguine”.

John and ClaireClaire Teal and Conductor John Wilson, 28 September 2014.

“Begin the Beguine” is a song written by Cole Porter (a song is music with WORDS John, you know?) who composed it at the piano in the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The beguine comes from the Caribbean; it’s a combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance and was popular in Paris at the time Porter was writing.

The song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical standard popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, “Begin the Beguine” employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final C2 section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form. The slight differences in each of the A sections, along with the song’s long phrases and final elongated C2 section at the end, give it unique character and complexity. The fact that the song’s individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter’s talent and ability as a songwriter.

Porter reportedly once said of the song, “I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!” Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 as “a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music”.

Pete Townshend
Begin the Beguine
Cole Porter, words+music
Another Scoop (1987)
Pete Townshend Catalog

When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender
It brings back a night of tropical splendor
It brings back a memory ever green

I’m with you once more under the stars
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine

To live it again is past all endeavor
Except when that tune clutches my heart
And there we are, swearing to love forever
And promising never, never to part

What moments divine, what rapture serene
Til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted
I know but too well what they mean

So don’t let them begin the beguine
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine

Oh yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play
‘Til the stars that were there before return above you
‘Til you whisper to me once more
Darling, I love you

And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in
When they begin the beguine
When they begin the beguine

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