Among jazz musicians, there are certain tunes referred to as "jazz standards" which all jazz musicians are expected to know by memory. These tunes have been in the jazz repertoire for many years and as a result, have been performed in a wide variety of arrangements. Of the most prominent teams of writers for these types of "jazz standards" was Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (Rodgers and Hart). In the following, I will discuss the famous Rodgers and Hart jazz standard written in 1937 known as My Funny Valentine. Like most standards, this tune is extremely popular among jazz artists and is commonly called as a tune to play on the bandstand. In analyzing the beauty of this tune, I will begin by interpreting its lyrical content. Once the words and story of the song are understood, I will analyze the melody and the melodic contour. In understanding the melody, we will then be able to understand how it effectively compliments the lyrical story.
In the version of My Funny Valentine that appears in Babes in Arms, the tune begins with a short orchestral introduction followed by a speech-like vocal line before the first A section of the melody begins. The words in the introduction are quite different than those found in the melody in that Rodgers and Hart use an old fashioned type of English. By this I mean they use phrases such as "Though knowest not", and "thy good intent". By using this type of language, and by listening to the way in which the performer inflects certain words, I am given the feeling that she is speaking in a playful, almost sarcastic or funny manner. Beginning the tune in this way makes perfect sense since the title is My Funny Valentine. As for the lyrical content of the opening words, Rodgers and Hart introduce a man who is perhaps not the best looking or the most intelligent. They use the line "Thy vacant brow and tousled hair conceal thy good intent. Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere, and slightly dopey gent…" From these words we see a man who is misunderstood by most, but loved by the singer of the song. The singer does not care about these negative aspects of the man and loves him anyway.
Once the A section of the tune begins, Rodgers and Hart stop using the old fashioned English and begin speaking in a more serious tone. The singer professes her admiration for the funny Valentine claiming that he makes her "smile with [her] heart". She again mentions his negative qualities, "Your looks are laughable, unphotographable…" but we see that these things do not matter since he is still her "…favorite work of art." This brings us to the bridge, or the B section, which comes as a series of questions about the funny Valentine's misgivings. When the final A section returns, the singer ends by claiming that she likes the Valentine just the way he is and that he should stay with her. "But don't change a hair for me. Not if you care for me. Stay little Valentine, stay. Each day is Valentine's Day." Now that the overall message of the lyrics is understood, it is now important to analyze the shape of the melody and how it compliments the lyrics.
The melody of the A section is built from a basic rhythmic motive which is a half note, two quarter notes, a dotted half note, an eighth note, and a half note. This rhythm remains fairly constant throughout the entire song. Further, we notice that A section is split into two parts. The first four bars are essentially the same as the second four except that the melody is transposed up by a minor third (from C to Eb). It is interesting to note that the top note in each four bar phrase always corresponds with an uplifting lyric. For example, the highest note reached in the first four bars is a Bb which occurs on the word "smile (with my heart)". In the second four bars of the first A section, the highest note is D which occurs on the word "favorite (work of art)". Here we see how the contour of the melody helps to accentuate what is being expressed through the lyrics. After the high D in the second half of the A section, we use a chromatic, non-diatonic melody note (A natural) to push us into the bridge.
The bridge is interesting in that its starting note is up another minor third (Bb) from the beginning of the second half of the A section. This sets in motion a sequence where the melody continually dips down to hit Eb, D, Eb while the notes in between each dip rise from Bb to C, to D, and finally back to C. By sequencing in this pattern, the melody is given some forward movement to push us to the final note of the bridge which is a long, sustained C. This repeating sequence works well with the lyrics in this instance since each sequential pattern corresponds with a question (Is your figure less that Greek? Is your mouth a little weak? When you open it to speak…") The questions are continually asked until they reach the final question "[a]re you smart?" which is sustained and eventually brings us back to the final A section.
The last A section begins in the same way as the first A section. The A section is different, however, in that instead of just being a simple repeat, it contains the most climactic point of the entire tune. It is in the last A section where we reach the highest point of the melody (Eb). This corresponds with the intense emotion being expressed by the lyrics. In the lyrics, the singer is begging the Valentine to stay since she feels so strongly for him. The final A section begins with "But don't change a hair for me. Not if you care for me. Stay, little Valentine, stay." After this high Eb is held out for two bars on the word "stay", the melody drops to the Eb an octave below and the lyrics state, "Each day is Valentine's Day." The word "Day" resolves into the relative major (Eb) which is different from the way the song began (in C minor). This causes the melody to correspond with the uplifting final lyric stating that each day is wonderful with this funny Valentine.
To conclude, we can see that by analyzing both the melody and the lyrics there exists a very strong relationship between the two allowing for a clearer expression of the song's overall meaning. I am not sure what the writing process was for this song, but I found it interesting to see how the lyrics line up so well with the contour of the melody. By this I mean that each point in the storyline seems to correspond perfectly in time with the climactic points of the melody. I'd be interested to know whether the lyrics were written before the melody or visa versa.
About the Author: Michael Kinney
I have played piano since I was 5 years old. I started in classical and then quickly moved to blues and jazz. I studied at the collegiate level and have played professionally since I was 16. My favorite piano players (if I had to pick 3) include Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock). I own several keyboards but always prefer to play on a Steinway if one is available! I live to perform as much as I like to teach.