I have always had a fondness for the personal literary analysis. The kind you see in novels. Someone is talking about a work of literature, but they’re really talking about themselves. In my opinion, all literary analysis is personal. Nobody picks a subject of study unless they’re not just interested but invested in it. Yes, that’s a bold statement. And no I’m not going to spend like 10,000 words defending it. I buzzed off from academia for a reason, thank you very much. The bloom fell off the rose.
But there’s this cool effect where, if you announce that what you’re about to discuss is deeply personal, and then proceed with the analysis, you entice the reader into a search for undertones and implied meanings. I’ll give you an example. J. M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello contains an episode in which the title character is listening to a lecture on the African Novel given by a man she has had a romance with. Her personal relationship with the lecturer colors her perspective on the lecture.
The piece I want to talk about is “The Rose.” Yeah. That old Bette Midler standard by Amanda McBroom. Maybe an odd choice if you’ve read my work hereabouts. I’m more likely to talk about a Schubert sonata than a pop song. But likelihoods aren’t always predictive. So that’s where we get into the meat, isn’t it?
Roger and “The Rose”
I have a vivid memory of my high school chorus/music theory teacher, Roger, saying that “The Rose” was his favorite song. He said it easily, like a thing long since decided. The song’s combination of music and lyrics; its slow procession to that heartbreaking last line. Then, as now, I was skeptical. With typical adolescent bluster I told him that my favorite piece was Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. Sounds really snooty, right? Opinions are based in heart not mind. And it’s a piece I’d listened to many times with my grandfather.
I’ve been thinking about Roger a lot, since he died about a month ago. And I’ve been thinking about his music, too. As the memories fade and jumble together, it’s all I’m certain I have left of him.
“Finishing the Hat”
One memory stands out, though. I took a class in musical theater my senior year of high school for combined English, Social Studies, and Arts credit. Roger was one of the teachers, and a big part of his role was showing the anatomy of a song. One day he came in and announced he was getting divorced. Some teachers keep their personal lives separate from their teaching lives, but he was never one of those, and we loved him for that.
He then proceeded with that day’s lesson, on Stephen Sondheim’s “Finishing the Hat.” A song about how artists have trouble keeping their romantic relationships.
There’s a Part of you Always Standing By
He sat down at the piano and sang this song, accompanying himself. It was the rawest performance I’ve ever witnessed. He might as well have been both crying and bleeding. It was the first time I ever heard that song and to this day listening to Mandy Patinkin is like a reminder of that lesson. Not the other way around as would be expected. I think about that lesson in connection with another incident. I got into a bike accident on a Wednesday evening and still attended choir practice, fresh blood oozing from both knees and one elbow. I was in pain. But I really wanted to attend that chorus rehearsal. It occurs to me that Roger was the person I learned this behavior from. The oldest and simplest way to wear your heart on your sleeve is to bleed on that sleeve.
This is the Privilege of Attending a Well-Funded High School
Kids take things for granted. It’s easy to take for granted that your music teacher is a genius. That he’s played concerts before paying audiences. That what you receive as your due, in exchange for your parents’ tax dollars, is something other people have to wait in line and buy tickets for.
It’s also easy to wake up in the morning and go to school and assume that by the end of the day you won’t, even once, have shed tears because a lesson was so moving. You have to take things for granted because the human mind simply isn’t capable of accounting for every eventuality.
But there I was. The child of divorced parents. An ardent lover of music. Someone who in those days spent more time practicing piano and composition than I spent doing any other single thing. Someone who guarded within his heart the naive desire to become a composer/performer/teacher like Roger when I grew up. Never mind that I would ‘grow up’ just a few short years later and I wasn’t anywhere near that goal. I cared about Roger. And he cared about that song. He was pouring out his life’s breath and blood in singing it. That day’s lesson touched my heart so that I cried. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.
People who care about each other keep tabs on each other’s lives. We students knew he was having issues at home. The announcement that he was getting divorced wasn’t shared as a disclaimer at the start of the lesson. It was simply the news of the day between affectionate colleagues. Roger had a unique ability to bring his students into his confidence, as if we were already his equals; his collaborators. And being free with his personal life was perhaps one of the ways he did so.
The Personal Sets the Tone for the Literary
As he played, and then as he taught, the announcement hung over the class like a haze. It colored the subsequent conversation on melody, harmony, and poetry. Despite the boldness of the announcement and the pathos of the subsequent performance, the lesson was fairly subdued. But beneath it ran the buzz of something else.
Here’s a trick memory plays. I was free with my tongue at that age. I think I remember raising my hand in class and asking: ”Roger are you really teaching us about a song where a guy laments that his marriage has broken up because he’s too devoted to his art, and you’re an artist who just announced that your marriage is breaking up?” And I think I remember him laughing awkwardly but good naturedly and saying: “Yeah, is that too much?” I should have written this all down at the time. Then I would know for certain if I was just interpolating. I may have said this later in the day. Maybe someone else who remembers that day will read this and reach out.
Okay. Let’s talk about “The Rose.”
Let’s start with the structure of the song. There are three verses with no bridge, no chorus, and no musical interlude.
The Rose: The First Verse
The first verse announces a proposition of sorts. It’s even structured as a logical argument: “Love is not this, not that, and not the other thing. It’s a flower. And you are the seed.” The audience is naturally beckoned to wonder: why? Why is it not this, that, or the other thing? Why is it a flower? In what way is it a flower? In what way are “you” the seed? Who is “you”? The audience? Or another character in the song?
In old-timey poetry (Paradise Lost, for instance) this sort of announcement of the purpose of a poem or song is called “the argument.”
It bears mentioning that the voice and the accompaniment are sparse here at the beginning. Almost to a fault. The piano starts first, playing an open fifth, which is not a complete chord. For any readers who might be less musically literate, what’s an open fifth?
The simplest chords consist of 3 notes, bottom (the “first”) middle (the “third”) and top (the “fifth”). The bottom and top notes tell you if it’s a D chord or a G chord or whatever. The middle note tells you what the character of the note is—major or minor. So an open fifth is the bottom and top notes without the middle. Remember: the top and bottom notes give the chord structure. The middle note gives the chord warmth. So a bunch of open fifths in a row will sound cold and impersonal. And a bit bell-like. That’s a sufficiently simplified explanation that any musician reading it is howling with displeasure.
You can find another explanation here if mine was confusing. Or you can just carry on. I promise not to lean too hard on the music-theory-stuff for my discussion.
Instrumentation and Melody
So when the piano comes in without the middle tone, it sounds cold and quiet. Like winter. That’s not by mistake. It reminds me of a less lush (but no less sophisticated) version of the opening bars of the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius.
Then the singer joins and moves quickly to the middle tone. Now the chord has warmth. But that warmth is coming from the voice alone. The implication is that the background–the world–is cold and the voice is struggling against it. But still the voice is alone and the two notes on the piano are alone. In parallel to the lyrics, the harmony and instrumentation are telling us that loneliness is an important theme in this song.
I don’t think it’s an accident, either, that those pulsing chords run at the same tempo (speed) as a typical heartbeat.
The contour of the melodic line emphasizes the lyrics. That, too, tells you something. What is the climax, the high point: “Some say love, it is a hunger.” There, too, is the theme of loneliness. Love without companionship is just need. This song doesn’t really have a plot. But its themes suggest that we are listening to a story-of-sorts about a person who can’t find love and is growing cold. And yet as the lone voice sings, they are joined by other lone instruments–a woodwind at first, then a violin, suggesting chance encounters or friends with shared sorrows.
Then the response provides closure to these ideas without really providing rest or resolution. That’s fine. We’re still in the first verse. The last lyric announces: “I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed.” This line may seem settled and happy and peaceful after the imagery of the previous lines. We’ve gone from the violence of rivers and razors and hunger to the seeming peace of flowers, right? But no. Because the music is still making us feel uneasy. So we’re more likely to concentrate on the fact that flowers disappear for months at a time. Then arrive in all their beauty. They then (depending on the flower) die a few days later. Then the whole waiting-game begins again.
Yes, flowers are beautiful. But they’re also frustrating. And delicate. And easy to hurt or even destroy. Yes roses have thorns, but oddly, this song doesn’t mention them. So I won’t either.
Concluding Thoughts on the First Verse
Is any of this in the text? It depends. All of it is in the text. Right there in that word: “flower.” And yet none of it is in the text. Another conversation I had with Roger was about how a poem is, in some ways, like a game of chess. Everything is there for you to read. But not everyone can read it. And sometimes you will find yourself reading things into the poem (or the position) that aren’t really there.
We might as well talk about the singing. Bette holds her notes, most of the time, until she is ready to sing the next one. The piano leaves a lot of empty space. For contemplation, as it were. But the voice provides continuity between those spaces. And when the woodwind, followed by the violin, comes in towards the end of the first verse, that adds a new element. It’s a foreshadowing that the whole piece will not have the same sparseness.
The whole character of the first verse is one of leaning towards something. The lyrics pose more questions they answer. The open spaces in the piano-part give the audience a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop. And that violin tells you: this is not just a duet between voice and instrument. Prepare for something more.
Let’s move on to the second verse, shall we?
The Rose: The Second Verse
Sure enough. The second verse features a more complicated piano accompaniment and now there are two voices instead of one. As the second verse ends, that same violin comes in to say: get ready for this next bit. But that happens at the end of the verse. We’re not there yet.
The piano accompaniment has moved from the root to the third. Sort of. It’s complicated. Listen to those heartbeats. You still hear the upper note of the chord on the beat. That provides a measure of stability to the chord. But you’d get more stability to the chord if you also heard the bottom note on the beat.
How Musical Decisions Translate to Meaning
But sometimes the composer doesn’t want stability. So you do get the bottom note. You just don’t get it on the beat. After the frozen feel of the first verse, the accompaniment to the second verse feels a bit like snow melting into streams as winter warms into spring. I’m not saying this is the intention behind the sound. I’m not saying it’s a one-to-one translation of music to meaning. And I’ll admit to the possibility that I’m reading the meaning of the words back onto the music. I’m just recording my impressions. And if my impression of the music dovetails with my impression of the lyrics, that’s called ‘text-painting.’ Which is a subject much too complicated to talk about here in any detail.
Remember that towards the end of the first verse, we got that one violin. Well. Towards the end of the second verse we get strings and a horn. It’s like the initial 2 notes on the piano were the drip-drip of icicles. And as the melt proceeds, we get more and more instruments to signify that the pool of water is turning into a stream. Then a flood. The snowmelt of early spring is going faster now.
Anyway, this second verse answers no more questions than its predecessor. The lyrics are very conceptual:
It’s the heart afraid of breaking
That never takes the chance
That sort of thing. What the heart, the dream, etc., have in common is that they have to try, even if they are afraid. We are not sure what they have to try to do, but, given that the song is explicitly about love and about waiting for the rose to bloom from the seed, we can guess. Taking a chance means investing the amount of time required for a seed to blossom into a rose.
What are some things related to love that take time? Healing from a broken heart or from a case of abuse, for a certainty. Trusting someone you just met but have a good feeling about. All the romantic comedy plot-points. But also the ones that get left out of the typical movie. Learning to make eggs just the way they like. Developing relationships with all their friends and kin. Hurting them and then earning their trust again. In short, maintaining a friendship across years or decades. Across counties or countries or continents. Saying goodbye when you lose someone to death or distance or irreconcilable differences.
Everything about love takes time, as it turns out.
And everything that takes time takes courage. Everything requires you to “take a chance” and play the odds. Because time is limited. You have to choose how you spend it. A minute or a decade spent pursuing a relationship with one person means the same time not spent on another. And either could end in heartbreak or worse. Sometimes you don’t get a choice. Sometimes you commit yourself to a friend and then you lose that friend and that’s a gamble you’ve made that you’re never going to recoup the losses of.
A wise reader might ask: Is the message of “The Rose” that simple? Being with someone is gain and losing them to death or dispute is loss? Don’t you still gain something? Of course. It’s never that simple. Of course you gain something. But sometimes, particularly when the wound is fresh, it feels like it’s just loss with no gain.
This second verse still seems profoundly unsettled. Everything in it is a warning; the presentation of a choice between two undesirable options. Either you stay alone or you open yourself up to incalculable risk.
Two Voices in Harmony
Did you notice there’s a second voice now? I hear the second voice as representing what you have to gain, weighed against all that risk. Human voices singing in harmony make the most beautiful sound in the world. More beautiful than a choir of horns or violins or cellos. More beautiful by far than piano-and-voice. All of those different combinations are attempts to reproduce by art and artifice what quite literally comes as naturally to two singers as breathing.
Just so, there are mechanical substitutes for love—including for the love between family or friends. Music, television, pornography, and, I daresay even arts like writing. But none of them is a real substitute. None of them comes particularly close to the real thing. Else, why would we take the risks we take. Why would we open ourselves to heartbreak?
Instrumentation: The Second Verse Leading into the Third
As if in response, the instruments start to come in as the verse builds to a climax. We hear strings, a horn… Winter is starting to thaw. The plink-plink of falling icicles is starting to coalesce into a torrent.
Right on cue, that high note in the violin reminds us that we are about to receive another change in instrumental and vocal texture. And boy is this third verse a doozie.
The Rose: The Third Verse
The pair of voices with piano, horn, and violin accompaniment have turned into an orgy of harmonies. The instrumentation has become full-on orchestration, sounding lush and rich and warm. Not unlike the smell people associate with the rose. The voices have become more melismatic (i.e. they’re singing more notes per syllable) which makes them sound more emotional, more vulnerable, and above all warmer. The piece suddenly feels like it’s being performed by a gospel choir, accompanied by a chamber orchestra. “We’ve arrived home,” screams the music. We’re here! We made it! It’s springtime! We’re in love! Go us!
So you’d expect the lyrics to be equally triumphant, right? To paint an equally *ahem* rosy picture.
And yet. Let’s take a look at those lyrics:
When the night has been too lonely
And the rose has been too long
When you think that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snows
(wait—what happened to the orchestration? Did the whole thing suddenly get very quiet and, um, icy again?)
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love
In the springtime becomes the rose
Ah. See what’s happened? We’re not there yet. This last lyric doesn’t announce the triumphant bloom of love after the bitterness of heartbreak or death or loneliness. No. That would be too simple, wouldn’t it? Give “The Rose” a bit more credit.
A Note of Optimism
Yet there is something optimistic about this verse. Perhaps we’re not there yet. Perhaps it’s still winter. But the song reminds us to stay open to possibilities. Even though it’s hard. Even though it hurts. The optimism of this verse is bolstered by vocals and instrumentation that are as lush as any summer. No, as lush as any rainforest, where different seasons mean a change from mangoes to papayas, not from flowers to snow and back. But the whole thing is still just a promise. As the cold plink-plink of the last few chords imply, we’re still waiting for love and we’re still waiting for summer.
It’s a bit appropriate, then, that the voicing and orchestration of the third verse come from gospel. If God is love, then gospel singers have been waiting for love’s return for just under two thousand years. That’s ten generations of people who lived and died thinking: “Soon. He’ll be here soon. Just hold out another day, another year, another decade.” Not loving those odds. And not the most optimistic, um, note, on which to end a love song. But I don’t think that’s the meaning of these sounds. I think the idea is that being open to love is its own reward. And that is certainly a lesson you can learn from the best gospel music.
The Simple Piano Accompaniment from the Second Verse is Back… But Different
Now take a closer listen to those last few chords from the piano. You might have to replay the second verse and go back and forth until you hear it. It’s that bass. Remember we said that the piano-accompaniment to the second verse wasn’t playing the bottom-note of the chord on the beat? Well now it is. And like we said before, that bottom note gives the chord a sense of structure and stability it didn’t have before. We’re still waiting for spring. But we’re a bit more certain. Maye we’ve seen those first few snowdrops poke up. No crocuses yet; no forsythias. But we see enough (and we know enough) to hope.
So is this song optimistic or pessimistic?
Wait… What is “The Rose” Actually About?
Well let’s go back to the argument: “I say love, it is a flower, and you its only seed.” Whether it’s optimistic or not depends on how you interpret that word “you.” Are “you” the seed of “my” love? In other words is it a love-song meant to proclaim: “Hell yeah! I found you! The rose blooms! Spring has come at last!” Or are “you” just the object of well-meaning advice? In other words, is this song meant to function like a long, beautiful proverb: “Love won’t come until you are ready. And yes it hurts to make yourself ready. But the alternative is worse.” The sort of advice we give to other people but we’re really giving to ourselves.
I tend to think it’s the latter. “The Rose” is still optimistic. But in a different way. If the singer of the song were in love at the end of the song we’d hear more violins and so on. The party would continue. The sense of joy would overspill the banks. Instead, the instruments and voices dwindle back down to nothing. Well. Not nothing. Back down to a hope. A firmer hope than we started with. But still just a hope.
But remember. The song didn’t promise love. It promised an answer to the question that has fueled a thousand songs: “What is this thing called love?” Of course it answers that question by raising a thousand more: Wait so the “you” are the seed of love. But “you” need the Sun’s love to grow into a rose. But a rose is still just a solitary, thorny beauty. Is that really love? Maybe love is self-sufficiency? Or maybe self-sufficiency is the precondition of love? And so on, and so on. The meaning of the song is the song. At some level, it’s turtles all the way down.
The Last Line
And yet that’s the last line of “The Rose.” That’s the line Roger said tied the whole song together and made it it his favorite. I think you could analyze it for a month, and what it comes down to is: feeling. The whole song feels like waiting and worrying. And that’s what loneliness feels like. Then the last line of the song reminds you that love is as inevitable as sunshine. That’s as true in Stockholm as it is in Bangalore. At least I hope it is. And if you don’t open yourself up you’ll never find out.
I said before that literary analysis is always personal. You never like a song because it’s “the best.” But rather because it speaks to you. That divorce that Roger announced in class on that autumn day in 2003 was not his first. I don’t think it was even his second. Roger took a lot of knocks in life. But as long as I knew him (and longer by all accounts), he was able to give and receive love. He knew the risks. And he let himself be vulnerable anyway. That’s a kind of strength I aspire to. I like to imagine him taking strength from “The Rose” the way we all listen to our favorites when life sucks.
I’ve learned these past two years that the way I grieve is to take up activities I used to do with the person who died. I learned this from Michel de Montaigne, who wrote his book of Essais as one-sided conversations, because the friend he most preferred to converse with had died. For a few years, I co-wrote and co-produced a yearly Purim-Play with Amy Feldman. Until she died of COVID in the winter of 2021. So that year I teamed up with another of our former colleagues and decided I was going to write a new Purim-Play, dedicated to her memory.
It made me feel a bit better. But it also made me yearn to share it with her. So much so that it hurt. I loved sharing that sweet and frustrating process of creation with her. I loved it so much that I’m not really sure how I made it to the other side with my wits intact. It’s possible I did not.
Anyway, the foregoing pages of analysis represent something I used to do with Roger. Less so of late. We had talked a bit over the years. When he died, I didn’t know he’d been sick. I don’t blame myself for that (yes I do). He couldn’t keep in close contact with all of his students (but somehow I thought I was different. He told me I was less of a student and more of a colleague. So why…) and yet. I haven’t had a conversation like this with Roger in some time. But I used to.
When we were in high school, he would hold chorus rehearsals at 7:30PM. Sometimes I would go home and return. Sometimes not. I had other things to do, right? School newspaper, chamber music, etc. So I would be doing those activities until about five pm. Then I’d have 2-1/2 hours in which to complete my homework and have a bite of dinner before chorus started. Except that sometimes I’d just end up finding another person who was waiting for Chorus to begin and we’d hang out to while away the time.
One of the people I found, often as not, was Roger. Occasionally we’d talk about life. Occasionally we’d argue about musical interpretations. “The Rose” would have come up in one such talk. Probably more than one. Certainly not to this level of detail or anywhere close. The performance I’ve engaged in these last few pages is not a facsimile of the kinds of debates we’d have. But it’s kin to them. And now that it’s done, there’s only one person I want to show it to, to share it with. And I can’t.