From Disney to Dvorak, the heavens have served as subjects for musical compositions. It’s hard to think of something more eternal, less changeable, than the stars above. We have songs where singers wish on them, songs comparing their romance to the timelessness spheres, and those that mourn the disjunction between the stars’ constancy and love’s caprice. It’s when lovers see the moon traveling the sky, rather than the sun, that their romantic fantasies take flight. To borrow one song’s title, what a little moonlight can do.
One term for these comparisons is “tropes” – figures of speech so familiar that we don’t give them a second thought. Such a word assumes that language comes before thought, before nature. But long before homo sapiens ever had a word for eternity, they knew the heavens were eternal. I suspect that ancient civilizations that have left no trace of themselves sang of the stars, although romantic love was probably not their objective.
These days my musical taste runs toward jazz. What a fertile genre for songs about stars! A quick compilation from memory yields these fantastic standards.
“East of the Sun (West of the Moon)”
“How Deep is the Ocean”
“How High the Moon”
“I Wished on the Moon”
“Lover Come Back to Me”
” Moon River
“Old Devil Moon”
“Stars Fell on
“Teach Me Tonight”
Some of these are well known, even to those who favor other musical styles. One song covered by many singers but less generally known is “Lover Come Back To Me.” I like the way this song uses the moon’s phase both to measure the infatuation’s duration (28 days, presumably) and to comment on how changeable affection is when compared to the luminary. “The sky was blue, and high above/ The moon was new and so was love,” it begins. The next stanza and the musical bridge trace the romance's rise and fall. The final stanza echoes the beginning but with a twist: “The sky was blue, the night was cold/ The moon was new but love was old.”
Then there’s “Stardust.” The only time stars are mentioned in Hoagy Carmichael’s classic is toward the end, when the lover remembers the past romance: “Beside a garden wall/ when the stars were bright/ you were in my arms.” But the first lines of the song set up this moment: “Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely night / dreaming of a song/ The melody haunts my reverie / And I am once again with you.” We know the lover is up late, remembering a special moment through a song. In its clever conflation of memory and melody with the stars, the lyrics can then build to one of the more memorable endings in the American Songbook: “Though I dream in vain/ In my heart it always will remain/ A stardust melody, a memory of love’s refrain.” It is as if the melody had been sprinkled with stardust, granting a timeless appeal.
And what about the songs you love, readers? Often we get orders with phrases we're sure must be song lyrics, although we can't quite place them. Take a moment to help us update our Starry Night playlist.