The Sound Of Sorrow

The forlorn melody of “None But The Lonely Heart,” Wikipedia tells us, was written in late 1869 when Piotr Tchaikovsky created a set of six romances for voice and piano. The lyrics came, the website says, from “Lev Mei’s poem ‘The Harpist’s Song,’ which in turn was translated from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.”

Here’s the English translation that gives the piece its familiar title:

None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted
Far from joy and gladness
Heaven’s boundless arch I see
Spread out above me
O what a distance drear to one
Who loves me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
Alone and parted far
From joy and gladness
My senses fail
A burning fire
Devours me
None but the lonely heart
Can know my sadness

I first came across the song, as was the case with so many tunes, through Al Hirt, who included it on his 1965 album That Honey Horn Sound:

Hirt’s take is evocative enough, though I think his improvisations take away from the sadness that the title and the lyrics imply. And I think the background vocals of the Anita Kerr Singers make the final moments of the track sound almost triumphant with what a long-ago teaching colleague of mine called an “MGM ending.” (I certainly didn’t verbalize those thoughts back in 1965 when I heard the track for the first time, but I do recall that the second half of the track didn’t pull me in like the opening portions did, and I wondered why.)

The song has popped up over the years, and I’ve always liked it. But even though I’ve known for more than fifty years that the melody came from Tchaikovsky, I’d never thought much about the piece. Even with all my gathering of music over the past twenty years, only three other versions showed up on the digital shelves: Instrumental versions by violinist Isaac Stern and easy listening maestro Franck Pourcel and a turgid vocal version by Frank Sinatra (from his 1959 album No One Cares, which is a hard listen).

Then, just more than a year ago – and I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to write about this – the Texas Gal and I watched the finale of the FX series The Americans, the tale – set in the 1980s – of two married Russian KGB agents sent to live in the United States as Americans, working covertly for the Soviet Union. In that finale, the two agents face arrest by U.S. authorities and flee. The last portion of their trip home is by car through Eastern Europe and the western portions of the Soviet Union, much of it shot from above.

The music backing that sequence is an orchestral version of “None But The Lonely Heart.” I recognized it from the first notes. (And if I recall things correctly, I gasped as those first notes aired, prompting a “What?” from the Texas Gal. I just shook my head, choosing not to explain at the moment.) As the journey and the episode and the series ended that evening, I thought the use of Tchaikovsky’s piece was a brilliant touch.

Afterward, I spent some time searching for the version of the tune used in the show. It turned out to be a performance by violinist Takako Nishizaki with Australia’s Queensland Symphony Orchestra; it was included on a 2001 album – conducted by Slovak director Peter Breiner – titled Tchaikovsky: None But The Lonely Heart with the subtitle “Favourite Songs for Violin and Orchestra.” And, as it should be, it’s the sound of sorrow:

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