No time for what will be will be will be

There’s an arresting short video going around “. . . Will I be pretty, will I be rich, here’s what she said to me. . .”

In 1956 I was eleven and had only begun learning to play the organ. The Doris Day song—from the Hitchcock movie The Man who Knew too Much—is one of the simplest songs from an era of eminently singable pop songs. It’s so simple that even I, whose natural ability to play “by ear” had been frightened out of me by Mrs. Robinson (the “concert pianist” who taught me) because playing by ear was cheap, could play it without ever seeing the score.

One of the mixed messages of my life. My mother, a superbly gifted musician who lacked formal training, would have liked nothing more than to be able to play “by ear.” But Mrs. Robinson said I had to play only by reading music.

The organ I practiced on was the Baldwin Model 5 at our church, of course, so I was allowed (mandated!) to walk there after school to practice. Can you imagine sending your eleven-year-old out to walk by himself across town every day in 2013? Even a town like Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

Thinking that I would at least feel pretty, whether or not I was, I figured out how to play “Que será, será” not only on the piano but also on the organ. I even played it in Doris Day’s key—A-major. And this—before I had any study of music theory! If my dad was at the church, I played it at home; if he was at home, I played it at church. He did not like the song.

He preached a sermon on it. He thought it was silly. His sermon was a combination of Norman Vincent Peale (whose work he thought was really silly) and the Gospel. The message as I remember it was that we can’t live as if nothing mattered because we do have control over our actions, but!—God is really in control. We can’t say, “What will be will be;” rather, we must say, “Whatever God has in store for us will be. God’s in charge, not fate.” Another mixed message.

I have a private theory about the song’s popularity. It’s deceptively simple. Sing the words, “When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, ‘what will I be?’” Take a breath. Continue. “Will” –hold on! The melodic interval between “be” and “will” is a tritone –that interval between a perfect fourth and a perfect fifth called the “devil’s interval” in Medieval music theory. If I asked you to sing it outside the context of a melody you know from memory, you probably could not. The interval, turned upside down, carries the melody between the “será” and “será” at each repetition of “Que será, será.”

“Oh, come on,” you’re saying. “You can’t read that esoteric nonsense into that simple tune.” OK, so I can’t. And now that you’ve read this, try to forget that. The Devil’s interval. At the four important cadences of the tune.

I don’t believe in The Devil—or any devils unless they’re from Tasmania. But there’s something spooky about this tune. I’ll bet anyone who was conscious of popular culture in 1956 can sing it all the way through. And I will put my musicological neck (such as it is) on the block and say it’s not because it’s so simple or sweet, or because the idea is so sentimental.

Deans' Levels of Incompetence

Deans’ Levels of Incompetence

It’s because it’s got the devil in it.

I’m old enough to have had quite a bit of experience in “What will be will be.” And likely as not, it won’t be.  For example, what will be right now in my life is that I’m being forced into retirement from my university a year earlier than I had hoped (apparently because my students find my classes intellectually stimulating). There. The first, last, and only nasty thing I will say publicly about my situation.

But “will be” may not be what “is.” I am not going to stop working. It’s not clear which of my many options for productivity in old age I will pursue, but my definition of “retire” is not the first in the dictionary. It’s “to withdraw or lead back, as from battle or danger; retreat.” I am withdrawing from the danger of being beholden to Deans and other such persons who have reached their level of incompetence.

I will be neither “pretty” nor “rich.” But I may, in fact, finally be as free as I want to be. And I’m going to revel in finding all the “Devil’s intervals” I can. What will be will be what I choose will be. To the extent possible. But that’s another subject.

(A performance note: Yes, the old man had to write out the melody. However, this is pretty much how I played the song in 1956. I knew it sounded better on the piano, but what could I do? When this goes viral, I hope the note will be that I know it’s my imitation of a calliope. But, what will be will be.)

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