One of the major challenges of writing this column remains how to choose one song among several by a given composer that I have decided to feature. When determining to include a song by the very talented Great American Songbook composer, Bernice Petkere (1901-2000), two of my favorite songs immediately came to mind: "Close Your Eyes" and "Lullaby of the Leaves." I also marveled that both happen to be among my favorite standards written in minor keys... However, for the sake of simplicity I am behooved to select one at a time, so for now we shall examine the structure and design of "Close Your Eyes."
Bernice Petkere spent her life in show business, performing on the vaudeville circuit while still a young child, then becoming an important Tin Pan Alley songwriter. Given the distinguished moniker "Queen of Tin Pan Alley" by none other than Irving Berlin, Petkere wrote music for radio shows and worked as a writer in Berlin's production company. She later relocated to Los Angeles, immersing herself in writing film scores. "Close Your Eyes" was published in 1933 and has been recorded and performed by a slew of performing artists including Ruth Etting, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Doris Day, Peggy Lee, and many more.
This classic American song begins with sixteen bars (plus a pickup bar) whose antecedent melodic phrase ascends the melodic minor scale as if introducing the theoretical premise of the entire piece. The three-and-a-half bar consequent phrase that follows provides an appropriate release of tension, and guides the melody along a wavelike path which ultimately descends to the midpoint of the scale. The initial scale in the opening phrase is then repeated over the next four and a half bars, and the final consequent phrase in the introduction descends majestically by third leaps (emphasizing and repeating the flatted third which reinforces the minor context) to the octave below. The text that Petkere penned for this introduction (including images of "a midnight sky," "a single star" and "a steel guitar") provides a sultry, romantic backdrop describing the visual and aural stimuli that set the stage for the song's sexy lullaby to follow. I prefer to perform this as a tango, as the minor tonality and strict Latin feel create a wonderful backdrop for this text of mystery and seduction.
At first glance, budding theorists may assume this piece represents a classic AABA form. However, upon closer examination, there are variations in each A section which necessitate the attribution of "prime" (') to indicate said variations. Technically, the piece assumes the form AA'BA," although some might convincingly assert that it possesses an AA'BA form. Theorists often disagree about how much variation should be required to allow A,' A" or even C formal designations to stand. Many of these distinctions can create debate regarding whether a section is different enough to justify using a different sectional designation. I would argue that the harmonic and melodic change at measure 30 ("oh this is divine") requires a related, but distinctive designation since the third melodic pitch of that measure is raised a semitone higher than its counterpart in the A section (m. 22, "and I will close mine."). Also, the harmony resolves to the parallel major key at the end of the second section (A'), whereas it previously resolved to the minor tonic at the end of A. The rhythmic change toward the end of A" (m. 46, "so won't you close your eyes?") presents a bit vaguer situation analytically, and, I believe, creates a varied enough rhythmic emphasis on the title text to warrant its own related, but distinguishing designation apart from A. However, some theorists would likely prefer to consider the overall form to be AA'BA due to the fact that a slight rhythmic change in the final phrase (at m. 46) is not a major variation from the original A theme. To each, his/her own! Each section of the post-introduction portion of the song consists of eight measures, forming a standard, thirty-two bar form.
Melody and Harmony
While the ascending melodic minor scale provides the melodic content for the introductory verse, the content for the melody in the rest of the song is better described via the harmonic minor scale (with clear emphasis on the raised seventh, as in m. 20, "sleep" and m. 28, "sheep"). At the Bridge (m. 33-40), Petkere plays with melodic content from the mixolydian mode (built on the same tonic pitch) before flatting the third and reorienting the tonality through a couple of dominant chords to bring the listener back to the original minor tonic. The contour of the melody consists of retracing third jumps through chord arpeggios in a gradual downward direction, followed by a consequent phrase that rises stepwise to rest on the opening melodic pitch. This pattern is repeated with a single, mode-changing pitch variation at m. 30. The Bridge's melody opens, very intricately parroting the melody of A, but transposed up a perfect fourth. The second half of the Bridge includes a melody emphasizing the minor tonic and its flat third, leading the string of dominant chords (including a tritone substitution prior to the final V7 chord of B) back into minor tonality for the final statement of A, which is labeled A" due to slight rhythmic variation designed to clearly illuminate the title text.
The head begins with a repeated ii7(flat 5)-V7 progression leading to i, followed again by another ii7(flat 5)-V7-i. In A' this progression remains the same except for the variation already mentioned at mm. 30-31 when Petkere mutates the harmony to its parallel major key to close the section. This alteration also serves to add energy toward the buildup and climax at B. At the bridge, the now familiar ii7-V7-ii7-V7 harmonic pattern continues (except now in the subdominant sphere) and continues through a string of dominant chords which lead back to the original i. The harmony of A" identically matches the harmony of A. This final point strengthens the argument to call the final section A instead of A," but I maintain that the rhythmic variation in the final section justifies the A" designation.
The scheme of the introductory verse rhymes the last syllable to every other line's last syllable. "Star" (mm. 3-4) pairs with "gui-tar" (mm. 11-12), while the end syllable of line two ("a-bove," mm. 7-8) matches its counterpart at mm. 15-16 ("love"). While many songwriters modify the rhyme schemes between segments of their songs, Petkere keeps to the same scheme, continuing to rhyme the ends of every other line of text throughout all A sections and their variations. At B, she finally moves to a contrasting rhyme scheme (altering the rhyme scheme of a bridge is a standard compositional device used by many songwriters, adding interest and decreasing predictability). At the Bridge, the first word at the downbeat, "play," (mm. 33-34) is extended and later rhymed with "ho-li-day" in a unique rhyme pairing intercepted by an internal rhyme within the first B phrase, "dancing" and "romancing." The last syllable of the Bridge ("guide") uniquely rhymes with a word two lines away in a different section of the song ("side"). This pairing of words between different song sections brilliantly shows Petkere's willingness to allow textual phrases to line up differently than the musical phrases align. This provides a unified seamlessness between the Bridge and the last A," reflecting a dreamy, semi-conscious, intellectually fluid state that has pervaded not only the message of the hypnotic lullaby, but also the song structure itself!
Petkere succeeded in very skillfully blending music with text. Her mysterious and seductive message of coaxing her lover to sleep is well delivered through the gentle, repetitive rocking of ii7(flat 5)-V7, the minor mode, and the rising and falling of energy in her sinuous melodic curves. While the text may not be kitchy or clever, it very effectively achieves its goal of lulling the listener into a relaxed, trusting state, convinced of the singer's love and protection. In this case, simplicity and commitment to a quality melodic structure allow the text's direct message to shine through unmistakably.
As shown in many classic standards, "Close Your Eyes" exhibits an array of attributes found to be in lovely balance with one another. The melodic line descends and ascends in gentle repetition reminiscent of a slow, swinging pendulum. The rhyme scheme which consistently matches the end syllable of every other line provides a sense of equality among the lines of text. The interplay of parallel minor and major tonalities as well as the hypnotic motion of the music of A awakening to the energetic catharsis of B (the A theme transposed up a fourth and slowly descending through a shower of arpeggio-retracing triplets), provides tension and release in a rather seductive manner, particularly when performed as a tango. The piece has a very clear apex at the Bridge, and an equally clear denouement shortly thereafter, so when accompanied by a decrescendo, the final section blends its aural graces into a gradually softening and hypnotic resolution of the piece. Throughout it all, the music and text blend their messages into one, each becoming stronger through their union. The masterful balancing of tension and release, and the rising and falling of energy through unique phrase structure, melody, and harmony, combine to create an exquisite gem in the crown of American musicour Great American Songbook.
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