The Monotone (Ein Ton)

Ein Ton Sheet MusicThis haunting song comprises a vocal melody of just a single note. Of the 1914 songs I’ve covered so far, this is probably the most avant-garde. It was written in 1854 by German composer Peter Cornelius. The version I first discovered is on The U.S. National Library of Congress music website, National Jukebox. It was sung by world-famous Romanian-born American soprano Alma Gluck. She was accompanied on violin by Efrem Zimbalist, who she later married. It was recorded in New York on November 15th, 1914 with Samuel Chotzinoff on piano. You can listen to that version here.

The process of figuring out such a compositionally unusual song was difficult. I felt like I was getting tinnitis as I tried to work out the chords. Eventually I discovered a sheet music resource online called The Mutopia Project. Here I found sheet music (which as a self-taught semi-illiterate musician I could probably decipher with a bit of work) and MIDI files (which is better than sheet music for most home-recording nerds). The monotonous vocal melody is compensated for by the rich harmonic line on the piano. The metaphysical lyric is full of grief and hopelessness until the last verse when the chords switch from minor to major and the monotonous vocal line is given a completely different context and mood.

In my research, I found some contemporary versions of this song. In the first I’ve posted, taken from Antonio Faieta’s YouTube channel, you can hear the original German lyrics. The second is an instrumental version, saxophonist Ties Mellema plays the vocal melody with his left hand as he has injured his right. Just as it can be challenging to sing such a monotonous melody without it becoming boring, playing a one note melody on any instrument requires excellent dynamic control and imaginative phrasing, evidenced here by an exemplary performance. As I considered how to arrange and record the song myself, I toyed with the idea of playing the piano melody (the part reimagined by Zimbalist for violin in the 1914 version) on an electric guitar. I tried it out but opted in the end for the simplest piano arrangement with layered heavily-effected vocals. I used some unusual EQ settings on some of the layered vocals, emphasising the exact frequencies that correlated to the consistent ‘B’ note of the vocal melody to cause some distortion effects. I also added an almost imperceptible drone, a feedback effect that grows and grows until the chords change to major. In short, I had some fun with it.

I hear a tone
so wondrous rare,
it fills my heart
’tis ever there.

Ah, can it be
the last faint breath
that stirr’d thy pallid lips ere death?

Is it the tender monotone
of church bell which for thee made moan?

Lo, still it comes!
So full, so clear,
as though thy soul
were floating near…

As though with love and yearning deep
you sang my bitter pain to sleep.

This video is intended to explain the concept behind this music archive revival blog. Please share it with any musicians you know who might be interested in reinterpreting a song from 1914.

The English translation of the lyrics was made some time before 1894 and is attributed to C. Hugo Laubach. I found this information on The Lied, Art Song, and Choral Texts Archive, a great resource for finding lyrics and authorship information of classical music. The original lyrics in German are also available.

If you have any further information on this song, please feel free to write a comment (or email me). Let’s get a discussion going! Are there other notable modern versions of this song? Does this song mean something special to you? Any feedback or historical background information is very welcome.

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One response to “The Monotone (Ein Ton)

  1. Pingback: Designing Hundred Years Late | Hundred Years Late

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