I was sitting in a coffee house, the other day, listening to the radio playing, “For No One,” from the Beatles’ 1966 album “Revolver.” Paul McCartney had composed one of the saddest of songs, about unrequited love. What really struck me though, this time, was the bridge, played by a French Horn. Through a stroke of musical genius, Sir Paul had transformed what would have been a very good song into a truly great one. What I couldn’t quite discern, though, was how the addition of the French Horn effectuated that transformation. There lies a mystery.
So I listened to the solo version of “For No One,” in which Paul accompanies himself on sacoustic guitar. It’s certainly very good, but not on the level of the studio version, with the three violins and the French Horn. Of course, the mournful strains of the three violins do make “For No One” a good deal sadder, for violins can resonate to the dolor of the human heart.
In Emmylou Harris’ version of the song, a dobro takes the place of the French Horn. The dobro is congruent, rather than contrasting with the mood evoked by Ms. Harris’ singing, as well as by the other accompanying instruments. The overall effect is melancholy, but not in the way that Paul’s version is, for reasons’ that we shall see.
We might also add that the musical break in John Lennon’s song, “There Are Places I Remember,” is played on a piano that is made to sound like a harpsichord. Here, again, the harpsichord break is congruent, rather than contrasting to the main body of that song. “There Are Places I Remember” is heartfelt but cheerful, and the harpsichord bridge echoes its cheerfulness, in another key, suggesting that the lover, his beloved and the world itself share in his joy.
But what is perplexing is the effect of the French Horn, in Paul’s studio version of “For No One.” That is because the French Horn is not an instrument generally associated with sadness. On the contrary, the French Horn is lofty and transcendent, suggesting the cool mountain air of the spirit. Popular examples include Beethoven’s trio of French Horns, from the Third Movement of his Third Symphony, the First and Fourth Movements of Seventh Sympathy and the Third Movement of his Ninth Symphony. The French Horn, from Paul’s song — played in a high key, with one note reaching a register beyond what most professional French Horn players are able to play — is similarly lofty sounding. And yet the overall effect of McCartney’s adding the French Horn to the song, “For No One,” paradoxically makes the song infinitely sadder! What is going on here?
One interpretation, with which I don’t agree, is that the French Horn expresses the cool distance of the woman, la belle dame sans merci,who has left her grieving lover. I don’t agree because, for one thing, the French Horn, although lofty and transcendent, is not cool, but actually expresses a certain emotional warmth.
There is a musical contrast here, between the lofty transcendence of the French Horn with the other elements of the song — Paul’s plaintive voice, the songs melody played in a minor key, by his guitar, the three violins and the songs very dolorous lyrics. Thus the French Horns make everything else, by contrast, seem all the sadder. But it’s not just the effect of contrast that makes the sad parts sadder, but something else.
A very different musical genre, the blues, might afford us a clue. They call it the blues, for the color blue is the color of the sky and transcendence. And so, to be blue, or to have the blues, means that one has a sense of lost transcendence, of paradise lost. The sense here is that we could have known a great joy, but it somehow eluded us, and so like Edgar Allen Poe’s raven, we sit in our chamber repeating, “Nevermore.”
“For No One” is not, of course, a blues song, but a rock song. But the addition of the French Horn — ascending to the empyrean, an ascent that the melancholy Paul is unable to make, due to his missing his sweetheart — intensifies the melancholy mood of lost transcendence.
So it is that for there to be melancholy there has to be a sense that a happiness that once was is now lost, but could have been, expressed in the line, “A love that should have lasted years.” We may recall the lyrics of Whittier’s poem, “Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, it might have been.” That is why, then, the addition of the French Horn elicits — by it’s contrast to the elegiacal mood of the other elements of Paul’s song — a mood of failed transcendence, of paradise lost. That is, therefore, why the studio version of the song is much sadder then the solo acoustic version, heartfelt though it may be.
Let’s Get Real
Why is it that the “love that should have lasted years” turned out not to have had much longevity? It’s sad to say that the poet had deluded himself, for what Paul had believed was there really wasn’t there at all. Because it wasn’t there, it suffered the fate of so many failed relationships, even those that become marriages. And that fate is that eventually the other shoe dropped, meaning that we come to see that the other person is not the god or goddess that we had initially believed him or her to be. And so, unhappily, we awake from our infatuation, and now stone cold sober, we believe that we had been deluded, and so we wish to be free of the other person.
Thus while the heartbroken man, who Paul is singing to, is foolish to romanticize a union that really was of little merit, the woman in the song is shallow to believe that once disillusionment emerges there is no more reason to stay with her partner. If that shallowness was endemic in 1966, it is all the more so in 2018. Indeed, I recall reading an interview with the popular singer Christina Aguilera, when she was getting divorced. As she expressed it, “I just wasn’t happy,” a sentiment expressed by millions of other men and women today, who believe that marriage is all about being happy and that they somehow deserve to be made happy, by the other person, and on a continual basis.
After the Other Shoe Drops
For a marriage to last it must be founded on something more substantial than erotic or romantic attraction. Certainly, it helps if two people share common interests. Perhaps, they both enjoy playing bridge or tennis or traveling. Or perhaps it is simply that they have decided to work together to provide for their children’s wellbeing. But while Eros, romance, and common interests may be, to varying degrees, important components of a marriage, they are not sufficient. What is critically important is common values. In other words, the two people must, more or less, subscribe to a similar belief system, or worldview.
If I may return to Sir Paul, his marriage to his first wife, Linda Eastman, appeared to have been “a marriage of true minds.” Unfortunately, Ms. Eastman died and Paul married Heather Miles. It must have initially seemed to Paul that he and Heather shared common values. But it only seemed that way, for values are deeper than one’s stated beliefs. They’re often even deeper than one’s activities. As B.C. Forbes expressed it, “It is much easier to do good than to be good.” Thus one may devote one’s life to doing charitable work, but still be a self-absorbed narcissist, and a censorious critic of one’s spouse, not that Paul was any angel.
Let us, then, return to our analysis of Paul’s song, “For No One.” It was aptly named, although for reasons perhaps lying beyond horizon of his thinking, at the time. More particularly, one may be amongst many people and yet find that there is no one there, just hollow men and women. Indeed, the beings one meets — lacking the inward substance and reality that derives from a life that is an expression of genuine values — are simply not there. T.S. Eliot observed it in the 1930s, in his poem “The Hollow Men,” and it is far truer today.
Simply stated, the man’s heartbreak was for no one because there was no one there in the first place. Here, then, is the key to that delusion known as romantic heartbreak: The sorrowful lover is not truly crying over the loss of his beloved, but is really crying over the fantastical belief that — if one could have had an abiding union with a certain person — one could have known paradise.
Copyright © 2018 Mark Dillof