As a literalist of the imagination, I have somehow supposed that the fall equinox on September 22 meant that according to astronomical rules, the roses would—with a clunk—stop blooming.  But when last December, I saw many rosebushes still going at it even in a northern clime, I had to amend my faith in the lovely song “The Last Rose of Summer.”  Those outdoor roses were not only blooming but budding, after the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and even after the Winter Solstice.

I must caution enthusiasts that the song is a beauty when it is sung beautifully—and we will have to address that matter by citing various performances.  But beyond those, we will also see that a song of modest aspect can play a surprisingly big role in the world of musical possibility and actuality.

The song was a hybrid and bigger than it was in itself, from the get-go in 1805.  In one of numerous gatherings of Irish Melodies, Thomas Moore published the verse, and John Stevenson coordinated the lyrics with a traditional Gaelic melody—a service he performed for other Irish melodies as well, such as “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms.”  But much of the something else is something we have to remember from more than two centuries ago.  A powerful current of growing romanticism affirmed a belief in the “noble savage”—a form of soft pastoral that had reason for ascribing poetry to rustic shepherds, and therefore belief in the authenticity of Celtic sources, as from Ireland and Scotland.  The verses of Thomas Moore gained by this association with his gift for verse and the added effect of the musical arrangements by Stevenson.

So what was verse became song, and the musical presentation spread the effect beyond the Anglophone culture and amateur treatment.  “The Last Rose of Summer” was treated first by Beethoven himself, and more than once.  This may remind us of Beethoven’s lyrical bent as well as his affinity for the political implications of cultural nationalism, even in so quaint a form.

But hardly was the cat out of the bag, when a multiplicity of transcriptions and adaptations and quotations loomed.  Much of the material was unremarkable, and some of it was quite remarkable.  There was a prominent transportation to the operatic stage, to the piano and to the violin as virtuoso instruments, and so on.  And even today, “The Last Rose of Summer” has been featured in contemporary popular music.

Hearing the contemporary singer John McDermott put the song over successfully—though he did it with a microphone—I was a bit surprised.  Other contemporary singers have not fared so well.  I am not eager to listen again to the efforts of Méav or Chloë Agnew or Hayley Westenra or Laura Wright: Perhaps the fault is mine.

But even from the old days, there are some problems.  I was let down for the first time in my life by Luisa Tetrazzini—a great singer except of the song we are singling out.  Neither did I much like the effort of Adelina Patti from 1905—and she is one of the greatest of all singers, except in this instance.  The superior performance of Amelita Galli-Curci is from her 1921 recording, not the later one in which a deterioration of control is evident.  We must be severe in such judgments, particularly when we encounter—as quite possibly we do with Galli-Curci—the most charming of singers.

After Galli-Curci and before Renée Fleming, there were convincing and appreciable performances of “The Last Rose of Summer” by Rosa Ponselle over the radio in 1934; by Deanna Durbin, who is quite impressive in Three Smart Girls Grow Up, from Hollywood in 1939; and by Lily Pons, a touch overdone, in 1940.  To back away from the song itself, we can see quite well that it was an opportunity or even provocation for composers of all sorts, from Beethoven to Mendelssohn in his Op. 15 fantasia, and on through many treatments, including modern and even such contemporary examples as Benjamin Britten and Kanye West.  But if we emphasize the most ambitious treatments, I think there are two in particular to be singled out, one of which is more than a superficial matter of display or mere presentation, and the other, much more challenging, and not only derivative but daring.

Friedrich von Flotow’s opera Martha is a romantic comedy in four acts, derived from French sources and dating from the Vienna of 1847.  It is a conventional composition built from a natural doubling of male and female pairs, mistaken identity, a drinking song, the usual ensembles, and so on.  Martha is an appealing work that is still on the periphery of the repertory, not so well known today as it was when Enrico Caruso took it up at the Met in 1906, and of course he sang it in Italian—“Ach so fromm, ach so traut” is not so well known as “M’apparì tutt’amor,” to this day—and there was a French version as well.

In the original German operatic version, we hear the “Letzte Rose” as an explicit presentation—it is a song as a song, but as the action and music proceeds, the song becomes even more than it is—it becomes a leitmotif signifying the love of the tenor for the soprano, as voiced by woodwinds.  The song has become a part of a larger musical projection.  “The Last Rose of Summer” has grown up in a way that listeners have absorbed even without realizing it, and this for more than a century and a half.  Yet I may be right to claim that even such an enhanced role is not the most exalted use to which the famous song has been put.  As for any degraded uses, they are numerous and sometimes even noteworthy.  One of the most striking and inverted exploitations of received notions of musical excellence and behavioral decorum is the brutal scene in which Mike Hammer snaps in two the old 78 rpm shellac of Caruso singing “M’apparì tutt’amor,” which belonged to the pathetic singer Carmen Trivago, in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

But as we have noted, “The Last Rose of Summer” itself was often arranged for various combinations, or was more ambitiously cast as the subject of variations.  Only one set of all those many variations has the creative authority as a composition to rise to a commanding position in the history of romantic virtuosity, in the history of violin technique, and even in the history of music.  And that is the last of the 6 mehrstimmige Studien or “Six Polyphonic Studies” of Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1812-65).

Ernst is remembered today as the man who went past Paganini as a composer, as a performer, and as a builder of the repertory.  In his maturity, he was active in England as the leader of a string quartet—Joseph Joachim literally played second fiddle to him, and called him the greatest violinist he ever heard.  In that group which explored and established the stature of the Beethoven quartets, Wieniawski played the viola—and Ernst himself played the viola for Berlioz, in his Harold in Italy.

But some of the adventures of his early days are perhaps the best stories about Ernst.  As early as 1830, Ernst played Paganini’s outrageous variations on Nel cor più non mi sento (from Paisiello’s La molinara) better than the Faustian master of the violin did himself—and this was before the piece had been published!  Ernst learned the piece through the ear.  He stalked Paganini from place to place until he had excelled even that wizard, as for example in the techniques of left-hand pizzicato and artificial harmonics—both are displayed in the polyphonic study of “The Last Rose of Summer.”

More recently, some prominent violinists have performed and recorded Ernst’s take on “The Last Rose,” but I sense a certain routinization of charisma.  The piece has become just another piece, and the demonic element is diminished.  The wild horse has become just another nag—there is little sense of any Lisztian “transcendental execution,” insufficient romance in the romantic virtuosity.

“The Last Rose of Summer” has come a long way, as it was recast, varied, and reformulated for different instruments.  A more romantic and complex poem, Goethe’s Erl könig, has received even more extensive reformulation—the transformations still multiply today.  The poem became a song by Schubert, a virtuoso piano piece by Liszt, and a fiendish challenge by Ernst.  Such was only the beginning of artistic responses to the poem that showed the invasion of the natural world by the supernatural—which is, after all, a definition of romanticism.  There are obvious reasons, as it seems to me, that Goethe’s poem would merit the place, treatment, and status accorded to it by Paganini and Liszt, but the work of Moore and Stevenson is a less-dynamic thing.  The charming poem had become an elegant melody, and not much more.  If its very primness did not beg for violation, then its familiarity as a tune (like so many others) dared the array of composers to exploit an opportunity.

Even the big hit tune of an opera sacra was not forbidden territory, as in Paganini’s variations on the G string for the prayer “Dal tuo stellato soglio” from Rossini’s Mosè—a piece Ernst learned through the wall of a hotel room.  Sigismond Thalberg followed suit with his arpeggiated exploitation for the keyboard of the same music.  The clumsy institution of the opera-house stage could not deter any more than the discreet and respectful verses could, either the exploitative urge of the omnivorous composers or the infinity of musical possibilities.

With Moore and Stevenson as well as with Rossini and Tortola, what began with polite piety ended in self-justifying—because brilliant and even shocking—display for its own sake.  The romantic cult of virtuosity would provoke a musically puritanical repudiation in the 20th century, even after all the double-dealing with the devil.