Rebirth of Reason

The Free Radical

I'll Walk With God
by Chris Matthew Sciabarra

It is sad that Mario Lanza never debuted on the New York operatic stage. The Ebb-Kander "New York, New York" song lyric—"If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere"—has never been truer. But Lanza didn’t actually have to perform on a New York stage in order to be loved by the millions of New Yorkers who played his records with religious conviction.

And so, it was on the Victrola of the Sciabarra household that I was first introduced to Lanza’s voice. My father loved him (what New York Italians didn’t love him?), and by the time I sat for a TV showing of The Great Caruso, the great tenor had earned my deepest admiration for his enormous talent.

But it was a visit from Lindsay Perigo in October 2003 that opened the emotional floodgates—quite literally, as we sat there in my home, listening to Lanza’s magnificent voice. Lindsay can provide running liner notes as a preface to each song you hear. But he can also provide an endless supply of tissues for those of us who can’t stop the flow of tears, and who wouldn’t stop it even if we could. They serve, after all, as the cleansing cathartic waters that I allude to in my review of Cesari’s book.

Lanza, at his best, sang each song like a man possessed. It is an overblown cliche, but it is utterly impossible to project in words what I hear when I listen to a classic Lanza recording.

Let’s take one example: "I’ll Walk With God," a composition that features the words of Paul Francis Webster and the music of Nicholas Brodszky, interpolated into the movie version of "The Student Prince," as Prince Karl Franz stands by the coffin of his father and contemplates his impending, reluctant ascension to the throne of Carlsberg.

Lanza begins the first stanza with enormous restraint. "I’ll Walk with God from this day on. His helping hand I’ll lean upon," he sings. "This is my prayer, my humble plea," he almost whispers. "May the Lord be ever with me."

Bolder now. "There is no death, tho’ eyes grow dim." "There is no fear"—and he enunciates that phrase "no fear" with confidence, nay, fearlessness—"when I’m near to Him." "I’ll lean on Him forever," gloriously proclaimed. "And He’ll forsake me never," sensitively adorned. "He will not fail me, As long as my faith is strong"—strong is his voice. "Whatever road I may walk along."

He returns to the title words, showing deference to its hymnal testament: "I’ll Walk with God, I’ll take His hand. I’ll talk with God, He’ll understand"—sung as if by a man who so needed that understanding.

The music builds. "I’ll pray to Him, each day to Him, And He’ll hear the words that I say." Lanza’s voice explodes with passion: "His hand will guide my throne and rod" (from the top of the scale all the way down). "And I’ll never walk alone" (ascending the scale again). And he leads us to a magnificent orchestral finale: "While I walk with God" (up to a thrilling, sustained High B-Flat).

It brings me to tears yet again to listen to this song and the divinity that is its singer. If ever there were a religious experience, it is embodied in this man’s voice.

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