Songs that lend a voice to the equestrian world in a way only music can.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, which means the usual onslaught of overly corny romance films will be released in theaters. But this year, for horse lovers at least, there is a bit of a reprieve. The corny romance of choice, “Winter’s Tale,” is brought to you by Athansor, a mythical white horse that moves as if he always hears music!
Actually, the 1983 novel “Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin isn’t exactly a love story at all. It’s more like a mixture of hard living and absolute miracles on the streets of New York City. But, alas, pre-release reviews suggest that the screenplay strips down this multilayered saga to a barebones love story where good triumphs over evil.
So before the book is spoiled by the movie, let’s revel in this slightly Valentine’s Day playlist that embraces all the themes of Helprin’s masterpiece. And don’t worry. I don’t intend to give away the ending. First, because it would be impossible based on the actual conclusion of the book. But also because I expect you to go out to see this film for Athansor alone. On that front, I hear we will not be disappointed!
Get the full playlist on Spotify here: Winter’s Tale: A Valentine’s Day Present To Horse Lovers
1. SPIRIT HORSE by Sea Wolf from the album White Water, White Bloom
It would be absolutely a crime to start this playlist anywhere else but with a song in tribute to the spirited white stallion that lights up the pages of this novel. A mythical horse at his best, Athansor’s powers span space and time, and defy gravity. He is a mount worthy of a saint, a king, or even a god. But in this story he is the chief protector of our hero Peter Lake.
The lyrics of this Sea Wolf track come so close to the storyline of “Winter’s Tale,” that I can’t help but wonder if Alex Brown Church had the novel in mind when he composed “Spirit Horse.” It’s not an unlikely conclusion. Church’s band name, “Sea Wolf,” comes from the 1904 psychological adventure novel by American novelist Jack London, and another track from this album, “Song of the Magpie,” is based on Augusten Burroughs’ book “A Wolf at the Table.” Clearly he’s no foreigner to using literature as inspiration!
2. SEPTEMBER by The Shins from the album Port Of Morrow
Both this and the previous track give insight in to our hero, Peter. As sung by Sea Wolf, he is indeed sometimes a thief, and as The Shins add, he has up to this point in the story been often selfish, childish and full of pride. This may be in part due to the fact that he has an upbringing akin to Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli. But all this ends abruptly with the arrival of Beverly Penn into his life.
Beverly is all goodness and light, and I think The Shin’s “September” captures her perfectly. Plus, there’s a reference to a valentine in this one just in case you didn’t catch it! “She’s no ordinary valentine. And now when the sun goes down she sheds a darling light…”
3. PURPLE YELLOW RED AND BLUE by Portugal. The Man from the album Evil Friends
As I said, this novel isn’t all love and romance. There is some serious evil at work here, and Pearly Soames is the worst of it. As leader of the infamous Short Tails, he’s had it in for Peter ever since he turned on the gang, marking disastrous results for Pearly and his men. Had it not been for Athansor, Pearly may have had his way with Peter many times over.
Portugal. The Man’s reference to wanting to being a movie star or on TV may be a bit after Pearly’s time (or is it?!), but otherwise “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” sums up our villain to a T. He suffers from a condition known as color gravity, which let’s just say means he really loves to see and possess bold colors. And he would do just about anything for the pleasure – that is until he settled on the single goal of killing Mr. Peter Lake of course.
4. HERE COME THE NIGHT TIME by Arcade Fire from the album Reflektor
It is nearly as impossible to overlook the mythical qualities of our hero horse, as it is the strong religious undertones in this novel. While not specifically tied to any one religion in my opinion, the allusions to heaven, angels and demons are hard to ignore, not to mention the nod to the rainbow bridge frequented by Norse gods. So I offer up this next this track from Arcade Fire’s latest album that explores the struggles of reaching and understanding heaven – struggles that are not uncommon to many of the character’s in “Winter’s Tale.
This song also features a lyric that shares Helprin’s enthusiasm for horses and music. Helprin is often quoted (by equestrians) for this line about Athansor: “He moved like a dancer, which is not surprising; a horse is a beautiful animal, but it is perhaps most remarkable because it moves as if it always hears music.” It’s not hard to see why this is a favorite of horse lovers.
Arcade Fire builds on this concept with their lyric: “If there’s no music up in heaven then what’s it for? When I hear the beat, my spirit’s on like a live wire – a thousand horses running wild in a city on fire. It starts in your feet, then it goes to your head and if you can feel it, then the rules are dead.” Horses and music are a match made in heaven! And one bonus point about this quote – those horses running wild in a city on fire make a very thrilling cameo in the book.
5. A MACHINE SPIRITUAL (IN THE PEOPLE’S KEY) by Bright Eyes from the album The People’s Key
The last track not only advances the religious themes of the novel, it also repeatedly brings home the point that night is coming. And so it does for many of the characters I’ve introduced so far. For some seventy-five to one hundred years (depending on who’s telling the tale), Peter, Beverly and Pearly are just memories. And during this period, the wheels of time move on for other characters soon to be central to the story. And they too struggle with the questions of life, love, death and the great beyond.
Thus, I offer up Bright Eye’s “A Machine Spiritual” to symbolize the time when the pieces of the puzzle are moving in the absence of our main characters. Moving, not randomly or fixedly, but, as Helprin writes, as part of a grand design that one must “[stand] back far enough to see it all at once.” The title of this song is also lovely in that Peter Lake just happens to be a master mechanic!
RISE UP by Hans Zimmer and Rupert Gregson-Williams
from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Winter’s Tale
And now a brief interlude courtesy of acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer, while we listen to the orchestration of the world and prepare to start (over).
6. WINTER SONG by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson from the album The Hotel Café Presents…Winter Songs
The seasons, and winter in particular, are so central to the telling of this tale that I am devoting this next track to them. The changing severity of winter storms speaks volumes about what’s in store for Helprin’s characters, and the stronger the storm, the more action the characters will see. Indeed, Praeger de Pinto wins a mayoral election largely by promising the return of deep and meaningful winters.
But this “Winter Song,” has still more to say. It asks the burning question, “Is love alive,” at the moment we read of the return of Peter sans any memory of Beverly, Athansor or his life before. The answer: “Ill be your harvester of light and send it out tonight so we can start again.” The memories are calling!
7. NEW YORK by The Boxer Rebellion from the album Promises
“Winter’s Tale” is often described as a love letter to New York. The city looms so large (and breathtaking) that it is a character unto itself. And it is this character that first sparks the slightly crazy mind of Peter Lake back into focus. He begins to frequent places he knew before, not knowing why. And soon he’s dreaming of a majestic white horse and Beverly’s skilled piano-playing. The memories are returning…”in New York.” The chords and lyrics of this Boxer Rebellion track are a touching tribute to this period of rebirth.
8. WINGS by Birdy from the album Wings
If this Birdy track sounds familiar to you already, it’s probably because you’ve been watching the “Winter’s Tale” trailer. It is featured heavily in the second half of the trailer, and symbolizes the flood-like returning of memories to Peter near the end of the piece. Not to mention the appearance of magical powers and the return of Athansor. Things are getting good! Yet, in the book at least, he remains physically separated from Beverly, which is why this song’s sense of longing is so important here.
9. MIRACLE by KT Tunstall from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Winter’s Tale
I am pleased to say that an original song, along with the Hans Zimmer score, was composed for “Winter’s Tale.” This track is the result of those efforts. “Miracle” lyrically leans heavily on the end of the novel (and presumably the film) where more than a few miracles do occur. I promised no spoilers, so for now just sit back and enjoy this track for all the secrets that it holds.
10. GOLDEN GIRL by The Naked And Famous from the album In Rolling Waves
I close with this simple track from the latest the Naked And Famous album largely because I want to stay true to the book. As I said at the start, this novel is more open-ended than I imagine most romantics would prefer. And I strongly expect that the movie will present the screenwriter’s preferred close. But for my part, I will just leave you with this question: “Fall away. Melt the edge of today. Am I your golden girl?” The decision is yours what fates make the most sense for Helprin’s characters.