Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The American Songster

Last night enjoyed another delightful musical evening at the Smithsonian--well, it was at the Freer auditorium, and it was Robert Wyatt again, this time covering the amazing career, through CD clips, flim clips, and lecture without notes, of Irving Berlin. I finally appreciate the oft-quoted Jerome Kern line: "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. Irving Berlin is American music." The man's productivity and mastery of every form of song still amazes me.

He makes us realize that the key to any song is the melody. He never could even read music but eventually, he could even put some rather complex contrapuntal harmonies together on the piano and have his musical secretaries transcribe them. This was one of those programs from which I learned quite a bit. Alexander's Ragtime Band isn't a ragtime song, it's jazz. His favorite singers were Ethel Merman (naturally) and Fred Astaire (just enough voice to present a song with great style).

He loved to use contractions in his songs--my favorite of all, What'll I Do, stands as a fine example. Just like Cole Porter he doubted his own ability to write an integrated show, that is, one in which the songs advance the plot; then he goes and writes Annie Get Your Gun and outdoes everyone else, as he always did. Porter also managed to do it with Kiss Me, Kate in even less conventional form.

And Always, there were the endless list of songs: How Deep is the Ocean, Say It Isn't So, Puttin' on the Ritz, Isn't It a Lovely Day, Remember, Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee, and often he came up with an unexpected song that made you think it had to written by someone else, such as Let's Face the Music and Dance.

The man encountered some tragedy in his 101 years on earth. He lost his first wife a few months after they married, to typhoid she picked up on their Havana honeymoon. His only son (he had three daughters by his second wife) died within a month of his birth. And Wyatt intimated that his last years were lonely and not particularly happy. I recall a Jimmy Breslin column in which Breslin hurled invective at Berlin for not allowing him to use some lyrics in a novel. It sounded like the man of a thousand melodies had lost his tune.

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