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Genius Without Tears

It seems appropriate, if highly ironic, that a year celebrating George Gershwin—a new biography, concerts, recordings—has by now dovetailed into a year of tributes to Irving Berlin. Much of the irony, of course, lies in the lopsided juxtaposition of these “contemporaries,” born only ten years apart. While 1987 marked the fiftieth anniversary of Gershwin’s death at age thirty-eight, the 1988 festivities honor a living composer on his one hundredth birthday. (Berlin was born in Temun, Russia, on May 11, and came to America with his family in 1892.) Some whimsical Olympian dispenser of talent and life spans appears to have played a dark prank on musical history.

In creative territory, too, the forever-young composer and the grand old song-writer make a strange yet ineluctable couple, more complementary, even polar, than twin-like. Gershwin, often in inspired collaboration with his brother Ira, reached from the theater song “up”—as cultural convention would have it—to concert works, operetta, and opera. Berlin, writing both music and words, stuck with the broader, downtown segment of musical life in America, the world of player pianos and dance bands and juke-boxes; in this realm the theater song (or its film-musical equivalent) was the upper limit of “seriousness” and the thirty-two bar was the basic form, continually reexamined yet rarely expanded. Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers created more ambitious and ravishing specimens of the romantic ballad and, in Broadway collaborations, made bolder contributions to the evolution of musical theater; much of the jazz and blues of Duke Ellington and Harold Arlen has greater depth. But, between them, more than any others, Gershwin and Berlin embody the remarkable range of distinctive American composition in the first half of the twentieth century.

For Berlin, admittedly, the 1988 celebration is largely a case of déjà vu. He first found himself famous more than seventy-five years ago, in 1911, when “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”—a virtually unsyncopated march, far less Joplinesque than a dozen earlier ragtime songs (including several by Berlin himself)—triggered a world-wide “ragtime” craze. The twenty-three-year-old songwriter, an uninhibited eclectic from the start, had managed to distill a simplified, strutting pulse from the rhythms of urban black music, combining it with just enough harmonic sophistication (e.g., the way the second line unexpectedly leaps up a fourth) to challenge and stimulate, but not alienate, a mass audience.

Two world wars later, as the source of such ubiquitous anthems as “White Christmas,” “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” Berlin came to be regarded as an institution: a totem of patriotic values, a folk hero of sorts. And, in every decade since, there have been reverential salutes to the longevity of both the songs and the man. The week of the hundredth birthday itself predictably elicited the most extravagant testimonials thus far. Journalists and broadcasters echoed each other in invoking the same phrases: “America’s song-writer laureate,” “Mr. American Music,” “genius,” “beloved,” “legendary.” Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America” seemed to be on permanent televisual display, frequently followed by a solemn anchorperson intoning “God bless Irving Berlin.”

Yet, despite this adulation (or, to some degree, because of it), Berlin’s work—especially its musical component—remains undervalued, only half-appreciated. For many urbane listeners, his name immediately, if somewhat misleadingly, calls up an off-putting knot of associations: simplistic refrains, conservative or jingoistic sentiments, popularity with (in Berlin’s own ironic words) “the mob.” Such an impression would certainly have been reinforced by most of those centenary paeans. (Even the coverage by PBS’s MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour was embarrassingly superficial.) Similarly, musicologists—including the few who no longer treat Gershwin with condescension—have shown little inclination to take bar-by-bar interest in scores by Irving Berlin.

That academics would have a problem with Berlin is not surprising. He presents that baffling phenomenon: the thoroughly illiterate yet cultivated master who is impossible to dismiss as a “primitive” or “folk artist.” From a far poorer family than Gershwin’s, Berlin quit school at eight to sell newspapers and wait on tables (his father, a part-time cantor, had died). He never learned to read or write music. His by-ear piano playing—only in the key of F#, which keeps the fingers almost exclusively on the black keys—was energetic, ten-fingered, but rudimentary. He took a rigorously practical approach to the songwriting profession, shunning any “artistic” pretensions and cheerfully acknowledging his apparent technical limitations. (His purchase of a specially built piano, one that could mechanically change from key to key as Berlin continued to play in F#, was widely publicized.)

In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Berlin—though identified as “perhaps the most versatile and successful American popular songwriter of the 20th century”—receives barely two columns, with a single paragraph of appraisal: less attention than Gunnar Berg or Erich Bergel or Jan Levoslav Bella. The few attempts at a Berlin biography, beginning with Alexander Woollcott’s 1925 The Story of Irving Berlin, have resulted in ragged personality sketches, devoid of critical ambition or musicological credibility. A reductionist notion of “tunesmith Irving Berlin” persists: on his ninety-ninth birthday, an affectionate but ill-informed and patronizing New York Times editorial presented the hackneyed image of folksy Mr. Berlin picking out melodies “on the piano with one finger.”

The songwriter himself bears much of the responsibility for the dearth of reliable Berliniana. Not only has he allowed the image of an untutored street-kid composer to harden with time into caricature. He has aggressively opposed, since the 1920s, nearly all investigative efforts by would-be biographers, critics, and cultural historians. One could attribute this hostility—and Berlin’s fiercely anti-intellectual posture—to defensiveness: the illiterate’s fear of ridicule (even if Woollcott, who called Berlin a “creative ignoramus,” reminded readers that Homer, too, was probably unable to write down what he composed). Or one could mention instead Berlin’s more general antipathy for the press, apparently dating back to his 1924 courtship of the cable heiress Ellin Mackay; she became his second wife—but not until after news-hounds had pursued the couple from city to city, trumpeted the opposition of Mackay’s father (an anti-Semitic tycoon) in headlines, and announced to the world that Berlin’s recent ballads (“Remember,” “All Alone,” “What’ll I Do?”) were written cut of a star-crossed lover’s anguish. Berlin denied one story after another, ineffectually.

A few years later he was stung by the goading public discussion of a creative dry spell that preceded his 1930s resurgence. Thereafter, though always prepared to plug a new song or show with zeal, he reportedly remained suspicious of journalists’ motives and skeptical about their competence. Not without reason: during just the past year The New York Times buried the composer (with a reference to “lawyers for the Irving Berlin estate”), declared that his last show, Mr. President, “closed out of town” (it ran on Broadway for eight months), and—in a hundredth-birthday piece—confused “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” with “Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk.”

Fortunately, however, the true dimensions of Berlin’s achievement have been kept in view by some of his most erudite colleagues. Stravinsky, who used the word “genius” far less casually than television newswriters do, applied it to Berlin. Virgil Thomson wrote in 1947 that there are not “five American ‘art composers’ who can be compared, as song writers, for either technical skill or artistic responsibility, with Irving Berlin.” Isaac Stern, in truncated interviews during the hundredth-birthday celebration, suggested how Berlin’s long-lined melodies recall Mozart’s and Schubert’s. And, in a less subjective vein, the impeccably trained arrangers and orchestrators who took “musical dictation” from Berlin—Robert Russell Bennett and John Green, among others—testify that he never merely sang them a tune. All the harmonies, and often the voicing of those harmonies (the far subtler question of which notes in a chord are played high, low, or in a middle position), were clearly formed in Berlin’s mind—even if he could not himself transcribe or fully play the precise chord sequences he heard in some inner ear.

In a landmark 1972 study, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950, the late Alec Wilder, taking a scholarly yet unpedantic approach to the history of popular music, offered a fairly persuasive assessment of Berlin as “the best all-around, over-all song writer America has ever had.” Wilder, a composer of chamber music as well as a gifted songwriter (“I’ll Be Around,” “While We’re Young”), pronounced himself to be “frankly astounded” by the sophistication of many Berlin songs. He also concluded—somewhat reluctantly—that the harmonic complexities involved were unquestionably the composer’s own work: “It is very nearly impossible, upon hearing some of these melodies, to believe that every chord was not an integral part of the creation of the tune.”

Why, then, is Berlin still underrated by many sophisticated people?* The platitudinous lyrics for songs like “God Bless America” and “The Girl That I Marry” are one reason. Another, as Wilder pointed out, is that the numbing familiarity of a few Berlin songs has made it easy to overlook their quality. From even the most knowledgeable listeners, for example, “White Christmas” is more likely to summon up a blur of emotional responses, sentimental or cynical, than an appreciation of the bold chromaticism in its brooding opening phrase. In fact, though customarily embraced—or dismissed—as treacle, “White Christmas” captures, with remarkable economy and restraint, the thick mixture of moods stirred up by the Christmas and New Year holidays: nostalgia, anxiety, tenderness, depression. The melody, after several attempts to extract itself from that darkly chromatic rumination, does eventually make its way to the open-heartedness suggested by wider intervals (the gentle ascent on “merry and bright,” the near-octave dip on “Christmases”); in the lyric, too, the singer moves from introspection to feelings of fellowship.

These textures were undoubtedly inspired, in part, by the specific circumstances of the song’s creation, for the film Holiday Inn, in 1942: the warmth of Bing Crosby’s lower register, the longdistance separations and heightened apprehensions of wartime. But, for innumerable singers and succeeding generations, the song’s layers and subtleties continue to generate unmawkish sentiment (a Berlin trademark)—and help to explain, as does the tune’s beauty, why “White Christmas” has survived incessant repetition, bland or inane performances, and guilt by association.

On the other hand, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”—one of Berlin-the-composer’s best things—has been seriously damaged by overexposure and insensitive handling, though some might put the blame in this case on Berlin-the-lyricist. The consummate professional, always ready to write for occasion or function, Berlin sometimes lavished melodic and harmonic refinement on banal verse or trivial subject matter. (The music of “Easter Parade” was originally used for a song called “Smile and Show Your Dimple.”) “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” was a commission for the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919, the thirteenth edition of the annual revue—which always featured at least one procession of whimsically costumed beauties, serenaded by a preening tenor. In 1919’s pièce de résistance each showgirl represented a well-known classical melody—Offenbach’s “Barcarolle” Massenet’s “Elegy,” Dvorák’s “Humoresque”—and Berlin’s mercifully little-known verse began: “I have an ear for music/And I have an eye for a maid.”

  1. *

    See Murray Kempton’s dissent on Berlin, Newsday (May 15, 1988).

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