Genius Without Tears

Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin; drawing by David Levine

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,”…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.