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Monday, December 21, 2009

Irving Berlin

The song "White Christmas" is running through my head.

It was written by Irving Berlin, who is one of my de facto heroes. One of the local PBS stations rebroadcast the first segment of a two-part series about the composer titled "Irving Berlin’s America." It was Ben Wattenberg's informative weekly show Think Tank.

The discussion about Berlin's limitations as a musician and how he was able to work with his musical secretaries to transcribe hundreds of hit songs was fascinating. He'd start with the lyrics and melody. At some stage in the game one of his musical secretaries would sit at the piano and try-out a series of possible chords. Berlin - a perfectionist - would eventually weigh in on the one chord that he liked. It was a laborious process, but in time Berlin became "the wunderkind of Tin Pan Alley." He was a spectacular financial success too. His theatre still stands in Times Square today.

Another interesting fact is how Berlin tailored his songs specifically for certain singers, such as Fred Astaire. Astaire had about a one-octave range. Yet he could make something of a song. Cole Porter, Berlin, and the Gershwins all considered Astaire "a composer's singer" - but one octave is a pretty serious limitation to work with. In the song "Cheek to Cheek" from the movie Top Hat (1935) with Ginger Rogers, Berlin exploited Astaire's limited vocal range, making him "really reach" for his upper notes...

(The melodic range in this song is actually well over an octave, reaching down to the lower pitches at the end of the melody. Notice the word-painting on the text "highest peak")

It was Berlin ritual to write a complete song every day. He did not believe in inspiration, but thought his success was just a matter of hard and diligent work.

The PBS TV program featured:

Philip Furia, professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and author of "Irving Berlin, a Life in Song"

Robert Kimball, co-editor with Linda Emmet of "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin" and

Linda Emmet, the second of Irving Berlin’s three daughters, and co-editor of "The Complete Lyrics of Irving Berlin"