One of the perhaps unanticipated
effects of the internet has been a considerable expansion in the range of music
that the average listener can listen to. Virtually any style, genre and sub-genre
of music can be sampled online nowadays at the click of a mouse, or the casual
flick of a finger. Usually there is no charge; the curious listener can
experiment with financial impunity.
listeners’ tastes become broader and more open-minded as a consequence? Almost
certainly they have. And yet certain hierarchies remain, perhaps particularly
in the minds of older generations. Popular songs and melodies cannot possibly
carry the same subtleties of nuance and emotion as classical Lieder, can they?
And Broadway musicals: how can they possibly compete with the sophistication
and profundity of opera?
Thomas Allen’s choice of music for this programme of “September Songs” robustly
challenges the assumption that classical compositions have a natural superiority
compared to those which come from the popular end of the cultural spectrum.
the earliest song here, Jerome Kern’s “They
Didn’t Believe Me”, has an emotional directness and sincerity that many
more artfully constructed songs struggle to match. Written in 1914 at an early
stage of Kern’s career, it was inserted into a musical called The Girl From
Utah which had been successful in London, and was transferring to Broadway.
brief in the five songs he contributed to the show - about an American who runs
away to London to avoid marrying a wealthy, already married Mormon - was to
replace nondescript numbers with tunes more palatable to New York audiences. He
did that, and more: in “They Didn’t Believe Me”, Kern created what one
commentator has called “the first modern Broadway ballad and a template for the
twentieth century love song”.
went on to write over 700 songs, including many which have become classics of
the Great American Songbook. Two of these are included in this recital - “The Folks Who Live On The Hill”, from
the 1937 film High, Wide, and Handsome; and “All The Things You Are”, from the 1939 musical Very Warm For
May. Both have words by Oscar Hammerstein II, as does the poignant “Come Home” from the 1947 show Allegro,
one of the great lyricist’s lesser known collaborations with Richard Rogers.
Kern, his younger contemporary George Gershwin had a classical training in
music, and a similarly brilliant lyricist to work with - his brother Ira. The
two combined in many projects, including the opera Porgy and Bess, and a
string of Broadway musicals. Although many of these shows - the plots were
often desperately flimsy - have long since been forgotten, songs from some of
them have become enduring classics.
“Someone To Watch Over Me”, from the
Prohibition-era musical Oh, Kay!, is one of these. Sung to a rag doll by
the title character, the song’s side-slipping harmonies deftly suggest the
vulnerability and longing underlying Gershwin’s sweet, seductive melody. This
is no flighty, cotton-headed love song, as Ira’s lyric makes explicit: “He’s
the big affair I cannot forget/Only man I ever think of with regret”.
“Our Love Is Here To Stay”, the last song Gershwin completed
before his untimely death in July 1937, was first heard in the film The
Goldwyn Follies. It was, though, Gene Kelly’s performance of the song in An
American in Paris - a 1951 movie inspired by Gershwin’s music - that made
it famous. The gentle, soothing lap of the melody bespeaks tender feelings for
the singer’s beloved, and Ira’s lyric again skilfully combines clever wordplay
with unmistakable deeper emotions: “In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar
may tumble/They’re only made of clay, but our love is here to stay”.
very opposite situation - a woman promised love, but abruptly abandoned by a
sexually opportunistic man - is depicted in Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets”. Porter lived fast and lavishly, but was also highly
educated, having studied English and music at Yale University, then music at
Harvard University and with the composer Vincent d’Indy in Paris.
sophistication and a degree of worldly cynicism come through sharply in “Miss
Otis Regrets”, for which he wrote both lyrics and music. The jarring contrast
between the deceptively insouciant music and the grisly tale of a jilted woman
who shoots “the man who had led her so far astray” makes for macabre listening,
and strikes a particularly unsettling note in this post-#MeToo moment.
still inevitable - “our love affair was too hot not to cool down”, the lyric
runs - the death of love takes longer in Porter’s “One Of Those Things”, a song from the 1935 musical Jubilee.
Again a telling fault-line exists in Porter’s music between the apparent
suavity of the vocal line and the nervy foxtrot rhythm of the accompaniment.
it was just one of those things, the song insinuates - but memories have
an afterlife of their own, and can haunt the person harbouring them. A similar
tension, this time between words and music, marks “The Good Life”, a 1962 song by Sacha Distel and Jack Reardon.
Here the easy-going undulations of the melody disguise the disillusion of the
singer, and his rejection of an indulgent lifestyle that “lets you hide all the
sadness you feel”.
the time Cole Porter was writing Jubilee Kurt Weill, an émigré from Nazi
Germany, arrived in America. Weill was already well known in Europe for his
classical pieces, and for his music theatre collaborations with the playwright
Bertolt Brecht, which included The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall
of the City of Mahagonny. In America Weill absorbed a different musical
vernacular, and began incorporating New World tastes and preoccupations into
result was the 1938 Broadway musical Knickerbocker Holiday, a political
satire of Roosevelt’s New Deal America. The show’s most memorable number is “September Song”, sung by a character
attempting to persuade a reluctant woman that time waits for no one, and they
should marry. Weill drapes Maxwell Anderson’s wistful lyric with a gentle
melancholy containing within it just a hint of nascent desperation.
“My Ship”, another of Weill’s most
famous songs, came three laters later, in Lady in the Dark. The plot
revolves around the psychoanalysis of an unhappy fashion magazine editor, and
“My Ship” is a song she only gradually recalls from her childhood. The lyric is
by none other than Ira Gershwin - he continued working with other composers for
a decade after George’s death - who later described Weill’s music for “My Ship”
as sounding “sweet and simple at times, mysterious and menacing at other”.
hint of darker sentiment is banished in Irving Berlin’s determinedly upbeat “You’re Just In Love”, where romantic
befuddlement is depicted as an incurable if desirable afflcition: “There is
nothing you can take/To relieve that pleasant ache”. Another song conceived as
a comic duet, “I Remember It Well”
from Lerner and Loewe’s 1973 Broadway show Gigi, riffs on the tricks
memory can play even when reminiscences are a source of shared happiness.
the names of Ira Gershwin and Oscar Hammerstein cast a daunting shadow, there
were other great lyricists at work in twentieth century music theatre. One of
the finest was Johnny Mercer, whose bourbon-soaked “One For The Road” - from the Harold Arlen-scored movie musical The
Sky’s the Limit - found its definitive interpreter in Frank Sinatra. Mercer
also provided the lyric for the moody, much-recorded “Autumn Leaves”, to music by the Hungarian-French composer Joseph
emotion that Mercer articulates in “Autumn Leaves” - the insistent tugging at
the heart-strings which happens when good times end - is also the focus of “Some Other Time” from Leonard
Bernstein’s 1944 musical On the Town, with words by Betty Comden and
Adolph Green. Throughout his career Bernstein mixed classical and popular
styles in his music, an eclecticism perfectly illustrated in his 1988 song
cycle Arias and Barcarolles, the last major work he completed. The
touching “Greeting”, originally
written to mark the birth of Bernstein’s son Alexander, is part of that cycle.
it matter that “Some Other Time” is
more of a show tune, while “Greeting” seems more classical? Only if categories
are all-important. At its best, the music of the American Broadway tradition
rubs shoulders comfortably with its classical coequal, yielding nothing to it
in terms of emotional immediacy and frank enjoyability.