Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Harold Arlen composed some of America's greatest and most memorable songs. In this first of a three-part series on American Jewish songwriters, we explore the personalities and passions of these musical masters.
ewish lyricist Sammy Cahn used to tell a joke about songwriters. He would ask: "Which comes first--the music or the words?" His answer: "The phone call." By that he meant that the professional songwriters who worked in the first half of the 20th century did not have the luxury or inclination to wait for inspiration; they waited for a commission to write a specific song for a movie or show--like a tailor fitting a suit to a specific size. So, for example, when the Jewish team of lyricist Ray Evans and composer Jay Livingston of Famous Music, the publishing arm of Paramount Pictures, were told that Bob Hope needed a new song about Christmas, Evans wrote a lyric originally called "Tinkle Bells," and Livingston sat down at the piano to compose one of the simplest and most memorable melodies of his career. When Evans' wife informed him that the phrase "Tinkle Bells" could be construed as having an off-color meaning, Ray went back to work and came up with a more suitable title--"Silver Bells."
Jewish songwriters of this era composed thousands of songs about virtually every popular theme. Holiday songs were always in demand, so Jewish composers supplied them. And that is how it happened that almost all of the most famous Christmas songs were written by Jews--"White Christmas" by Irving Berlin, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" by Johnny Marks, "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, "Silver Bells" by Livingston and Evans, and the "Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire....") by Mel Torme.
Jewish songwriters often went far afield from the kind of urban experience they knew, almost as if they were trying to leave Judaism and Jewish culture behind. Rodgers and Hammerstein, for example, wrote Oklahoma, George Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess, Livingston and Evans wrote "Que Sera Sera," and Berlin wrote "Alabammy Bound." Songwriter Randy Newman, who once said, "I seriously doubt Irving Berlin was ever Alabammy bound," surmised that the Russian-born songwriter wanted "to get into America harder...." Indeed, Berlin's "God Bless America," which many have suggested should be adapted as the national anthem, resonates with the genuine gratitude of an immigrant who fled Eastern Europe to make a new life in America.
rving Berlin was born in Temun, Russia on May 11, 1888 to Cantor Moses and Lena Beilin. The youngest of eight children, he was given the name of Israel, but everyone called him Izzy. Like other Russian Jews, his family lived in perpetual fear of attack by the Cossacks, hiding in the woods at night for safety. In 1892, they joined the tide of immigrants to America, moving to New York's Lower East Side. Contributing to the family finances as soon as he was able, Izzy started selling newspapers in the streets at the age of eight. Just as he was turning thirteen, his father suddenly died, leaving the family in poverty. Izzy took to the streets, singing for spare change--"a busker in the Bowery," as he put it--a time that became permanently ingrained in him. He never escaped the fear that to these streets someday he could return, and to the end of his life, he maintained a work ethic that resulted in a tremendously vast and varied output of more than 1,500 songs.
Izzy's first real job was as a singing waiter at a Chinatown café. It was during this stint in 1907 that he made his first move as a professional songwriter, contributing the lyrics to "Marie From Sunny Italy" to a tune written by two Chinatown waiters. After "Marie," he began writing his own melodies. Though entirely unschooled in music and capable of playing piano only in one key (oddly, the key of F#, consisting primarily of all the piano's black notes), he never let these limitations hold him back. He bought a "transposing piano," a keyboard that allowed him to shift keys while keeping his fingers on those familiar keys. He was "some kind of natural genius," wrote the historian Ian Whitcomb, "thrown naked into this world with all the knowledge and none of the know-how."
What Berlin did have in abundance was ambition and a knack for marketing. He wrote lyrics and music, so as not to have to split income with a partner. And from 1919 on, he became the first American songwriter to successfully start his own music publishing company, so as not to have to split royalties with a publisher. Rather than compete to get his musicals into Broadway theaters, in 1919 he built his own--the landmark Music Box Theater--to showcase his annual revues. And he was among the founders of ASCAP, the first performance rights organization for songwriters in America, which tracked and collected royalties.
But being a savvy businessman alone would never have resulted in Berlin's tremendous success as a composer/lyricist. Songwriter and author Alec Wilder marveled at Berlin's "uncanny ability to adjust to the demands or the needs of the moment, the singer, or the shift in popular mood. Like other Jewish songwriters of this time, when black culture became the rage, Berlin took up ragtime music. His "Alexander's Ragtime Band" was the first worldwide hit single ever. Then he cleverly cashed in on a craze he himself started by crafting one sequel and then another, among them "The Ragtime Soldier Man," "The Ragtime Jockey Man," "The Ragtime Violin," and "The International Rag." Even though these songs were not actually ragtime compositions, but songs about ragtime, Berlin became known as the principal purveyor of this black genre, deposing Scott Joplin as the "King of Ragtime."
Many of Berlin's classic works were not conceived at the piano. "You write in the morning, you write at night," he said. "You write in a taxi, in the bathtub, or in an elevator.... A professional songwriter has his mind on his job all the time." He composed the first of many successful ballads, "When I Lost You," after Dorothy Goetz, his wife of only five months, died suddenly of pneumonia in 1912. He then went on to create, as the author David Ewen wrote, "a repertoire of ballads without equal in American popular music for touching sentiment expressed in the simplest and most affecting melodies and lyrics," among them "Always," "Remember," "All By Myself" and "What'll I Do?"
He remained a widower until 1926, when, at the age of 37, he surprised the theatrical world by eloping with Ellin MacKay, a 22-year-old writer for the New Yorker. Her outraged father, Clarence MacKay, a telegraph tycoon and a devout Catholic, disinherited his daughter for marrying a Jew. The Berlins had three daughters in a marriage that spanned sixty-two years.
Berlin straddled both coasts, concurrently writing movie musicals and songs for Broadway. His song "Blue Skies" in the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer (1927) starring Al Jolson, secured him a prominent place in cinema history. After some early movie work, he moved to Hollywood, but had a tough time adjusting to a system in which he had little creative control over the end product. For example, when RKO hired him to compose songs for the new Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, Top Hat (1935), he did so without reading the screenplay, as was his custom, assuming the story would be adjusted to fit his material. He was wrong. Although his song "Cheek To Cheek" was accepted, his other new songs were rejected. The decision came as a blow to Berlin, but he would not be defeated. He retreated home, and, wearing his trademark pajamas and slippers, in under two months wrote the film's title song, "Top Hat," as well as "White Tie and Tails," "Isn't This A Lovely Day?" and "The Piccolino." The film was a hit, and Berlin began to think Hollywood might not be such a bad place after all.
Though he himself was a musical innovator, Berlin had nothing but disdain for jazz and swing, two genres that were quickly gaining popularity in the thirties. Although Benny Goodman, the "King of Swing," made Berlin a lot of money by recording "Blue Skies" and other tunes, Berlin hated the improvisational liberties Goodman took with his melodies. "That was the most incredible playing I've ever heard," Berlin said to Goodman. "Never do it again!"
On Broadway, the Jewish team of Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to avoid the incursion of jazz by writing musicals set in the past, such as Oklahoma and Carousel. Jerome Kern was initially slated to write the music for their next project, a musical based on the life of Annie Oakley, but Kern died shortly thereafter and Berlin was offered the job. Initially reluctant to write what he considered to be "hillbilly" songs, Berlin eventually accepted the assignment and completed all the songs within one week. Annie Get Your Gun, starring Berlin's favorite singer Ethel Merman (who, he knew, could deliver his words with as much gusto as his melodies), became the longest-running show of the 1940s and the biggest Broadway success of Berlin's career; and "There's No Business Like Show Business" became Merman's signature song. The film version was also successful, as were other movies with Berlin songs, such as Easter Parade, This Is The Army, and White Christmas (for which he won the 1942 Oscar for the year's best song).
By the 1960s, after having been at the center of the songwriting world for more than forty years, Berlin began to feel that his music had become irrelevant. Rock music, which he viewed with contempt, had eclipsed the sophisticated, melodic, and crafty brand of songwriting which was his forte. His last musical, Mr. President, was an utter failure. By the late sixties he stopped writing altogether.
In his last years, Berlin was known as "the Howard Hughes of show business." Although he was worth more than $10 million at the time of his death, the anxiety-ridden recluse worried constantly about running out of money, spending much of his time on the telephone calling the president of ASCAP to check on his royalties.
But as anxious as he was about his finances, Berlin held fast to his principles. He could have earned many millions more by licensing his songs to movies or TV, but he steadfastly refused, believing that to do so would cheapen his work. In 1986, when Steven Spielberg asked Berlin, then 98, if he could use a song for the movie E.T., Berlin refused. When Spielberg pressed him for a reason, Berlin said he wanted to save it for one of his own projects. He also went out of his way to stop dissemination of renditions of his work he didn't like. When Elvis Presley recorded "White Christmas," something which would have been the honor of a lifetime for most songwriters, an aghast Berlin personally called radio stations urging them not to play the record.
Yet even in the last decade of his life there were unexpected moments of sunshine, as on Christmas Eve 1983, when he invited a group of fans who were singing "White Christmas" outside his window into his kitchen for a cup of hot chocolate, hugged all the men and kissed all the women, and, according to his biographer Laurence Bergreen, told them that it was "his loveliest Christmas present ever."
There are also many instances of exceptional generosity that belie Berlin's reputation as a miser. He donated to the government all of his royalties from the song "This Is The Army," and all the royalties--many millions of dollars over the years--from Kate Smith's version of "God Bless America" to the Boy Scouts and the Girls Scouts of America.
When Berlin died at his home on Beekman Place in New York City on September 22, 1989, a crowd gathered outside his windows and started singing his songs. That everyone knew the music and the words to "God Bless America," "Blue Skies," "White Christmas," and other Berlin songs would have made him happy, for he had always worried that his songs would be forgotten.
Berlin truly believed in the sentiment of "God Bless America"--that America is a land for all people, and nothing was more vital to him than connecting with them through his music. As fellow songwriter Jerome Kern said about him, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music. He is American music."
orn Jacob Gershovitz in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898, George Gershwin was the second of four children born to Rose and Morris Gershovitz, both Jewish immigrants from Russia. As the story goes, his soul was first overtaken by the splendor of music in a Brooklyn penny arcade, where, at the age of six, he heard a rendition of Rubinstein's "Melody in F" on a player-piano. "The peculiar jumps in the music held me rooted," he would later say. "To this very day I can't hear the tune without picturing myself outside that arcade, drinking it all in avidly."
Blessed with an amazing innate capacity for musical expression and invention, at age 12, the first time he ever sat down at a real piano--an upright purchased by his parents for his older brother Ira in 1910--he quickly figured out how to play both the melody and harmony of a pop tune. His mother wisely recognized his talent and sought out a succession of teachers, culminating in Charles Hambitzer, who told her, "The boy is a genius. I believe I can make something of him." In teaching him the classics, Hambitzer had a profound effect on Gershwin's career.
George Gershwin's first compositions, at the age of 13--the year of his bar mitzvah--were "Since I Found You" and "Ragging the Traumerei," both ragtime numbers in classical form. Two years later, he dropped out of high school (he was considered a "hopeless case" by his teachers) and landed a job as Tin Pan Alley's youngest-ever song-plugger. For $15 a week, he played pop songs at the Remick publishing house to generate sales of sheet music, all the while working on his own compositions. (The keepers he saved in a notebook with the initials "G. T."--meaning "good tunes.") Even in this humble position, the vitality he brought to his music attracted the attention of lyricist Irving Caesar, who often stopped in at Remick's just to hear George play. "His rhythms had the impact of a sledge hammer," Caesar recalled, "and his harmonies were years ahead of his time."
At age 15, Gershwin sold his first song, "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em," a collaboration with lyricist Murray Roth, performed by Sophie Tucker; and his song "Making Of A Girl" was used on Broadway in The Passing Show of 1916. It was also at this time that his father introduced him to Yiddish music. At the National Theatre on Second Avenue, they heard renowned Jewish composers such as Abraham Goldfaden and Joseph Ruminsky. Two years later, George was invited by the National Theatre manager Boris Thomashevsky to collaborate on a Yiddish operetta with the esteemed Jewish composer Sholom Secunda, who had written the classic "Bei Mir Bist Du Schon" (later popularized for American audiences by Sammy Cahn, who added English lyrics). Gershwin agreed, but Secunda, upon meeting Gershwin, rejected the idea outright; Gershwin, he felt, was too young, too inexperienced, and "too much American and too little Jew." Some scholars have proposed it was this rebuff which caused Gershwin to turn his back on Jewish music. Nevertheless, many years later, in 1929, Gershwin signed a contract with the Metropolitan Theater to create a Jewish opera, The Dybbuk. This project came to a halt, however, when Gershwin discovered that the Italian composer Lodovico Rocco already had acquired the rights to the original play.
Although Gershwin never composed any Jewish songs, a number of musical scholars have noted the influence of Jewish music on his work. "Much has been made of his debt to African-American music, and it is indeed a major source of his inspiration, but it's not the only one," wrote the musicologist Steve Schwartz. "Igor Stravinsky, Claude Debussy, Piotr Tchaikovsky, and even Jewish chant also contribute to his (paradoxically) quite original music." Some Gershwin experts see the Jewish influence in his song "'S Wonderful," which has a melody almost identical to Goldfaden's "Noach's Teive" ("Noah's Ark") from the operetta Akeidas Izchok (The Sacrifice of Isaac). It has also been proposed that Gershwin's repeated use of minor keys for many of his songs reflects a Jewish musical sensibility reminiscent of traditional Jewish folk songs, a great many of which were composed in minor keys.
At 17, Gershwin left Remick to apply for a job as musical secretary for Irving Berlin, who was ten years his elder. Berlin quickly recognized that Gershwin was meant for bigger things than transcribing tunes Berlin couldn't notate himself. "You're more than the skilled arranger that I am looking for," Berlin informed him. "You're a natural-born creator. You're meant for big things."
George next went to work for Max Dreyfus of the T. B. Harms publishing house. So impressed was Dreyfus by Gershwin's pianistic virtuosity that he commissioned him to write original songs. The first piece to emerge from this arrangement was "Some Wonderful Sort of Someone," which, rather than imitate any hits of the period, was distinctively Gershwin: rhythmic, chromatic, and modern. Merging the European classical music he had learned from Hambitzer with the American jazz he had heard on Manhattan street corners and clubs, he began to formulate a unique style of music that would capture the vibrant, expansive essence of early 20th-century America.
Dreyfus enabled Gershwin, now 21, to write songs for the Broadway show La, La, Lucille, which featured "Nobody But You." That same year, Gershwin teamed up with lyricist Irving Caesar to write "Swanee"--in only ten minutes. Like Gershwin's other songs, "Swanee" had a freshness and harmonic vigor previously unheard of in pop music. When vaudeville sensation Al Jolson, the son of a cantor, added the tune to his popular touring show, "Swanee" became an immense hit, selling one million copies of sheet music in its first year. "Swanee" would be the biggest hit of Gershwin's career.
Not content with fame and riches, Gershwin longed to write "serious music," as he called it. An invitation by the bandleader Paul Whiteman gave him the longed-for opportunity to write an instrumental piano opus which combined the sophistication of a classical concerto with the exuberance of jazz. Four years in the making, "Rhapsody in Blue" emerged as something entirely and unmistakably new: a chromatic cavalcade of exhilarating rhythms and dazzling, jazzy melodies. "I ought to be slightly drunk to be able to describe it properly," wrote the critic Beverly Nichols in 1927, "for it was the music of intoxication. Only by ragged words...by strident and jagged adjectives could one capture on the printed page the entangled and enticing rhythms which floated across the darkening room... as I listened it seemed that the whole of new America was blossoming before me!" This elegant, urbane celebration of America, as sincere in its love of country as Berlin's "God Bless America," sparked fervent debates among musicians and critics alike, who either loved or hated his "scandalous" integration of classical music and jazz. But no one doubted that this 25-year-old songwriter was a musical genius. As the author Isaac Goldberg, Gershwin's first biographer, wrote, "With one foot just outside Tin Pan Alley and the other planted on Carnegie Hall, he bestrode the musical world of Gotham like a young Colossus."
George soon started collaborating with his brother Ira, who had been writing lyrics with other composers under the pseudonym Arthur Francis. Together they created a bounty of Broadway musicals for such stars as Fred Astaire, W. C. Fields, Jimmy Durante, Fanny Brice, and Bob Hope. Though the plots of these shows were rarely memorable, many of the songs the brothers wrote became standards, including "I Got Rhythm," which Ethel Merman introduced in 1930, and "Embraceable You," performed by Ginger Rogers that same year in Girl Crazy. They also teamed up with another Jewish team--George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind--to write the first Broadway musical to win a Pulitzer: Of Thee I Sing (1931), a political satire which featured such songs as "Love Is Sweeping The Country" and "Wintergreen For President."
George was now ready to work on the full-length opera he had intended to write since 1926, after reading Porgy, a short novel about black fishermen in Charleston, South Carolina by poet, author, and folklorist DuBose Heyward. In reverse sequence (Gershwin's melodies always preceded Ira's lyrics), Heyward sent the lyrics to Gershwin, who then took them to the piano. America was not ready in 1935 for an opera as boldly original as Porgy and Bess, which opened in Boston with an all-black cast and soon closed to mostly negative reviews. Moreover, critics scoffed at the idea that Porgy and Bess was a true opera, denigrating it as a collection of songs written by a crafty songwriter. The implication was that popular songwriting was on a lower rung of the cultural ladder. But Gershwin always held firm to his belief that good music was good music, whether written for an opera or vaudeville or even the movies. "I am not ashamed of writing songs at any time," Gershwin told The New York Times in 1935, "as long as they are good songs."
In truth, Gershwin had created Porgy and Bess as a hybrid, not a true opera in the tradition of Mozart or Puccini, but as an American "folk opera," based on the textures, voices, and values of American life itself. Porgy and Bess eventually was rediscovered and its eminence remains to this day, as does the power of its songs, including the timelessly inspirational "Summertime."
Harold Arlen once said of George Gershwin: "If you know his music, you know the man. Like the melodies he composed, Gershwin was smart, sophisticated, jazzy, funny, and unforgettable." He was known for his tremendous energy, "a human dynamo," as Ewen called him, who would regale party guests with songs long into the evening, and had "an ego as big as a ballroom" according to one friend. When informed that a hotel manager had complained about his late-night playing, he responded, "Maybe he didn't know that Gershwin was playing?"
Gershwin remained unmarried throughout his life, but was a known ladies' man with a string of girlfriends--none of whom could compete with his love of music. He deeply loved his brother Ira, his collaborator for more than thirteen years. After completing Porgy and Bess, he moved in with Ira and Ira's wife Leonore in Beverly Hills in order to co-write songs for movies. He would remain there for the remaining three years of his life.
On July, 1937, George Gershwin died suddenly at the age of 38 from a brain tumor. In his short lifetime, he had composed more than a thousand songs, many of them holding an honored place in the American songbook. His last song, which Ira titled "Our Love Is Here To Stay" following his brother's death, is a glowing celebration of the timeless nature of love.
ike Berlin, Harold Arlen--born Chaim Arluch on February 15, 1905--was the son of a cantor. At the age of two, he gave his first public performance, singing prayers at the Clinton Street Shul in his hometown of Buffalo, New York. Growing up listening to his father improvise the holy words of the Jewish liturgical tradition, the young boy was profoundly moved. "[My father] was the most delicious improviser I ever heard," Arlen later said. The music of the synagogue was a source of inspiration which forever colored Arlen's musical expression, bringing together, as Alec Wilder later wrote, "the two basic elements of [Arlen's] own musical style: a strong, flowing melodic line and a subtle but marked feeling for improvisation."
A gifted pianist since childhood, Arlen dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to play music, much to his parents' dismay. Moving to Manhattan in 1925, he landed a job playing piano for silent movies. He created his professional name by combining his last name, Arluch, with his mother's maiden name, Orlin.
His first band, The Snappy Trio (later the Southbound Shufflers when they expanded into a quintet), performed on land and on the steamboats of Lake Erie. Later he joined The Buffalodians, writing musical arrangements, singing, and playing piano. When major artists such as Fletcher Henderson started seeking him out to do arrangements, Arlen quit the band and for a short while performed a singing piano-player act on the vaudeville circuit, a stint that led to a singing part in Vincent Youmans' Broadway show Great Day. When Youmans discovered Arlen's gift at musical arrangement, he insisted that the young singer devote all his time to scoring music--but Arlen eagerly replaced the show's rehearsal pianist at the piano whenever possible. Throughout the day he'd improvise freely on melodies which would evolve and expand. The songwriter Harry Warren happened to hear one of these tunes and said to Arlen, "I know just the guy to write this up." That guy was the songwriter Ted Koehler, who added lyrics to create "Get Happy," Arlen's first song. It was also his first hit, going to number one on the charts in 1930 and opening doors all over New York for Harold Arlen as a professional songwriter.
Unlike his contemporaries who rarely veered from Broadway, Arlen took Broadway's Great White Way due north to Harlem, where the famed Cotton Club invited him to write songs for their revues. His compositions, including "Ill Wind," "Let's Fall in Love," and "Stormy Weather" (written with Ted Koehler), were infused with the blues--or "color-drenched"--as Alec Wilder put it. When his Cotton Club stint ended, Arlen headed to Hollywood to write film music. He remained in California for the next two decades, returning east only occasionally to Broadway.
In 1938, Arlen accepted an assignment to write songs for an upcoming movie called The Wizard of Oz. Collaborating with the Jewish wordsmith E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, with whom he'd written "It's Only A Paper Moon," Arlen composed "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," which remains as quintessentially American as the American dream itself: hopeful, soaring, sentimental, and timeless. Rooted in cantorial tradition (as exemplified by the famous one-octave melodic jump in "Some-where"), the song grew out of a melody that occurred to Arlen as he was driving his car through Beverly Hills. As soon as he got home, he hastily transcribed the tune and rushed straight to the piano, where he added a lush, sophisticated chordal underpinning. When he played it for Harburg, the lyricist felt it sounded too sophisticated to be sung by the young and innocent Judy Garland character. So the two songwriters sought a third opinion, that of their friend and neighbor, Ira Gershwin, who suggested that they simplify the piano part. Arlen adjusted the supporting chords to resemble a folk song, thus emphasizing the simple beauty of the tune. With consummate lyrics provided by Harburg, the future classic was complete. "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" became Garland's signature song and, she said, "the song that's closest to my heart."
Like Berlin, Arlen was an acutely chameleonic composer, able to write music in any style, from bluesy songs and ballads to comic and experimental art songs. From the streets of Harlem to the yellow brick road, he suited his songs so perfectly to the singer and the setting that the songwriter, like the "man behind the curtain" in The Wizard Of Oz, remained hidden.
Another Arlen attribute was his musical chutzpah. Repudiating many of the conventions of composition, Arlen followed what he believed to be the only acceptable musical rule: that the song sound good. He broke accepted rules of repetition, skipping a standard musical repeat, as he did in "Stormy Weather," because, he said, it wasn't necessary to the melody--a move musicians of the time considered revolutionary. And in the tradition of his father's cantorial style, to capture the full passion and motion of the music, Arlen allowed his songs to stretch and breathe by building in extra measures. In 1942, when he wrote "That Old Black Magic" (with lyrics by Johnny Mercer) for the film Star Spangled Rhythm, studio executives threatened to reject the song because of its 82-bar melody, which was deemed far too long at the time. But Arlen resisted, insisting that the song structure would be eminently more singable, and therefore more appealing to the ear. The studio wisely acquiesced, and the song became a standard, recorded by many great singers, including Billy Daniels, who originally sang it in the film, as well as Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra.
A humble and grateful man, Arlen repeatedly attributed the credit for writing many of America's greatest songs to the greatness of his lyricist collaborators. As for "That Old Black Magic," he explained, it was the lyric, not the melody, that made the song work. "The words sustain the interest," he said. "They make sense, contain memorable phrases, and tell a story. Without the lyric, the song would be just another song."
As a composer, Arlen seemed to live by the Jewish ideal of Torah lishmah--the love of learning for its own sake. "Arlen never spoke of hits," wrote Wilder. "He talked only of good songs. He simply didn't equate quality with sales....[He] loved the creative act for its excitement and fulfillment." It was this love that led Arlen to write many of the most enchanting songs in the great American songbook, among them "Blues In The Night" and "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive." It also led him to write serious instrumental music such as his Blues Opera, American Minuet, and Americanegro Suite. But unlike Gershwin, who created orchestral pieces which could garner as much lasting attention as his greatest pop songs, Arlen's "serious music" never really connected with the public. About one-third of his work was never published or performed. His Blues Opera, which premiered in Europe in 1959, has yet to receive a public performance in America; the only existent recording, conducted by Andre Kostelanetz, contains a 27-minute passage taken from the heart of its three-hour score. Arlen wrote other piano and orchestral pieces in his later years, but, except for his popular songs, little else of his musical legacy remains.
This may be due to the fact that, unlike both Berlin and Gershwin, Arlen generally avoided the spotlight. Instead of pursuing personal stardom, he lived a serene life of luxury in Beverly Hills with his wife Anya and their son Sam not far from his more gregarious neighbors, the Gershwin brothers and Jerome Kern. "My father chose a quiet life," said Sam. "He enjoyed family and friends. He played tennis, walked for miles, and painted. He never had a harsh word to say about anyone. His appreciation for beauty and the lighter side of life, combined with his sensitivity and empathy for those who suffered, were demonstrated by his capacity to create melodies that were happy and uplifting or tender and poignant." In the mid 1950s, Arlen returned to his native New York, where he lived to be 81.
Berlin, Gershwin, and Arlen each wrote songs that have stood the test of time. These three Jewish composers achieved the greatest triumph any songwriter can hope for: to bring together that essential amalgam of music, words, and magic that outlives the season of its creation and even the lifetime of its creators. Each has written standards which are forever woven into the cultural fabric of America, both the nation and the ideal.
Paul Zollo is a Jewish songwriter-singer, journalist, and author of Songwriters On Songwriting, a collection of interviews with the world's greatest songwriters, as well as Hollywood Remembered, An Oral History (Cooper Square Press, November 2002).
Copyright © 2002, Union of American Hebrew Congregations