Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Great American Songbook: The Lyricists

I’ve been pondering the role of lyricists, the poets really, of the genre known as the great American songbook since my chorus has been preparing for our upcoming concert of the same name.  By and large the lyricists tend to be forgotten, swallowed up by the giant shadows of the composers who created the unforgettable melodies we know so well.  And yet, those songs wouldn’t exist without the words that also gave them life.  Some lyricists worked for multiple composers, some collaborated as part of semi-permanent duos.  But each brought his or her own signature to these great numbers.

Consider, for instance, Lorenz Hart, of Rodgers and Hart fame.

For more than twenty years, from 1919 into the 1940s, they were the toast of Broadway and Hollywood; at least until Richard Rodgers finally broke away in frustration from Hart to team up even more famously with Oscar Hammerstein.  Hart was known for his witty, playful lyrics and unexpected polysyllabic or internal rhymes.    Here is just one of several clever lines from The Lady is a Tramp:

I like the free, fresh wind in my hair.
Life without care,
I’m broke—it’s oke.

Which next time around morphs into:

I like the green grass under my shoes
What can I lose?
I’m flat!  That’s that!

But loneliness and wistfulness often lurked beneath the surface, and sometimes rose to the surface, for he apparently felt that he was too unattractive to be loved.  Here is the opening line from My Funny Valentine, a really lovely ballad sung in our concert by soprano soloist and long-time friend Mary Jo DuGaw:

My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart.
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art.

Is this perhaps a self-portrait?
Here is Frank Sinatra giving a tender rendition.

Hart was supremely talented, but he was also an alcoholic, undependable, with a chaotic life.  Finally his friendship and partnership with Rodgers fell apart, and Rodgers forged an even more successful collaboration with Hammerstein.  And Hart fell out of sight and died in 1943 of pneumonia, exacerbated by drink and neglect.

Or consider Johnny Mercer, composer and lyricist who teamed with many different composers as a lyricist, creator of such classics as That Old Black Magic and Laura, both of which are on our program.

He was a Southerner, and his lyrics often grew out of the sounds of his boyhood home: colorful African American or rural white expressions, country dance music, the clickety-clack of  train wheels, the wind in the trees.  He excelled in creating misty, magical moments, such as the dream that is Laura, or the Black Magic that holds the lover spellbound.

Or consider Ira Gershwin, modest, unassuming, bookish brother of George who didn’t show much interest in writing until 1922 when he teamed up with George to create their first hit song, I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.

Together they had a knack for creating fresh and novel ballads, songs of chivalry and romantic love.  Like Johnny Mercer he delighted in the sounds of the everyday world, but for him it was an urban world.  And like Lorenz Hart he liked playing with rhythmic timing of words, unusual word combinations, and new lyrical styles.  Their classic I Got Rhythm overflows with clean, clipped, rhythmic lyrics that sing easily and naturally and perfectly fit the music.

I got rhythm,
I got music,
I got my gal, who could ask for anything more.
I got daisies
In green pastures
I got my gal, who could ask for anything more.

Here is the incomparable Gene Kelly singing it in an absolutely charming presentation in An American in Paris.

But Ira’s style was his own, and the brothers worked perfectly together until George’s death in 1937.  Ira wrote no lyrics for three years afterwards, then went on to write for many big-name composers.  Somehow he has never quite achieved the recognition that he deserves.  In fact, all of these poets of song need to be heralded.  They contributed a vital element to the great American songbook.  For these songs wouldn’t be part of our culture without their words.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Harold Arlen: Tattoos and Rainbows

As I’ve looked into Harold Arlen’s life in preparation for Master Chorus Eastside’s upcoming Great American Songbook concert, I’ve been amazed at his versatility, grasp of styles, and depth of expressiveness. He was a full-fledged Tin Pan Alley composer, with all that entails: ballads, show business tunes, novelty numbers, film scores later on: think of the light-hearted It’s Only a Paper Moon, the wistful Somewhere Over the Rainbow, the wacky Lydia the Tattooed Lady.  More than most white composers, except maybe George Gershwin, he was conversant in jazz, blues, and music of the dance bands: think of the sultry Stormy Weather, the jazzy That Old Black Magic (which I examined in my last blog), and his first big hit, the tent-meeting-revivalist-styled Get Happy.

Pretty good for the shy son of a New York cantor!

He was born Hyman Arluck in February 1905, although like other popular Jewish composers of the time, such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin, he changed his name as his career took off.  At seven he joined his synagogue choir, so little he had to stand on a chair so all could see him.  At nine he began piano lessons.  At sixteen he dropped out of high school and formed a small dance band, The Snappy Trio.  In his early twenties he joined a well-known eleven-man band called the Buffalodians, and his composing career began to blossom.  By the late 1920s he was attracting national attention with a string of hits.  In the mid-1930s he moved to Hollywood  and took up film scores.  There he created the music for The Wizard of Oz, including Judy Garland’s signature hit Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

And a song for the equally unforgettable Marx brothers comedy At the Circus, that signature Groucho tune, Lydia the Tattooed Lady.

Arlen once said, “I could never stay with one thing very long, in melody at least.”  And his output certainly bore that out.  These two movies were both released in the same year, 1939.  And no two numbers could be more unlike!

Let’s consider Over the Rainbow.  Here is Garland in her remarkably sweet movie rendition.

Arlen beautifully captures the arc of a rainbow in the leaps sprinkled throughout: “somewhere,” “way up high,” “there’s a land,” skies are blue.”  It’s as if Dorothy’s longing springs with the melody far above the drab Kansas plains and into the very heart of imagination. Which is astonishing, because there was no text to give Arlen inspiration.  The melody came to him one day as he was driving down Sunset Boulevard.  The words were added afterwards by lyricist Yip Harburg.  And then the fluttery mid-section seems to echo the wings of the bluebirds in the final verse, wings that promise to carry her far above the clouds and away from her troubles.

And now compare this to Groucho and crew singing Lydia the Tattooed Lady!

Like Over the Rainbow there’s a leap in Lydia, on “tattooed.”  Is it great artistry?  Maybe Arlen just couldn’t contain himself over the tattoos!  But that’s just about where the similarity ends.  The genius of this novelty number comes in a simplicity which is never simple-minded: the attractive, singable melody; a surprisingly sophisticated ABACA form which provides interest and variety (A= “Lydia, oh Lydia”; B= “She can give you a view”; C= “Come along and see Buffalo Bill,”each section separated by a “la la” interlude); the goofy lyrics which are never obscured by tune and harmony; and the waltzing rhythm, for who wouldn’t dance over a phenom like Lydia!  It’s 180 degrees from Over the Rainbow, and inspired zaniness!

Arlen died at age 81, not as well known as many of his contemporaries, maybe because he was shy to the end.  But he was a marvelously versatile composer, capable of expressing great tenderness, world-weariness, optimism, and humor in music dressed up in jazz, blues or ballads.  He deserves to be better known.  And since MCE is presenting these two numbers as choral arrangements, plus several other Arlen classics in The Great American Songbook, we’re doing our best to make that happen.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Harold Arlen: Magic!

Harold Arlen may be one of the best kept secrets of the American Songbook.

He composed some masterful songs, on a par with George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter, and yet he is seldom mentioned in the same breath with them, much less on his own.  I’ve had a nodding acquaintance with him as the writer of the lovely Over the Rainbow, but even so I’ve hardly paid attention to him.  Here is a tiny glimpse of his output: Stormy Weather, all of the music for The Wizard of Oz, That Old Black Magic, Get Happy,  It’s Only a Paper Moon, Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive, One for My Baby (And One More for the Road), and hundreds more.  It’s only as Master Chorus Eastside has been preparing for our Great American Songbook concert, which includes some of his numbers, that he has come into focus for me as one of our most underrated Songbook composers.

Take his That Old Black Magic for example, lyrics by Johnny Mercer, who crafted the words in 1942, apparently with Judy Garland in mind.  I’ve heard it off and on over the years but haven’t really appreciated it until I began rehearsing an arrangement of it with the MCE Chamber Singers.

Here is Garland herself in a ballad-like 1942 recording.

The number suggests a love affair that is overpowering, magnetic, maybe even dangerous—after all, it is black magic!—and Arlen adroitly expresses that sense through some downright mesmerizing music.  The A section begins:

That old black magic has me in its spell,
that old black magic that you weave so well.
Those icy fingers up and down my spine,
that same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine.

Notice the magical words: “black magic,” “spell,” “weave,” “witchcraft.”  Notice the melodic note repeated over and over on “That old black magic has...in its spell,” almost like a snake that  has immobilized its intended victim with its hypnotic gaze.  The harmony enhances that image; it remains an unchanging undercurrent until the word “weave,” and then stays with the new chord until the word “witchcraft,” where it begins a dissonant rising tension that finally resolves on the word “eyes.” Notice the narrow compass of the melody; the first phrase uses only two notes confined to the interval of a sixth, and the second phrase only adds two more notes.  It all creates a sense of capture, confinement, helplessness!

He returns to that hypnotic sense with, “That same old tingle that I feel inside,” but melody and harmony are now slightly agitated.  The agitation increases with a melody line that matches the rising elevator of the second phrase, strengthened by a brand new chord on the word “ride,” one foreign to the key of the piece.  And then melody and harmony gradually descend in “Down and down I go, round and round I go,” still with those repeated notes and harmonies, but now broken up in excitement by occasional passing notes.

The music comes suddenly to life in the B section, “I should stay away, but what can I do?” as if trying to break away from the spell: the melody frantically leaps here and there, repeated notes are mostly gone, harmonies change more rapidly.  Most interesting is the disturbance evident in “I’m aflame, aflame with such a burning desire...”: “aflame” is repeated (the first time words recur back-to-back), the melody plunges as if crashing in fire, then dizzyingly ascends on the word “desire” over a remarkable minor chord, perhaps a last gasp and somber recognition that escape is impossible.  For then it begins to settle back into the repeated notes of the spell and the kiss that puts out the fire.

The hypnosis reasserts itself in the return to the A section with “You’re the lover I have waited for,” but then something new happens: the melody soars skyward on “the mate that fate had me created for,” still with repeated notes but over harmony that suggests a new key, at least for a few measures.  And somehow this time, when lips meet and the singer is once again pulled downward into the spin of love over that last, long stretch of mesmerized notes, there is certainly acceptance, perhaps partnership, maybe even triumph.  For even though the melody clings to its  static statement, the harmonies move and change, as if they are in control!

Since we began rehearsing That Old Black Magic I find that it runs almost unceasingly in my head, over and over, as if...I were under a spell!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Sunday, January 25, 2015

That Swing Thing!

“What good is melody?
What good is music if it ain’t possessin’ something sweet?”

So, what is that sweet thing?

“It ain’t the melody, it ain’t the music.
There’s something else that makes the tune complete.”

What is that something else?

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

Thus wrote Duke Ellington and his manager/lyricist Irving Mills in 1931 when It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) first burst on the jazz scene.

It’s that swing thing!

Master Chorus Eastside is rehearsing a choral arrangement of this number for our Great American Songbook concert, and we are really enjoying that swing thing!  A Russian piano teacher once told me that Americans played jazz and jazz-based numbers differently than anyone else.  It’s in our blood, she said.  And that’s very evident in the verve that MCE is bringing to our concert preparation.

What is swing?  It’s a bit hard to define, but it’s a syncopated lilt that makes the listener want to dance.  Paired eighth notes are played unequally, driven by an underlying triplet feel, with the first eighth note as the longer of the two.  When I see the directive “swing” at the beginning of a piece, I know to upshift into triplets, let my inner dancer loose, enjoy the syncopation...and not be too rigid about the whole thing!

It was big band jazz that made swing wildly popular, and the swing era held sway in American dance halls and theaters from about 1935 until the end of World War II.  Big bands intertwined New Orleans Dixie Land and Kansas City jazz styles, along with Latin American dance impulses, into an irresistibly lilting dance beat.  And Duke Ellington was among the best of the best, both as a band leader and as a composer.

Among the many works, large and small, that he wrote, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) stands at the top, and helped spark the first stirrings of the swing phenomenon.  It may be the first number to use the word “swing” in its title, and it certainly helped to introduce the concept to the general public.  Ellington credited the title phrase as the doctrine of his former trumpeter, Bubber Miley, who died of tuberculosis the same year the song was birthed.

Here’s the famous 1932 recording by Ellington’s band.

Classical conductor and jazz historian Gunther Schuller called It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) “legendary,” and in 2008 it was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  Schuller also predicted that Duke Ellington would come to be recognized as one of the great masters of American music—of all styles!

Ellington was truly one of a kind, and it is MCE’s privilege to bring this number, as well as all of the songs in The Great American Songbook, to life. 

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Great American Songbook

Master Chorus Eastside has begun rehearsals for our upcoming March concert called The Great American Songbook, a catchall term that has become current in recent years.  I love the phrase, it has music in its rhythm and flow.  And my chorus LOVES the music; rehearsals are energetic, to say the least!  But what exactly is the great American songbook?  It brings to mind a songbook of course, and you can actually find a songbook by that title for sale at Amazon, with more than 100 standards from “the Golden Age of American song.”  But when was the golden age of American song?  And can it really be contained in a single book?

The phrase as it is used nowadays is, in a way, a songbook, or rather, songbooks, but it is more than that.  It is a genre, even a kind of metaphor of a time, a way of singing and composing and playing music, of style.  The time, by most definitions, was the 1920s through the 1950s, although some stretch it to include the parlor songs of the late 19th century.  Some commentators think that the rock music explosion that began in the 1960s killed off the genre, but others disagree and include later lyrical singers and composers such as Carole King and Billy Joel.

I wasn’t able to pin down when the phrase came into common usage.  Michael Feinstein, probably the most visible modern proponent of the Great American Songbook, says that no one knows when it first appeared, but it has become an increasingly common term in the last twenty or so years.
(See: http://classact.typepad.com/robert_d_thomasclass_act/2014/07/memoir-michael-feinstein-building-and-preserving-the-great-american-songbook.html)

The phrase doesn’t occur in any of my American music history text or reference books, several with copyright dates from the very early 2000s.  But the composers and lyricists and performers are certainly written up there: Harold Arlen, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, George and Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Tommy Dorsey, Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, Glenn Miller, Lena Horne, Cole Porter...

And the songs are there: Stormy Weather, Stardust, Georgia On My Mind, Embraceable You, Fascinating Rhythm, Singin’ in the Rain, You’re the Top, It Had to be You, It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing), Satin Doll...

And the styles are described there: Tin Pan Alley composers and producers (see my blog of April 24, 2013), theater, popular and parlor songs, movie and radio music and, of course, jazz, lots of jazz, because jazz is a uniquely American creation that spawned music of harmonic complexity and melodic expressiveness closely married to sophisticated lyrics full of poetic word play and wit.

I would argue that the Great American Songbook is, or is becoming, the popular American equivalent of classical art songs.  Consider how many art songs came from stage productions—opera—or were written for intimate parlor entertainment as well as concert recitals: the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Debussy, Fauré, the vast array of Italian art songs by Carissimi, Monteverdi, Antonio Scarlatti, and many, many more.  Their subjects are mostly about love—love fulfilled, love spurned, unrequited love, love recovered from (sound familiar?)—in music of harmonic complexity and melodic expressiveness closely married to sophisticated lyrics full of poetic word play....

My New Harvard Dictionary of Music defines art song in part as “a song intended for the concert repertory, as distinct from a folk or popular song.  An art song traditionally is a setting of a text of high literary quality...[with] accompaniment specified by the composer...”

Certainly there are differences between this definition and the Great American Songbook genre.  But music never stays still, and definitions change over time.  Perhaps, fifty years from now, no one will notice the difference!

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and Conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Art of Conducting: When is Enough Enough?

I remember once in a conducting class trying something, a conducting gesture or an interpretive nuance of some kind, that wasn’t working.  My conducting teacher and mentor, Abraham Kaplan, waited patiently as I stubbornly kept plowing ahead with it.  Finally I gave up and he asked, “Why did you keep on doing that?”  With some chagrin and sudden wry insight I said, “Because I was in love with the idea.”  He grinned and then kindly but promptly turned my admission into a teaching moment for the entire class!

We conductors find it easy to fall in love with our ideas, our signature conducting gestures, our long-winded explanations, our interpretation of a number...our importance!  We tend to forget that a problem in rehearsal may mean that we are getting in the way, that we may not need to wave our arms or explain quite so much.  To quote the creator of the comic strip Pogo—sort of—the enemy is sometimes us!

None of us is immune, no matter how experienced we may be.  It takes humility, self-knowledge, and the ability to view ourselves with detachment—and humor—to recognize those moments.

So how do we tone it down?  How do we know when we are overdoing it?  When is enough enough?  That will vary with every situation.  No two choruses are alike, and even the same chorus can react differently from one rehearsal to the next.  And actually the same is true for a conductor!  But below is a video of a master conductor who judged that very, very little was needed.  Leonard Bernstein was famous for his grandly dramatic gestures, even leaping into the air at climactic musical moments.  In fact, I have seen Abe Kaplan, who prepared many a chorus for Bernstein and had plenty of chances to observe him, do the same thing himself!  But here, out of respect for the outstanding musicianship of his players, Bernstein took himself almost completely out of the way and let them make the music, with only the subtlest of guidance from him.

You couldn’t do this with every chorus or orchestra.  But it’s a partnership that is a pleasure to watch...and draw lessons from.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic Director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Mountaintop Experience

After Master Chorus Eastside’s recent Christmas concerts, which featured compositions by Northwest composers, several of them quite demanding, I asked if any of our singers would be willing to write down their thoughts about the experience for our blog.  One member responded with a creative combination of words and pictures, in the style of a graphic novel, that perfectly captured the experience.  Here is what he put together.

Dr. Linda Gingrich
Artistic director and conductor
Master Chorus Eastside

Here are a few pictures worth a thousand words

Our director says we are going to do some pieces by Northwest composers, and it promises to be a mountaintop experience.

When studying the pieces I notice a degree of difficulty, for me as a singer, to be overcome.

I then find other points that require my focused time and effort to get right.

I begin to wonder if I can sing these pieces successfully

I ask a higher power for help with this task.

I begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We finally perform the pieces.

We see the composers’ faces radiating success, like the sun through the clouds

Dan Reitz, bass
Master Chorus Eastside