Light Serious Music from the US
Music by Gershwin, Weill, Bernstein and Company
The music that composers from the United States of America have given us shows the advantages of cross-border exchange. The roots of jazz in spirituals and gospel music go back to the Africans brought to America as slaves. And most of the composers who drew on this legacy were also immigrants, in the second or even first generation: George Gershwin’s parents came to America from St Petersburg, Leonard Bernstein’s from the region that is now Ukraine, Irving Berlin was from Belarus, and Aaron Copland’s family came from Lithuania. But let us simply call this music from the US, with its roots on so many continents, “light serious music”, for it should be taken seriously precisely because it is also entertaining.
“And that’s where the blues begin” – George Gershwin
“George Gershwin is the only songwriter I know who became a composer.” Irving Berlin should have known; he was one of the most successful songwriters of his day, a model, supporter and friend of his colleague, who was ten years younger. Gershwin’s career path led from his first songs for shows to complete musical comedies, although the light-hearted, harmlessly risqué earlier stage works later made way for biting political satires. But Gershwin was not satisfied with that; he wanted to write “serious” music, symphonic music.
An American in Paris is the artistic result of a longer trip to Europe that the composer made during the first half of 1928 which took him to London and Vienna, but especially to Paris. Inspired by the atmosphere of the city on the Seine, he immediately began to compose and even bought original taxi horns there, which squawk throughout the music with lifelike dissonance. He began to orchestrate the work during the trip back to America. Gershwin’s goal was to write a tone poem with a plot which he summarized for a radio broadcast in 1934: “This piece describes an American’s visit to the gay and beautiful city of Paris. We see him sauntering down the Champs-Elysées, walking stick in hand, tilted straw hat, drinking in the sights, and other things as well. We see the effect of the French wine, which makes him homesick for America. And that’s where the ... blues begin. He finally emerges from his stupor to realize once again that he is in the gay city of Paree, listening to the taxi-horns, the noise of the boulevards, and the music of the can-can, and thinking, ‘Home is swell! But after all, this is Paris – so let’s go!’”
An impressive line-up of famous show stars appeared in the premiere of the musical Girl Crazyin 1930: Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller played in the orchestra, the young Ginger Rogers sang and danced, and Ethel Merman made her Broadway debut, during which she held a high C for 16 bars in “I Got Rhythm”, bringing down the house. Naturally, the song is also heard in the overture, as is the other big hit from the work, “Embraceable You”.
The Lady in the Dark
Kurt Weill left Europe in 1935, after two years in French exile, and emigrated to New York. By then he had given up all symphonic ambitions: he now wrote songs in support of the fight against fascism, shows about the Jewish religion, revues and musicals. The biting sharpness of his music from the collaboration with Bertolt Brecht could be heard again, undiminished, in other styles. Lady in the Dark, for example, is about the female editor of a fashion magazine who is haunted by anxieties and seeks the help of a psychotherapist: modern subject matter, combined with music in an original way. Weill merges the play with through-composed dream sequences into which the songs are integrated.
One Touch of Venuswas an even bigger hit on Broadway, with 567 performances during only two seasons. Loosely based on the Pygmalion myth, it tells the story of a statue of Venus, on whose finger a young man slips the engagement ring intended for his fiancée as a joke. Then the problems begin and almost everything goes wrong, until Venus changes her mind and turns into marble again. The fact that the idea of love has obviously changed a great deal in 3,000 years distresses the goddess, as she movingly expresses in a song. The title “Foolish Heart” clearly reflects her confusion.
Three masters of their trade: Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Stephen Sondheim
When Weill asked Ferenc Molnár for the rights to set Liliom to music in 1937, the Hungarian playwright turned the composer down – but not only him: Giacomo Puccini had also been rebuffed by Molnár. When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II came into the picture he finally agreed and, after the sensational Oklahoma!, the team achieved a second success with the musical Carousel in 1945. Despite its almost through-composed structure, there were enough opportunities for songs, which also become popular in their own right, beyond the context of the musical.
Although many successful theatrical shows were adapted for the movie screen, there were also works which were originally conceived for film or television but later found their way to the stage. That was true of the music Harold Arlen wrote for the film The Wizard of Oz. The producers almost cut the song “Over the Rainbow”, which subsequently won an Oscar for Best Original Song, from the film because they thought it would slow the pace of the story. Dorothy, whose aunt had harshly told her she should find a place where she wouldn’t get into any trouble, imagines she is in a world without problems.
In the complicated tale of love and jealousy A Little Night Music – Stephen Sondheim’smusical based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) – you don’t have to look very long for the “clowns”, because all the characters need a lot of time and discussion to discover who is made for whom. An actress tries to win back her former lover Fredrik with the song “Send in the Clowns”, although she currently has a married lover and Fredrik a young wife. In the end she succeeds nevertheless. When you hear the music, you can only say: no wonder.
Romeo and Juliet in New York
In his musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet,Leonard Bernsteindepicts the clash between Americans of different origins. The tragic love story of Tony and Maria is recounted against the backdrop of the feud between two rivalling gangs of youths – one with European roots, the other, Puerto Rican immigrants. That enabled the composer of West Side Story to develop the plot and music from one and the same idea by making musical sparks fly with the geographical contrast, characterizing the white Jets with jazz and swing styles, such as bebop, blues and rock, and the Puerto Rican Sharks with dance forms like the mambo, huapango and cha-cha-cha. The conflict between the social groups leaves its imprint on the smallest musical details, for example, the competing rhythms alternating between 6/8 and 3/4 metre in “I Like to Be in America”.
Diana Damrau has always enjoyed singing“I Feel Pretty”, and in this concert she again slips into the role of the love-struck Maria, who is so inspired by Tony’s affections that she thinks she is irresistible. And who would contradict her! Bernstein ensures that with his eloquent music, as though he wanted to underscore Kurt Weill’s insight with every note: “If music is really human, it doesn’t make much difference how it is conveyed.”