About this Recording
8.559314 - ARLEN / GERSHWIN / WEILL / SCHWARTZ: Classic American Love Songs
English 

CLASSIC AMERICAN LOVE SONGS
Harold Arlen (1905–1986) • George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Arthur Schwartz (1900–1984) • Kurt Weill (1900–1950)

 

Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Arthur Schwartz, and Kurt Weill were exceptionally gifted composers who knew that even their most inspired melodies could not survive second-rate lyrics, and therefore they collaborated with the greatest lyricists of the twentieth century such as Leo Robin, Ogden Nash, E.Y. Harburg, Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Ann Ronell and Ted Koehler, among others. In terms of the creative process, it does not matter whether the lyrics or the music came first, because, in the final analysis, a great song is comprised of a virtually inseparable wedding of the two.

We have left the twentieth century, but, thankfully, the twentieth century has not left us. These songs, created from the 1920s through the 1950s, represent the quintessential sophistication and elegance of an idealised (adult) world as exemplified by cultural icons such as Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Humphrey Bogart, Ginger Rogers and Lena Horne. Perhaps the overriding element common to almost all of them is the quality of being bitter-sweet. The artists who first introduced these songs were grown-ups, and they performed for the appreciation of other grown-ups. As for the lyricists, in these songs there is never a direct reference to sex, and yet they make the most adult inferences to physical intimacy, in contrast to our present-day youth-oriented, anatomically-obsessed rockers, hip-hoppers and rappers.

If asked to rank these four composers, after a little hesitation I would single out Harold Arlen as the greatest of all - perhaps the greatest song-writer ever. Arlen's melodies and harmonies can tear us to pieces as they work their way under our skin. His tunes may not be as instantly assimilable as the other three composers represented here, but they are the ones that can break your heart. As an example, 'I Had Myself A True Love', with its unusual form and shape, is pure genius. When the shattered woman screams "No, that ain't the way that it used to be!" we are in the presence of an aria as painful and profound as 'Ella giammai m'amò' from Verdi's Don Carlo.

George Gershwin's versatility was staggering. Like Arlen, he could adapt his style to whatever the occasion demanded. He seems to have had two mainstreams of inspiration, one was jazz and the other was operetta. Carole Farley has selected a handful of Gershwin songs that run the gamut of his versatility.

Arthur Schwartz, like Arlen and Gershwin, moved easily within the film, theater and popular song worlds. His long collaboration with Howard Dietz produced musicals such as A Tree Grows In Brooklyn and movies such as The Band Wagon. His songs such as 'You And The Night And The Music' and 'Dancing In The Dark' are classics of American popular song.

Kurt Weill's musical versatility remains unbelievable. It is not easy to realise that the composer of 'Mack the Knife' in Berlin in 1928 also wrote 'September Song' in New York ten years later. Weill was one of the very few Broadway composers to write his own orchestrations. These provided an additional touch of uniqueness to shows such as The Threepenny Opera and Lady in the Dark.

 

The Songs

The basic melody of 'What's Good About Goodbye?' is just a simple group of descending scales, but how they build, and what beautiful chords underneath! And then at the end, the urgent and unexpected coda. This song is quite simply a masterpiece.

Weill's 'Love In A Mist' is a waltz from a transplanted German composer, americanized and working with the legendary writer, Ogden Nash.

The melody of 'You And The Night And The Music' is almost unbearably beautiful, and, not quite traditionally, it is a tango, and in a minor key.

The title alone of 'Last Night When We Were Young' says it all. The lyric is bittersweet and elegant. The melody does not quite go where one would expect it to, but that is part of Arlen's genius.

This is the first recording of 'The Romance Of A Lifetime'. It is the only time that I have ever heard the word "pinnacle" used to rhyme with "cynical."

'Poppyland' is another unknown song, from the young George Gershwin's "operetta" side, with no jazz or blues here!

For those of us who thought we knew the score of Lady in the Dark the "trunk" song 'Unforgettable' comes out of the blue. I doubt that many have ever heard it before. Ira Gershwin's endlessly clever rhyming of "unforgettable" is a joy.

'Dancing In The Dark' begins on the seventh note of the scale, and this sets up a haunting atmosphere from the outset. Something special is happening, far beyond the act of dancing.

'Isn't It A Pity?' is again from the Gershwin brothers. What more need we say? The sentiment is simple, but the words and music are far less so. And what rhymes with "Heine?" Well, " China " of course!

'When The Sun Comes Out' is an example of that special "blackness" that Arlen wrote so instinctively. When Hyman Arluck grew up in Buffalo, he grew up in a two-family house where his family lived on the lower floor. His father was a cantor, and the upstairs family was black. Harold (who was also a gifted singer) somehow amalgamated his Jewish roots with the American black environment.

'Love Is Sweeping The Country' was one of many hits from the 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing, a political satire that owes a debt to Gilbert and Sullivan. It was the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.

'It Was Written In The Stars' comes from the Tony Martin film Casbah, yet it does not sound like what we have come to expect from a film song; it is melancholy, eloquently direct, and filled with Harold Arlen's altered chords.

'Boy! What Love Has Done To Me!' is jazzy, bluesy and funny, a complete change of pace here.

'Right As The Rain' shows the absolute genius of Harold Arlen coming from his heart directly into ours. Bloomer Girl was one of the few successful Broadway musicals that Arlen wrote. Most of his success came from his Hollywood years. He and Yip Harburg were a magical team that together wrote perhaps the greatest movie musical score of all time, The Wizard of Oz.

'I Had Myself A True Love' is a masterpiece. Mercer's words tear at the heart of the singer, and then at the hearts of the listener. Its rambling form is unusual, as are its harmonies and the scope of the melody. When we get to " In the evening, in the doorway " we are in the grip of a unique moment. When one hears the words " No, that ain't the way that it used to be " as a counter line as the piano plays, mockingly, the opening phrases, the singer's pain is almost more than we should be expected to be able to bear. Sometimes I think that this is the greatest song in American popular music.

In 'I See Your Face Before Me' the first note of the chorus is repeated eleven times, but instead of being monotonous, it is hypnotizing. Among the wonderful artists who were enchanted by this song, written in 1938, are Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Carly Simon, Mildred Bailey, Doris Day, Nat King Cole, Joanie Sommers, Miles Davis, Andy Williams and John Pizzarelli.

'The River Is So Blue' was written in 1937 for a film of the same name. The great (and largely unknown) lyricist and composer, Ann Ronell, collaborated here so artfully with Kurt Weill. Ronell, a pupil of Walter Piston, is perhaps best known for that great standard ' Willow, Weep For Me'. This is the first recording of this song.

'Something To Remember You By' is another golden standard from Dietz and Schwartz. Since 1931, this song has never off been off the radar of every great performer.

It is also fun to be familiarised with an obscure Arlen song. 'Fun To Be Fooled', written with lyricists Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg, began in what is now an obscure Broadway revue in 1934. It is a charming song and it was unintentionally "plagiarised" by Irving Berlin in his 1950 Broadway show Call Me Madam. A rather obscure song from this show, 'Old Lichtenburg', is remarkably similar to 'Fun To Be Fooled', proving only that wonderful melodic motifs may occur to more than one great composer.

I never knew about 'The Picture On The Wall' and so I googled it. Google was little or no help: it told me that when and why Kurt Weill wrote this with Ann Ronell remains an unanswered question.

'How Long Has This Been Going On?' is another timeless classic from the Gershwin brothers. Written in 1927 for the Broadway musical Rosalie, it has never been out of the pop repertoire.

It is only fitting and proper that this recording should close with a Gershwin masterpiece. 'Soon' is from the 1929 legendary Broadway show Strike Up the Band. The words and music continue to haunt us.

Thomas Z. Shepard, 2007

 

Sung texts are available online at www.naxos.com/libretti/559314.htm

 


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