Berlin’s Back … and He’s Bach!

Why is it that Irving Berlin’s songs–he wasn’t musically trained, he could barely play the piano (and only in the

Why is it that Irving Berlin’s songs–he wasn’t musically trained, he could barely play the piano (and only in the key of F sharp), etc.–sit up and go right to work with the vitality of just-unbottled sprites, when they were written 40, 60 and 80 years ago? What was his weird inner genius, a strength so powerful that it caused the musicologist and composer Alec Wilder to unequivocally salute Berlin as “the master of the entire range of American popular song”?

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

That is, short of their social context–our feelings for Fred and Ginger, our treacly Christmas memories–in musical terms, what makes an Irving Berlin song? What gives them their delicate balance between high spirits and melancholy, their vitality, their short-form saga of wandering and homecoming, of topicality and permanence? Why are we still singing them–is it just for sentiment or is there something intricate at work?

The answer is there in black-and-white measures on the hundreds of sheets of music Berlin (and his arrangers) churned out–some 750 published songs, almost twice as many among his personal files, though the archivists are still counting.

Behind Berlin the scrappy folk hero, Berlin the celebrity, Berlin the caricature of an unschooled savant-genius, there’s Berlin the musician-craftsman, whose compositional discipline and rigor produces in his A-grade work (there’s a lot of B and C work there, too) that Berlin thing : directness with manners, simplicity without being simplistic and economical sentiment without spewing sap.

Critics have always found Berlin easier to grasp by identifying what he is not. O.K. So he lacked the sophistication of Jerome Kern, the wit and training of Cole Porter, the jazz and scope of the Gershwins and the worldliness of Rodgers & Hart–but Berlin’s colleagues, to a man, universally acknowledged him to be the master of the American pop song, or to repeat Kern’s tidy phrase, “Berlin has no ‘place’ in American music–Irving Berlin is American music.”

But it’s not always easy to get at the real Berlin. In that, his celebrity probably did him a disservice. It’s difficult to avoid a stubborn familiarity with his music–Berlin meshed with the culture so forcibly and for so long that it’s become nearly impossible to untangle his songs from the American experience of them. Briefly then–Berlin wrote the unofficial anthems for two world wars, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” for World War I, and “This Is the Army, Mr. Jones” for World War II; the almost official anthem for the United States, “God Bless America”; and the anthem for show business, “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” There’s the song for Christmas (“White Christmas”), the song for Easter (“Easter Parade”). The songs for going out (“Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”), the songs for staying in (“All Alone,” “All by Myself”), the political table-setter for the 50’s President (“I Like Ike”) and the song for the I.R.S. (“I Paid My Income Tax Today”). So immense and varied was his output that a rumor developed, as they tend to around artists whose scope baffles us, that the composer of Berlin’s songs was actually a man living in Harlem.

But Berlin’s songs were not ghostwritten, they are decidedly earthly, grounded in the vernacular: “What’ll I Do,” “Soft Lights and Sweet Music,” “Isn’t This a Lovely Day,” “Say It Isn’t So.” That is where Berlin’s vitality begins. His songs invite you in with their homey titles and expressions. Berlin may have been lost on the piano (except when navigating the black notes), but he was never, ever lost in his head or in his ears. And of course, for Berlin, a rabid promoter of his own work, the positive effects of a familiar-sounding title on sales figures was not lost.

Milton Babbitt, composer of difficult 12-tone music, professor emeritus at Princeton University now teaching at the Juilliard School and a pop music connoisseur, noted, “Serious composers have always had enormous amounts of training. Beethoven went around seeking training from Salieri and Haydn. These people sought and sought training. Even among the popular songwriters, Richard Rodgers, Kern, Porter, all these guys had training. Maybe theirs was not the most sophisticated training, but they knew their harmony textbooks. And then here was Berlin. I don’t know what his point of departure was. It couldn’t have been anything but his ear.”

And what an ear! That’s where Berlin’s music gets its vitality, the undercurrent of restlessness, framed, of course, by his famous discipline. There’s a constant movement in Berlin’s tunes–in the lyrics and in the music. Nothing is ever static. A Berlin tune is a journey traveling from the familiar to the unknown and more often than not returning to the familiar, in both musical and lyrical terms–the three-note repetition of “All Alone” winding its way through the song, or the subtle shifting between major and minor in the ostensibly joyful “Blue Skies.” Even “White Christmas,” which has become nearly impossible to listen to with fresh ears, neatly captures the conflicting emotions associated with Christmas–tradition, anxiety, reverie and melancholy.

Mr. Babbitt described the startling effects of the familiar first bars of the song. “It’s so subtle how he begins the song with that close chromaticism opening up to that diatonic accent.

The opening notes are as close as you can get, all half steps apart, and then it opens up with ‘Just like the ones I used to know’ [and in the second verse ‘ … with every Christmas card I write’].” The expanding effect of the music, at once warm, expressive, with a touch of melancholy, parallels the ideas in the lyric, which opens up from the specificity of the initial “White Christmas” with its immediate associations of snow, to the expanse of his memory, “just like the ones I used to know.”

By the way, the sighing harmonies in Berlin’s music had their noticeable effect of the other composers of the day. William Bolcom, the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer of New Etudes for Piano who teaches at the University of Michigan, said, “Cole Porter once told Rodgers and Hart, ‘I really have to learn to write something that has more of a Jewish cast to it.’ His songs with a minor feel to them, “So in Love” or things like “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” are in a certain way an attempt to take on these characteristics. There’s something kind of chatty and Noël Coward-y in Porter’s earliest work and it was only later that it attained some of that darker quality that Berlin had.”

Of course, the vitality in Berlin’s music can be traced to extramusical phenomena. Deena Rosenberg, the founding chair of the New York University Musical Theater Program, points to Berlin’s roots in explaining the tension in his music. “His songs seem to say, ‘We’ve got a lot to be grateful for, so let’s remember it and I’m gonna help you. Because I’m going to give you a song that you’re really going to identify with and when you hear it and sing it, you’ll understand what I mean.’ That comes from a very deep place as an immigrant. Berlin came from poverty; he had a taste of something that his peers didn’t, of something worse, and that led him to that melancholy and that optimism.”

Berlin was in constant motion in his life and in his music. Socially, Berlin escaped the extreme poverty of his youth to marry (the second time) Ellin Mackay, and into one of the richest families in America.

Ultimately, however, the movement in Berlin’s songs is musical event. Mr. Babbitt observes, “In Berlin’s ballads he takes a little motif and simply develops it through the remainder of the piece.” In fact, in “What’ll I Do” (1924), Berlin’s composition is so tightly wound that during the bridge, he simply moves the initial four-note phrase up a fourth, maintaining the integrity of the original phrase and simultaneously emphasizing the stasis of the singer.

“You can barely call it a bridge,” Mr. Babbitt noted. “It’s really one idea on a different pitch level. In most popular songs, the bridge is so routine that it really has very little to do with the piece. There were certain clichés one employed in order to get back to the beginning of the piece, but Berlin’s songs are always integrated.”

Furthermore, “What’ll I Do” displays the kind of tight compositional style whose economy disguises its subtlety.

The initial phrase runs up the major scale from C to G (skipping F) and gradually descends in the upper register on the downbeats of the next six measures from an A flat to G to F to E to D and finally concluding on C. The emotional connotations of the music, sad and ruminating, mirror the idea in the lyric, which meditates on the idea of being alone, examining the effects of solitude, moving from wondering what happens when the lover is “far away” to being alone with “just a photograph” to finally returning to the place where it begins, alone, “with dreams that won’t come true” and wondering, “What’ll I do?”

The music scholar Allen Forte, author of The American Popular Ballad of the Golden Era, 1924-1950 , points to Berlin’s 1932 composition “Say It Isn’t So” as emblematic of Berlin’s masterful use of motif. The tune begins with a five-note phrase, “Say it isn’t so,” which then repeats as it moves down a half step in pitch.

“The rhetoric that goes with the music is so very plaintive,” Mr. Forte said. “It follows the idea in the text. And the direction is interesting. It starts on an E and moves down to an E flat. So as the singer is singing “Say it isn’t so,” the music is becoming more and more dejected. The melody then moves up a pentatonic, D, E, G, B (“everyone is saying that you don’t love me”).

“The location of the pitch on ‘love me,’ the two B’s, is the peak of that contour. Then it moves down again to repeat “Say it isn’t so” on C sharp, which is a beautiful jump. So the whole song is developed along these rising and falling contours. Berlin seems particularly sensitive to these things, to the shape of his melodies.”

“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (1936), with its simultaneous acknowledgment of “trouble ahead” and its insistent plea to be happy, straddles that Berlinian line between sadness and joy.

“In this song, he’s constantly playing between major and minor in a very interesting way,” Mr. Bolcom noted. “He starts in tune in C minor and doesn’t reach the major E in the melody until the ninth bar. The shape of phrasing is not regular; it starts out with this 12-bar phrase, which is not common. And on the bridge, he jumps to an A-flat 6 chord, the A flat major. You find this in Schubert and Mozart all the time, but to go to the flatted sixth is not a common thing. You don’t find that on Tin Pan Alley.” The soft disquietude of the music and the lyric together create the haunting effect of the song.

“Isn’t It a Lovely Day” (1935), Mr. Forte pointed out, is similarly structured. “It’s essentially a rising contour. It starts out in a pentatonic and the first time it gets chromatic is the A sharp. The pitch from “caught in the rain” goes from a high D in “caught” to a low D on “rain.” It makes a wonderful shape. The pitch selection is not arbitrary. He would never have gone to a high note again following the high D and repeated it. The high note is saved until a crucial moment in the lyric. The lowest point is on “rain,” and the highest note is on “remain,” which echoes the idea in the lyric.

“The final section of the song [“Let the rain pitter patter/ but it really doesn’t matter/ if the skies are gray”] starts on a high F. So you’ve got this large-scale contrast from the beginning of the song to the end, which keeps moving higher and higher–the D, the E and finally the F.”

Mr. Forte turned to “They Say It’s Wonderful,” written for “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1946. “Berlin seems to love working with these ascending contours,” he said. “The melody moves to a high point and then back down away from it. Then it approaches another high point and backs down away from it. So the contours are pretty consistent. There’s always something going on in the lower register where the head note is. It’s a D in that song. And so when he gets to the key word “wonderful” he has two B flats to a D flat, which leads to a C on ‘so they say.’

“That’s all prepared in the opening note, that is, if you just trace the large-scale, lower-register contours, you get a D at the beginning and on the first ‘wonderful’ you get a high C down to an E, then on the second ‘wonderful’ it’s a D flat and the phrase ends on C. If you look at the lyrics there’s no highfalutin or esoteric words like in Gershwin to create effect. It’s just the word ‘wonderful,’ which is used to tremendous effect. And with Berlin, these contours are never arbitrary. There’s a refinement and a reservation in the way he uses motifs. They follow the contours of natural speech.”

By the 1960’s, Berlin had lost his hold on the thread of the culture. The famous ear was not out in the world. Chastened by the critical pasting he took for 1962’s Mr. President , he withdrew. “He felt the world had changed so much in the 60’s,” said Robert Kimball, who is preparing a book of Berlin’s lyrics. “The world he had known and acted as a spokesperson for was dead. So he stopped.” Growing more and more reclusive, Berlin rarely left his Beekman Place apartment, all alone, contacting the outside world primarily through the telephone.

The great attentiveness was no longer in operation, and his connection to the world–starting in youth as a singing waiter, and continuing, as Ellin Mackay described him in her daughter’s memoir, as a “funny little man chewing gum with his funny hat that moves as he chews”–was severed. Berlin’s final stabs at capturing the times (“You’ve Got to Be Way Out to Be In”) missed their mark, badly. But Berlin’s songs from the 1920’s to the 1950’s remain as mysterious and vital, as comforting and unsettling, as they were on the days they were written.

Words and music by Irving Berlin. All songs © Irving Berlin. Copyrights renewed. International copyright secured. All rights reserved.

Berlin’s Back … and He’s Bach!