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ClassicsOnline Home » BERLIN: Berlin for Brass
By Steve Ramm
"Naxos, the budget label that is making itself heard, continues its ambitious "American Classics" series with a disc full of Berlin songs played by a brass orchestra."
Irving Berlin (1888-1989) Berlin for Brass
The life of the great American song-writer Irving Berlin spanned most of the great events of the twentieth century. His remarkable trajectory from a small town in Russia to a mansion in Manhattan is the quintessential story of an immigrant who embraced the opportunities America had to offer and who gave creative riches back to it many times over. Descended from a line of cantors, he was born Israel Baline in Byelorussia. Fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms, his family escaped to the United States when Berlin was five. The family, who spoke only Yiddish, passed through immigration at Ellis Island and into the crowded tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was there that Berlin first showed his tremendous ability to adapt, to a new country, a new language and a new culture. This ability would later carry over into his music and he would use it to brilliantly navigate most of the trends of twentieth century popular culture.
"Izzy" was thirteen when his father died, and he took to the streets finding what work he could, eventually winding up as a singing waiter at a rough café in Chinatown. In 1907 he published a successful song, Marie From Sunny Italy, and by 1909 he was a regular on Tin Pan Alley, the centre of New Yorks popular music industry. In 1911 he produced Alexanders Rag Time Band, a hit song of national proportions, and a great career was launched.
After creating a craze for Tin Pan Alleys version of ragtime, Berlin turned increasingly to writing for shows and, when World War I arrived, this momentum carried through his induction into the Army. Yip! Yip! Yaphank, a musical revue created as a fund-raiser for the war effort was such a success that it spilled over from the Armys Camp Upton, in Yaphank, New York, onto Broadway.
Revues remained the rage on Broadway after the war and in the roaring 1920s Berlin and a partner built New Yorks Music Box Theater. There he was able to exercise creative control over a series of noted revues, including the 1933 ground-breaking As Thousands Cheer. It was also during the 1920s that Berlin, whose first wife had died shortly after their marriage in 1912, remarried, making headlines by wedding Catholic socialite and author, Ellin Mackay. In 1934 Irving Berlin travelled to Hollywood and wrote classic songs for the great Depression-era movie musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
During World War II, the ever-patriotic Berlin created This Is The Army, a touring revue for the Allied troops, and travelled with it throughout many theatres of the war, often in difficult circumstances and sometimes at considerable personal risk. His classic song White Christmas, written for the 1942 film Holiday Inn, was a nostalgic favourite to homesick American soldiers everywhere and has become the worlds best-selling piece of sheet music.
Lavish story musicals were staples on Broadway in the optimistic post-war years and Berlin again adapted to the times, producing such hits as the 1946 Annie Get Your Gun. However, even Irving Berlin could not adapt for ever. His last musical, the 1962 Mr. President, was not a success. Rock-and-roll was becoming the dominant music of popular culture and Berlin had heard Elvis Presley sing White Christmas and hated it with a passion.
Irving Berlin had always been a driven man, small in stature but full of nervous energy. He strove to be prolific and to keep up with the times. His career covered so many decades and so many styles that he was a working contemporary of both Victor Herbert and Stephen Sondheim. Despite his tremendous success he felt his reputation was only as good as his next song. It was galling gradually to be left behind, to feel himself a creature of the cultural past. He abandoned song-writing during the 1960s, lapsing into a reclusive and increasingly embittered retirement until his death at the age of 101. The man who had worked so hard to stay with the times did not understand that his work had become timeless.
The songs on this recording represent the many facets of Berlins song-writing career. Alexanders Rag Time Band and That International Rag are from his early ragtime period, as is the gentle, melancholy ballad When I Lost You, presented here quite out of its original context, in salsa style.
Stage works yield selections from the revue As Thousands Cheer and the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Based on news headlines of the 1930s As Thousands Cheer poses obvious challenges to modern revivals, but it contains some of Berlins greatest songs. A homesick chanteuse based on Josephine Baker wails Harlem On My Mind from her luxurious flat in Paris, and a Heat Wave is presented in torrid Latin style. Berlin was a master of songs that could be both specific and general. The heart-rending Supper Time, introduced by Ethel Waters, was based on a headline about a lynching, but is expressed in a way that could apply to any broken family or lost loved one.
Featuring trombonist Larry Zimmerman, They Say Its Wonderful is from Annie Get Your Gun, as is Theres No Business Like Show Business. That boisterous paean to the theatre shows Berlins song-writing virtuosity; he makes the first four bars of the verse out of only two notes, then tops himself and makes the first eight bars of the chorus with only three. The remarkable Blue Skies, a happy-go-lucky song largely in a minor key, was a hit tune on Broadway, but not in a Berlin musical. It was a last minute interpolation into a show called Betsy, which was otherwise by Rodgers and Hart.
In addition to White Christmas, silver screen musicals are represented by selections from Berlins first two collaborations with Rogers and Astaire. Songs from the 1935 Top Hat include the suave Top Hat, White Tie and Tails and No Strings (Im Fancy Free). Get Thee Behind Me, Satan, the humorous saga of a young womans half-hearted battle against romantic, if not erotic, temptation, was intended for Top Hat, but migrated to the 1936 Follow the Fleet, where it joined the percolating Let Yourself Go.
Berlin wrote numerous songs that stood alone and were not associated with larger productions. (Ill See You In) C.U.B.A. demonstrates his acute ear for genre stylings and the famous Puttin On The Ritz is a study of syncopations and misplaced accents on a par with Gershwins Fascinating Rhythm. The touching Whatll I Do here features the eloquent flugelhorn of Susan Sexton and Lazy and Listening are splendid examples of the myriad lesser-known Berlin songs which are deserving of attention.
Berlins musical education, like that of so many American song-writers from Stephen Foster to the present, was spotty. He had a thin, reedy voice, minimal ability to read and write music, and his piano skills were negligible. He depended on others to assist him in writing down his music and to help him locate the harmonies he heard in his imagination. Despite these handicaps, he had a crystal clear vision of what he wanted and meticulously polished his songs to perfection. These high standards give each song a vivid personality and structural integrity that makes them a joy to arrangers. Berlins songs seem infinitely malleable. Listeners may know Berlins ballad The Song Is Ended from Ella Fitzgeralds four-to-a-bar version, but the original is a waltz. Berlins fondness for playing with genres is picked up by the arrangers here, who include jazz, ragtime, Dixieland, mambo, calypso and salsa stylings of various songs.
The arrangers have also taken full advantage of the range of colours available from the modern brass quintet. The trumpet players double on the high, bright piccolo trumpet and the mellow, dark-toned flugelhorn. Mutes of all varieties are used. The trumpets and trombone don cup mutes as the back-up chorus to Marian Hesses horn solo in No Strings and the solotone mute provides a twenties sound in parts of Let Yourself Go and Harlem On My Mind. The Harmon mute, favourite of Miles Davis, is used at the beginning and end of Blue Skies and plungers, familiar from the big band era, add their familiar inflections to Let Yourself Go and to Bruce Barries trumpet obbligato in Suppertime. While trumpets and trombones use standard household plungers (they work best if you take the stick off first), a tuba plunger is definitely a home-made crafts project. One makes a rare recorded appearance during Get Thee Behind Me, Satan.
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BERLIN: Berlin for Brass