Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Irving Berlin and Tin Pan Alley

Nineteenth-century America saw the emergence of a musically literate middle class and an increase in popular music that people could entertain with in their own homes. We looked at Stephen Foster, who is often considered America’s first popular songwriter to compose as a profession. Moving into the 20th-century, we see many more popular song writers emerge during the Tin Pan Alley generation. What is Tin Pan Alley? Today you will learn just that as well as the story of Irving Berlin (1888–1989) who, like Foster, became famous for capturing American sentiments in his music.

So what is Tin Pan Alley? In the 1880s, a district on West 28th Street in New York City became a popular spot for song publishers to locate their business. Many of these publishers would pay singers to perform specific pieces in a show making it popular so people would in turn come purchase the sheet music. They also hired song pluggers to perform the piece on site for arrangers who came in looking for new tunes. This is how many young musicians such as Irving Berlin and George Gershwin got their start!

How did Irving Berlin, a Russian Jewish immigrant, become one of the greatest American song writers of all time? This writer of “God Bless America” got his start as a street singer and later a singing waiter to make extra money for his poverty-stricken family. He went on to publish his first work in 1907, “Marie from Sunny Italy.” A few years later, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” gave him international success. Did you know that Berlin quotes Stephen Foster’s “Old Folks at Home” in this piece? Though he published over 1000 songs during his lifetime, Berlin never learned how to read music and could only play in one key. When composing, he figured out how to play the tune on a transposing keyboard. Then he would pull its lever, allowing it to transpose to any desired key! He also used a music transcriber to write out the music into notes while he played it on his keyboard.

Berlin wrote his first ballad in 1912. “When I Lost You” was his form of grieving the loss of his young bride, who died after contracting typhoid fever on their honeymoon in Havana. Though famous for many of the tunes he contributed to revues and operettas during the early 20th-century, today I want to focus our time looking at this ballad. In a later month we will look closer at Berlin’s life and his other work, including many of his Broadway and film hits! You can listen to Bing Crosby sing Berlin’s beautiful first ballad below. This may be lesser-known to you than many of his other works. Do you have a favorite?

I lost the sunshine and roses, I lost the heavens of blue,
I lost the beautiful rainbow, I lost the morning dew.
I lost the angel who gave me summer, the whole winter too.
I lost the gladness that turned into sadness,
When I lost you.

And I lost the angel who gave me summer, the whole winter too.
I lost the gladness that turned into sadness,
When I lost you.

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