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David M. Greene

''Brilliant Fantasies'' Face the Music: A Century of Irving Berlin

''Brilliant Fantasies'' Face the Music: A Century of Irving Berlin

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Two weeks from today (I am writing this on April 27, 1988), God willing, Irving Berlin will round out his hundredth year. Since I am anything but an authority on his life and works, my first instinct, faced with writing this piece, was to consult the latest Britannica. It accords him six lines--one more than it grants Sir Isaiah Berlin, the historian, and two more than it gives the 18th-century Talmudic scholar Isaiah ben Judah Loeb Berlin. The main thrust of the blurb, however, is right on target: he played a major role in the development of American popular song.

Berlin, the son of a cantor, first saw the light in Russia, as Israel Balin or Baline, depending on how one transliterates. All the references give his birthplace as Temun, but I find nothing that hints at its actual location. (Added note: Aha! It's in Siberia!) Perhaps it was wiped out in the pogrom that drove the Balins to America in 1893. Life in New York's ghetto was as hard for the Balins as for most immigrants, and young Izzy's education, musical and otherwise, was minimal. At eight he was on the streets helping support his family. Some books say he sold newspapers, others that he guided a blind singer. At any rate, he became a singing waiter in a Chinatown cafe, and in 1907 he collaborated, as lyricist, with "Nick" Nicholson, his pianist, on a song, "Marie from Sunny Italy." It was published, and, the printer having got things screwed up, the lyricist appeared as "Irving Berlin."

The newly named Berlin went on to write more lyrics, then to supply his own tunes, and to sing his songs in vaudeville and in revues. In 1911 he suddenly had a worldwide hit with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and found himself rich and famous. At that time he announced that his ambi­tion was to write a ragtime opera. He had no musical training, played by ear, and could neither read nor write music. (He ac­quired a transposing piano which took him into other keys than the F-sharp major that was his normal limit.) He probably had on­ly a general notion of what an opera was. Real ragtime was just reaching the east coast, and the Original Dizieland Jazz Band's records were five years down the road, but the attraction of Berlin's syncopa­tions surely heralded a new age.

"Alexander's Ragtime Band" was hard­ly typical of Berlin. In his invaluable American Popular Song (1912), the late Alec Wilder says he prefers "Alexander's Bagpipe Band," which Berlin published the next year. But his next hit (also 1912) was a ballad called "When I lost you," written after the death of his young wife. Later several others, including the popular "All Alone," traced his courtship of Ellin Mackay, daughter of the millionaire head of Postal Telegraph, who violently oppos­ed (unsuccessfully) her marriage to a Jew. In fact Berlin wrote all kinds of songs. One acquaintance swore that at his peak he made it a point to turn out at least one a day--some of them, by Berlin's own ad­mission, pretty bad.

He came to Broadway via a song includ­ed in the 1910 Ziegfeld Follies, and saw his own first show, Watch Your Step, mounted in 1914. Of his early efforts perhaps the one best remembered is Yip, Yip, Yaphank, a wartime revue played by soldiers, in which Berlin himself sang "Oh, how I hate to get up in the morning." In 1929 he joined forces with the Marx Brothers in The Cocoanuts, which led him to Hollywood, and some memorable films (e.g. Top Hat, Holiday Inn). Of his late musicals Annie Get Your Gun would alone have assured his immortality. His final show was Mr. President in 1962. The last song I find listed. is "An Old-Fashioned Waltz" (1966). Berlin could have bought and sold most of us on "White Christmas" alone.

Multifaceted Dick Hyman is, as one hears him here, no mere cocktail pianist. He is to such songs what Liszt was to Gypsy tunes. These are brilliant fantasies, played with a crystalline technique. They are meant to be listened to, not to serve as babble-background. But, for all their glit­ter, they never lose sight of Berlin's tunes or the spirit in which they were conceived.

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