Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Archive for Irving Berlin

Dr. Bob Prescribes The Songs of Irving Berlin

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Beilin, 1888-1989) was the greatest songwriter ever to live and work in North America. His songs – for which he wrote both the words and music – capture the spirit and chronicle the events of the first half of twentieth century America in a manner far beyond that of any other single songwriter. Among Berlin’s great contemporaries there were lyricists who wrote cleverer, more sophisticated lyrics and composers who pushed the formal structure and harmonic complexity of the popular song more than Berlin. But Berlin’s songs united the personal and the topical in words and melodies that had an almost universal appeal. Writes Robert Kimball: “The ability to capture and represent the human experience in a simple, direct way is what great songwriting is all about. And that is where Irving Berlin had no peer.” (BTW, this doesn’t mean that Berlin couldn’t create a great rhyme; rather, when he does so, it is entirely in the service of the song and never to show us how very clever he is. For example, the lyric to Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee, written in 1932 during the darkest days of the Depression, in which he rhymes […]

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Music History Monday: The Melody Lingers On: Irving Berlin

We mark the birth on May 11, 1888 – 132 years ago today – of the Russian-born American songwriter Irving Berlin (1888-1989). Berlin wrote the words and music to over 1500 songs across a 60-plus year career. He is an American institution, whose life was, according to his obituary in the New York Times, “a classic rags-to-riches story that he never forgot could have happened only in America.” Having emigrated from his native Russian Empire at the age of five, Berlin grew up dirt poor in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Nevertheless, he was a legend by the age of 23. All told, he wrote the scores for 20 Broadway musicals and 15 Hollywood movie musicals. His songs were nominated for eight Academy Awards. (His one Oscar win came in 1943, for the song White Christmas. Bing Crosby’s recording has sold upwards of 100 million copies, and remains the best-selling single of all time).  A word. I have been writing these Music History Monday posts since Monday, September 5, 2016. Over the years, these posts have run between 1500 and 2000 words; a few shorter and a very few longer. (I figure if you can’t tell a good story in 2000 […]

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