Sunday, July 3, 2011

Words and Music

Every now and then someone asks me which is more important in a song--the lyric or the melody.  That's like asking which leg is more important, your right or your left.  But the question reminds me of the famous story about Mrs. Oscar Hammerstein.  She was at a party once where she heard two women talking about the musical "Showboat".
    "I just loved that song 'Old Man River' that Jerome Kern wrote," one woman said.  "Oh, no," Mrs. Hammerstein broke in, "Jerome Kern did not write that song.  What Jerome Kern wrote was "Tum,Tum. Tetum, Tum Tum Tetum'.  It was my husband, Oscar Hammerstein, who wrote 'Old Man River'."   She was right, of course.  Kern wrote the music and Hammerstein wrote the lyric and no one can say which is most important to the song's success.  The two fit together perfectly.  You cannot imagine any other words that would fit so well to that melody.  And it is this coming together of words and melody that demonstrate the musical genius in American popular songs of our era----say the first half of the 20th century.

    Another question I'm often asked is which came first,  the words or the melody.  That's  a little harder to answer.  It depends on who the composer is and who the lyricist is.  There are examples of both instances.  In another instance of the partnership between Kern and Hammerstein, when the Germans took Paris in 1941, Oscar Hammerstein wrote a nostalgic little poem mourning the loss of one of his favorite cities.  It was "The Last Time I Saw Paris" and he gave it to Jerome Kern who promptly wrote the melody that made the poem famous.   Who of us has not heard that song and ached for the people of Paris because of it?  I was in Paris not long after we liberated it in the Fall of 1944 and the song was played everywhere, no longer an ode to sorrow but now a joyful paean to triumph and liberty.

    There are examples the other way, too.  Richard Rodgers, in the first half of his musical career, worked closely with Lorenz Hart, the genius lyricist who gave us so many memorable songs.  Rodgers would compose a melody and play it for Hart who would seem to forget it immediately.  Days later he would scribble some words on a scrap of paper or an old envelope and out of that process would come such unforgttable songs as Manhattan, My Funny Valentine, The Lady is a Tramp and dozens of others.  So, in the end, who can say which is more important, the words or the music.  We can only marvel at the poets of Tin Pan Alley, as they have been dubbed, and the masters of music who, together, gave birth to American popular music.

No comments:

Post a Comment