June 14, 2011

‘Words & Music’- a tribute...

...on Father’s Day.

Mid last century, Ira Gershwin was sixty-two years old, his career effectively over. Most people who knew what was what placed him alongside Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart as America's major lyricist of a period, seen in retrospect, as the golden age of performing art in America.

He composed some of the loveliest and wittiest song lyrics of the century. With verses like

he had created the counters of  love's small talk for the man and woman in the street. He helped write the only considerable musical pasquinade in the American repertory by playing Gilbert to his brother George's Sullivan.With Porgy and Bess he had contributed toward the extraordinary feat of elevating Tin Pan Alley to the opera house without murdering Tin Pan Alley in the process.

Any last, lingering doubt as to the quality of his versifying was dispelled by the fact that Hollywood had never awarded him an Oscar. His life's work was complete-at which point the publishing house of Alfred Knopf invited him to write a book, any book, about anything he liked.

It was a reckless step for any publisher to take. Even in those days, the earth was cluttered with the autobiographical maunderings of showbiz luminaries whose approach to the writing of a book too often suggested that they had never read one.

Fortunately for posterity, Ira was nothing at all like the others. A modest, gentle soul whose whimsical brain was crammed with the erudition of the autodidact, he knew enough about the pleasures of the printed word to understand that just any book would not be good enough. He had wanted for some time to publish a collection of his work but knew that to offer the music lover words without music was like giving a thirsty man the H2 and telling him to find the O for himself. And yet the work was worth preserving. How to transform a set of essentially functional rhymes into something resembling literature?

Now, Ira was what we have in mind when we talk of the bookish man. Almost our first glimpse of him is as a teenaged attendant at his father's abortive Turkish baths on Lenox Avenue, rejoicing
in the thought that so long as the customers continue not to roll up, he can go on reading.

At the other end of his life, bedridden in Beverly Hills, he slept next to a bay, three of whose four walls were lined from floor to ceiling with books. The nature of the books in the bay give a clue to the kind of book Ira was himself to write, for those volumes indicate that many of his interest were not so much contemporary American as period English.

Stylistically, Ira always saw himself as by W. S. Gilbert out of P.G. Wodehouse. He was steeped in English literature, had found the title "Nice Work If You Can Get It" in a caption by the Edwardian Punch cartoonist George Belcher, had amended Chesterton's "I think I will not hang myself today" into the lyric "I Don't Think I'll Fall in Love Today, " had paid tribute to the slang of Wodehouse's silly asses in the words of "Stiff Upper Lip," and had justified his use of "with a down-a-derry" in 1937 by quoting the work of Thomas D'Urfey, who had perpetrated "with a hey ding, hoe ding, derry, derry, ding" as long ago as 1719. He had come within an ace of writing lyrics for a musical version of Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dabson, had composed "The Cozy Nook Trio" in respectful imitation of the linguistic cartwheels of the Reverend Spooner, and was the only man I ever knew who had actually read Amenities of Literature, by Benjamin Disraeli's bibliophile father, Isaac.To think in terms of literary allusion came so naturally to him that one time, when a conversation was interrupted by a nurse, he mumbled the moment before he washed the pills down, "I'm like Demosthenes with the pebbles in his mouth," downed the pills, and added, "Or like Eliza Doolittle with the marbles."

The volume that Knopf was privileged to publish in 1959 turned out to be unique, an utterly charming amalgam of technical disquisition, personal reminiscence, literary scholarship, and greenroom gossip. It was also one of the very few books that nailed its colors to the mast before the reader reached the first page, for the dust jacket announced it as "A selection of stage & screen lyrics written for sundry situations; and now arranged in arbitrary categories. To which have been added many informative annotations & disquisitions on their why & wherefore, their whom for, their how; and matters associative. By Ira Gershwin: Gent."

Having begun by wheeling on the engines of literary scholarship, Ira proceeds as he started, by offering as an epigraph the remark from John Aubrey's Brief Lives "How these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am putt them down!" What curiosities does Ira have in mind? The very first of the 104 lyrics that make up the book is "The Man I Love." We learn that notwithstanding the fact that it was this song that persuaded the financier Otto H. Kahn to invest in the show Lady, Be Good! it was dropped during the out-of-town tryout; that it was subsequently put into and ejected from two other musicals; that it never did see the light of day as a show tune and only emerged as an American classic through the enthusiastic intervention of Lady Mountbatten.

Any suspicion that this was to be another autobiography in disguised form is swiftly dispelled in the next entry, "Looking for a Boy," whose inclusion Ira uses as a pretext for a discussion of the hellish difficulties of finding suitable bachelor rhymes for "heaven," apart from the weary "seven" and "eleven." As Ira says, "'Devon' was geographically out of bounds; Laborite E. Bevin was probably already married; and what could one do with 'replevin'?"

The "Looking for a Boy" annotations are also revealing for the cunning way in which Ira blends reminiscence, technical niceties, and literary allusion. It so happens that the verse of this song ends with the couplet

I'll be blue until he comes my way;
Hope he takes the cue when I am
saying ...

The rhyming device whereby a one-syllable word is made to match the first half of a two-syllable word is commonplace enough in the Broadway marketplace, and Ira had adopted it very early in his career without thinking twice; but it was not until his retirement that he discovered, from a newly published book on poetic technique, that the device was known as "apocopated rhyme, so called because the end of one rhyming word is cut off."

The news that he had, throughout his life, been an unwitting master of apocopated rhyme absolutely delighted Ira's bookish soul, and he expresses this delight before capping the annotation with the perfect literary allusion for the occasion: "I am suddenly made aware that long, long ago in the last two verse lines of 'Looking for a Boy' the music made me rhyme, apocopatedly, 'way' with 'saying'; and I now feel one with Moliere's M. Jourdain the day he learned he'd been speaking prose for over forty years. "

From the reader's point of view, the effect of this strange melange of erudition and gossip, of discussion and digression, of whimsical verse and informed prose, is curious and utterly beguiling. At one moment we read that Eric Partridge has proscribed over two thousand hopelessly exhausted cliches, only to learn that Ira had used hundreds of them in this or that lyric (he lists twenty-seven examples), to which he then adds one of the profound truths of the songwriting art: "The phrase that is trite and worn-out when appearing in print usually becomes, when heard fitted to an appropriate musical turn, revitalized, and seems somehow to revert to its original provocativeness."

We find him gently chiding the editors of Time for deploying false rhymes in advising readers how to pronounce proper nouns; we learn that Paris is a place where

girls wear bodices
like goddesses;
that the married state means
. . . signing a lease together;
And hanging a Matisse together!
and that there was once a lady who had a most immoral eye:
they called her Lorelei.

We also learn that the title "Don't Be a Woman If You Can" was inspired by an old time Tin Pan Alley poetaster who lost his reason and went around saying things like "I never liked him and I always will." We see George and Ira one evening in their apartment awaiting the arrival for dinner of Ira's fiancee; by the time she arrives they have discussed, sketched out, completed, and revised the song "Do, Do, Do."

We read of the drudgery's and aesthetic injustices of the out-of-town tryout, the vagaries of performers and producers who think they know better, the inexplicable flops, the equally inexplicable triumphs. Best of all, we learn the true nature of Ira's profession. In the foreword to Lyrics on Several Occasions (Ira confesses that the idea for the title comes from Mrs.Aphra Behn-another one-up for the British), we find a priceless distillation of the contents to come, a touch of rueful irony that tells us much about the job and everything about the man who performed it so brilliantly: "Since most of the lyrics in this lodgment were arrived at by fitting words mosaically to music already composed, any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable."

Reflections on the book Words on Music, by Ira Gershwin.

But, our ღ belongs to Daddy ♪ (musically speaking of course, sorry Ira)



Alan (Music Daddy) said...

Thank you, lovely Father's Day post.

Your gaggle of fans over there over there said...

Now this, this is how you write a post!
Thank you Ms. Edna.

Alistair said...

"Nice work if you can get it," wrote George and Ira Gershwin back in 1937.
Nice post if you can write it, wrote I, today. Thanks MS. Edna.

Ms. Capshaw said...

For ho, ho, ho!
Who's got the last laugh?
Hee, hee, hee!
Let's at the past laugh
Ha, ha, ha!
Who's got the last laugh now?"
I do after reading your post. Thank you, great post, too bad the book is out of print.

frenchtoast said...

Fascinating Rhythm,
You've got me on the go!

What a story! Thanks for the post! xoxoxo