Author: van der Merwe, Ann
Date published: March 1, 2013
The Irving Berlin Reader. Edited by Benjamin Sears. (Readers on American Musicians.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. [xi, 219 p. ISBN 9780195383744. $35.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.
When compiling a volume of essays, an editor faces two primary challenges: which writings to include, and how to organize them. For The Irving Berlin Reader, Benjamin Sears has chosen an eclectic mix of materials, including excerpts from major scholarly studies on Berlin, recollections of his professional peers, reviews of his work printed in the mainstream press, and some of his own published words. Sears has arranged them in a rough chronology, not according to their dates of composition but rather according to how they pertain to Berlin's life. The result is an informative collection that touches on a wide range of topics yet still reads nicely, and almost biographically, from beginning to end.
Part 1 contains essays related to Berlin and his early career, highlighting his 1911 hit "Alexander's Ragtime Band" as well as his Broadway successes Watch Your Step and the Music Box Revues. Excerpts such as those written by Charles Hamm and Margaret Knapp make it clear that Sears's primary goals in this section are to distinguish fact from fiction in this phase of Berlin's life, and to begin presenting evidence that Berlin's musical understanding was far deeper than was and is often believed. Sears also wants his readers to get to know Berlin's personality, though, so these weighty issues are balanced by more casual anecdotes from people who knew and worked with him such as Rennold Wolf and Harry B. Smith.
Part 2 moves forward in time, with writings that pertain to his successes during the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Sears provides an admirable blend of depth and breadth here. Appropriately, many songs, shows, and events receive mention, but a few receive the special attention they deserve, including the ballads "Say It Isn't So" and "How Deep is the Ocean," the special occasion songs "Easter Parade" and "God Bless America," and the musical Annie Get Your Gun. Howard Pollack's study of the aforementioned ballads continues the argument introduced in part 1 concerning Berlin's musical craftsmanship, though other themes also emerge here, most notably the respect afforded Irving Berlin by his peers. Sears includes comments from fellow songwriters Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers as well as stage and screen personalities such as Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, and George S. Kaufman, and they all portray Berlin as a professionally talented and kind man.
Part 3 features essays that look back on Berlin's career as a whole. Some, such as Joshua Logan's contribution, highlight later projects such as Mr. President-Berlin's last Broadway show, a collaboration with Logan. Generally, though, the focus here is not so much on his later work as on how he had come to be known by the last years of his life, which songs and biographical episodes had endured, and how the public celebrated the hundredth year of his birth. Some writings again come from his Tin Pan Alley colleagues, including a compilation of tidbits from Irving Caesar, Burton Lane, John Green, Sammy Fain, and Jule Styne originally published in honor of the Berlin centenary. An essay by Josh Rubins from the New York Review of Books is the most comprehensive and noteworthy piece in the section, however. Through detailed discussions of several of Berlin's best songs, Rubins extends the recurring argument of the volume that Berlin was not merely a commercial success but an intelligent composer of songs.
Part 4 contains excerpts from Berlin's writings, including published articles and private correspondence. In the former, he explains his songwriting process and in so doing reveals his profound interest in the appeal of his work. These are not notes from someone arguing for the artistry of his output; rather, they are thoughts from a man whose primary goal is to entertain. The letters also reveal a man concerned with the opinions of others and, perhaps as a result, generous with his compliments. Collectively, these pieces add to and enhance what has already appeared in the other three sections. They touch on a number of previously mentioned stories and songs, but now add the composer's own voice to the discussion. And, not insignificantly, they demonstrate Berlin's musical prowess perhaps even more convincingly than do the approaches elsewhere in this volume. His explanation of the songwriting process sounds remarkably uncomplicated, yet the simplicity of his words suggests the depth of his understanding, not only of his music but of his listeners.
Sears has admirably constructed a volume that reads more like a book about its subject than most other works of this type. While it will certainly be useful to those seeking one or two specific pieces, its greatest strength is its continuity; some excerpts are even included specifically because they respond or pertain directly to others in the volume. Of course, there are inevitably omissions and discussions that could have easily been expanded. Most of the omissions are entirely understandable, especially given Berlin's prolific output and the longevity of his career. One is worth mentioning, however. Sears treats Berlin's views on race rather superficially in his discussion of the essay "Irving Berlin Orders Song Word Change." This piece, extracted from the Richmond Afro-American, tells how Berlin altered a lyric in "Abraham" following a complaint by the African American community. Sears obviously hopes this piece will demonstrate Berlin's sensitivity and compassion, but with a photo of Bing Crosby performing the song in blackface alongside the article, his brief comments will probably not convince most readers that Berlin was all that removed from the culture of his time. As such, Sears might have done better to support his case with additional writings or leave the matter out of the volume altogether.
Overall, The Irving Berlin Reader is an excellent resource. It offers detailed yet accessible discussions of Berlin's music alongside insightful passages about his personality, his relationships, and his place in American popular culture. As such, it will be useful to scholars, students, and casual readers alike.
ANN VAN DER MERWE