From Berlin to Broadway

Radio 3 round-up
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The Independent Culture
The wind whistles and a voice sets the scene: it is the 1890s and a young Siberian family, victims of an anti-Semitic pogrom, sit huddled together in the street while their house burns down before their eyes - a particularly inauspicious start in life for the youngest child, Isaiah, who is destined to emigrate to America and become one of the 20th century's great composers.

Thus began Monday's Composer of the Week. Casting its net ever wider, the programme has come a long way since its early, classical safety-first days. This week it has devoted five hour-long broadcasts to a survey of the work of the man who became known as Irving Berlin, and it was soon clear that this was going to be one of the most informative and heartening sequences that BBC Radio 3 has offered for some time.

Of all the great popular composers of the first half of the century, Berlin was, and perhaps still is, the most in need of serious investigation. Stories have always abounded of how he couldn't write decent notation, and could play in only one key (F sharp major, with all the black notes), necessitating a special transposing lever to put his piano into the key he intended. To hear some talk, you'd think Berlin was a musical illiterate, although this hardly squares with the contrapuntal mind that could conceive of "Play a Simple Melody" or "You're Just in Love", or indeed the harmonic ear which more than one observer has confirmed was never satisfied until the detailed spacing of a chord was written down just as he had heard it. Not for nothing was he reckoned the master by such giants as Gershwin and Porter.

Paul Guinery's excellent commentary made another fact abundantly clear - that Berlin was able to grow and transcend himself throughout his astonishing 60 years of productivity. Taking on board the influences of many composers around him, especially the classically trained and elegantly lyrical Jerome Kern, Berlin grew from the bouncy vaudevillian of the early days to the most subtle master of the Astaire-Rogers scores and integrated shows like Annie Get Your Gun. None of his contemporaries - not Gershwin, Rogers or Porter - matched the sheer range of a composer who could churn out a sentimental smash hit to make the more squeamish blush, and then turn to an unconventionally structured love-song whose expressive precision and original harmonic thought proclaim a profound lyric gift. How the major/ minor ambivalence of "Blue Skies" offsets the apparently serene text, for instance.

One of the joys of Guinery's programmes has been the opportunity to hear a range of contemporary interpretations of the songs, including some by Berlin himself, alongside frankly less engaging modern re-creations; and, all the time, there was the feeling that they don't make songs like that any more.

Berlin and his great contemporaries wrote for a popular taste that was far more sophisticatedly aware of line and harmony than is possible now. How many of today's wider audience could respond to the use of progressive tonality found in songs like "Blue Skies" and appreciate the layers of poetic meaning they articulate? When Berlin died in 1989, aged 101, we lost the last representative of a dazzling tradition.

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