berry irving berlin gambling with chromaticism extra diatonic melodic expression

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David Carson Berry, Gambling with Chromaticism? Extra-Diatonic Melodic Expression in the Songs of Irving Berlin, Theory and Practice 26 (2001): 2185. ABSTRACT Those who have written about songwriter Irving Berlin (18881989) have frequently fixated on two facts, both related to his lack of proficiency on the piano: first, that he preferred to play on the black keys; and second, that he used a transposing pianoi.e., one fitted with a lever that shifted the position of the strings vis--vis the hammers, allowing any selected key to be heard while the notes of another key are being fingered. Over the years, journalistic writers of minimal musical knowledge have succeeded in greatly exaggerating both circumstancesespecially through their claims about the compositional benefits that supposedly accrue from using a transposing piano. In this article, I set aside received hyperbole and meticulously examine the musical results of Berlins labors. My goal is to delimit the various types of expressive chromaticism that enrich so many of his melodies; to consider the ways in which they function, and how they impinge upon a listeners interpretation. In the main text, 70 songs are cited, spanning a half century, from 1908 to 1957; many are examined in detail, and occasionally in more than one context. Annotated appendices provide information on many more. Because exaggerated references to the piano lever have been so prominent in the Berlin literature, I occasionally return to such a possibility in order to expose its logical inconsistencies vis--vis the particular type of chromaticism under discussion. In doing so, I explode the myth that a transposing lever motivated his musical choices, and propose instead the opposite: that it was a very musical ear that guided any lever-twisting that might have occurred. However, the principal aim of the article is to interpret the expressive and structural uses of a vital component of Berlins songs, as well as of the Tin Pan Alley repertory in general: chromaticism. I begin with a more thorough inspection of the black-key argument, and the types of pentatonicism that would result from such an approach. Species of chromaticism, of both smaller and larger scales, are then scrutinized. Included in the former category are immediate or directly applied types of chromaticismi.e., local passing and neighboring tones, blue notes, applied dominants, neighboring and passing chords, and so forth. Regarding the latter category, I consider how chromatic passages can complement the larger-scale designs of songs, through definition and elucidation of four ways in which Berlin used chromaticism on this level: in changes between parallel modes, in exactly-transposed segments or phrases, in tonicized segments or phrases, and in sectional key changes. ERRATA NB: This copy corrects two errors in the printed edition: pp. 4243: the second line of the caption for Ex. 22(b) climax of minor-mode section was placed at the top of p. 43 instead of under the example heading on p. 42. p. 53, bottom para., line 5: (with n% Gn) should be (with n%, or Gn) Gambling with Chromaticism?Extra-Diatonic Melodic Expression inthe Songs of Irving BerlinDavid Carson BerryIrving Berlin was not only one of the most commercially successful songwriters ofthe twentieth century, he was also one of the best known to the general public.Indeed, his was truly a "brand name"-one whose mere appearance on the coverof an otherwise unknown piece of sheet music suggested, to many people, some-thing about the quality of that unheard song. This reality was the basis of anadvertising slogan used, for a time, by his music publishing company: "Standardsof the World / 'Sterling' on Silver / 'Irving Berlin' on Songs."l The sentiment wasalso immortalized (less self-servingly) by fellow songwriter Cole Porter, in thelyrics of a 1934 hit which declared: "You're the top! You're a Berlin ballad."2If there is an unfortunate circumstance to a songwriter's being so wellknown-to being as much a celebrity as most of the performers of his songs-it isthat myths and half-truths inevitably begin to spread, in part through journalistsof the popular press with a penchant for sensationalism and exaggeration. InBerlin's case, this has been especially true. Because he achieved great successwhile lacking formal musical training, proficient performance skills, and allegedlythe ability to read and write music,3 many colorful stories have arisen about hisworking methods and, generally speaking, his approach to songwriting. In thepresent essay, I will set aside received hyperbole and meticulously examine themusical results of his labors. My goal will be to delimit the various types ofexpressive chromaticism which enrich so many of his melodies, and to considerthe ways in which they function. As an appropriate point of departure, let usinspect two correlative exaggerations which have taken root in the popular(mis)understanding of Berlin's songwriting techniques.First, as is often reported, Berlin was not a proficient pianist,4 and he tendedto favor the black keys when playing. As he phrased it, "The black keys are rightthere under your fingers. The key of C is for people who study music."s His prac-tice was widely known, and fellow songwriter Harold Arlen made witty referenceto it-in rhyme with Berlin's original name, Israel "Izzy" Baline-in a private2122 THEORY AND PRACTICEbirthday song he composed for Berlin, which proclaimed: "There's no curtailin' /The F sharp scalin' / Of Izzy Baline / The mighty B."6 However, while there is lit-tle doubt that Berlin found those raised piano keys to be easier to grasp, manywriters have been unable to stop with so general a statement, and instead haveconstructed more "fascinating" tales by reporting that black keys were all that heplayed. In Appendix 1, I give a sampling of quotations, by various writers, aboutBerlin's use of the black keys. These are listed roughly in order of increasing exag-geration. Thus, at the top are reasonable and true statements, such as by Forte andFuria, that Berlin generally played in F# major (and, implicitly, in D# minor) and somainly fingered the black keys; at the bottom are such absurdities as that "henever touched the white notes," and "he avoided the white keys and played onlyon the black." If the latter were true, even songs in F#, with no secondary toniciza-tions, would be completely devoid not only of leading tones but also of all the"blue notes" and other local chromaticisms that Berlin's melodies tend to incorpo-rate?Second, and again, as is frequently mentioned, Berlin used a transposingpiano, partly to overcome his performing limitations. Such an instrument was fit-ted with a lever that, when turned, would shift the position of the hammers vis-a-vis the strings, and thus would allow one key to be played (e.g., F#) while notesfrom another key were being sounded. These pianos were common in Tin PanAlley offices at the time Berlin first obtained one, around 1910,8 and were quiteuseful when a pianist had to accompany a singer whose range required a differentkey than the one in which a song was written. Yet, once more, we find extremeexaggeration in the way the instrument has been rendered in Berlin biographies;its importance to Berlin's songwriting has been overstated to the point that onewould have to imagine a device with almost mystical qualities! Appendix 2 col-lects various statements by which Berlin's piano-which he dubbed "Buick"-hasbeen portrayed in the literature, from descriptions of its construction and mecha-nisms, to remarks about its constant presence whenever and wherever Berlin wasworking, to comments which even suggest that his compositional choices wereprompted by it.The problem with intimations of the last kind-in addition to being factuallyunsubstantiated-is that they diminish Berlin's actual talent. This is especially trueof the quoted remark by Michael Freedland, who compared Berlin's songwritingsuccess on the instrument to a gambler's success on a slot machine, saying "assoon as he pulled the lever, he would as often as not hit the jackpot."9 The analogyis colorful, and indeed prompted this essay's titular reference to "gambling withchromaticism," but it does a disservice to Berlin by ascribing a mechanical orimprudent quality to his songwriting. There is never the feeling that his melodiestake chromatic excursions due to arbitrary turns of a lever; rather, his local diver-sions from diatony are generally the products of one who is musically quite sensi-tive and sophisticated, despite a pronounced lack of formal training. By insinuat-ing that his various chromaticisms are novelties resulting from the asinine twist ofa lever, these writers have perpetuated the notion advanced by Berlin's first biog-rapher (and friend!), Alexander Woollcott: that Berlin was simply a "creative igno-ramus" who was born with an "unrivalled capacity for inventing themes," butGAMBLING WITH CHROMATICISM? 23who possessed "little of the art, the patience, the interest in form, and the musi-cianly knowledge which could elaborate them."IOIn the following examination of Berlin's chromaticism, we will discover thatgreat consistencies of personal style and tonal thinking underpin his songs; theevidence will also suggest that his artistic, formal, and musicianly attributes weremuch more developed than Woollcott indicated. Because exagg


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