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The Music of Irving Berlin

The Dean of American Songwriters

 

Back in November of 1998, we published a feature about the great Irving Berlin One of our earlier efforts, it certainly does not meet our standards of today with regard to scope or depth. Regardless, that issue has become one of our most linked to features and for quite some time, we've been meaning to update the article and provide more information about this songwriter, arguably America's best for nearly 100 years. This month we attempt to improve on that original article and offer the many visitors who come to see it, with more music and more information about this enigmatic man who contributed so much to American popular song. For those of you who want to view the original 1998 article, link to it here. It only appears now on our site in this link as we are replacing it with this updated article in our back issues and site map.

We introduced the original issue with the following comments;

"This year (1998) marks the 110th anniversary of the birth of one of America's greatest songwriters, Irving Berlin. Born in Russia, (nee Isidore Baline) Berlin moved to New York City with his family in 1893. He published his first work, Marie of Sunny Italy in 1907 at age 19 and immediately had his first hit on his hands. In 1911 the publication of Alexander's Ragtime Band established his reputation as a songwriter. He formed his own music-publishing business in 1919, and in 1921 he became a partner in the construction of the Music Box Theater in New York, staging his own popular revues at the theater for several years. Berlin wrote about 1500 songs.


Whether for Broadway musicals or films, for humorous songs or romantic ballads, his compositions are celebrated for their appealing melodies and memorable lyrics. Among the numerous musical comedies and revues for which Berlin wrote music and lyrics were Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Mr. President (1962). His many popular songs include "There's No Business Like Show Business," "God Bless America," and "White Christmas." In 1968 Berlin received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.


This month ParlorSongs takes a musical tour of some of this great American composer's music. Many of the songs featured here are some of his lesser known works. In our gallery, we also show a few of the works published by his firm composed by others. ( In our earlier issues, we often included an array of covers with midi with no commentary, we called this our gallery, ed.)

That original biography is the shortest of sketches about a life that has spawned numerous books and articles by musicologists and historians. To augment those meager comments, we've published a more comprehensive biography of Irving Berlin and it is available as a part of our continuing "In Search Of" series of articles.

Come with us now as we revisit the wonderful music of one of America's greatest songwriters. As always, this issue is on two separate pages so don't miss page two of this issue.








Marie From Sunny Italy

1907


Music by: M. Nicholson
Lyrics by: Irving Berlin
Cover artist: unknown

 

We begin this month's survey with the very first published song by Berlin. An inauspicious beginning, Berlin was the lyricist for a tune by Nicholson who is now unfortunately, long forgotten. His lyricist, a 19 year old kid from Russia with a talent for words (and later, music) would become a household name, write of some of America's greatest songs. This tune, really rather forgettable and the lyrics (also forgettable) would be completely unknown were it not for Berlin's association with it and the fact that it is the first song published with his byline.

 

At the time this song was published, Berlin, like many budding performers, was working as a singing waiter in a downtown New York restaurant, Pelham's Café. Berlin introduced the song himself and often sung it while at work. According to David Ewen ( Popular American Composers, p. 22) the young Baline (Berlin) was hired at Pelham's in 1906 as a singing waiter. He became quite popular entertaining customers with parodies of current popular songs. Berlin became well known and even was mentioned in the papers thus becoming better known. Two waiters at a rival café had written an Italian song and had it published. Not to be outdone, Pelham asked their pianist, "Nick" Nicholson to write a song and tapped Baline to write lyrics. The song was quite popular with the clientele and when Stern picked it up to publish, Baline asked that his newly assumed name, Irving Berlin appear on the music. The newly named Berlin made a total of 37¢ in royalties from the song. A cute song, it suffers from what I consider to be a lack of continuity. The music is OK, but a little disjointed and the lyrics, though nice, suffer from the tune's deficiencies and the two never really come together in the way that a hit song manages to do.


Hear this earliest Berlin song Printable sheet music (scorch format only)

listen to MIDI version

Lyrics

 


 


Try It On Your Piano

1910


Music by: Irving Berlin
Lyrics by: Berlin
Cover artist: De Takacs


After his first brush with success in 1907, Berlin spent the next few years as more a lyricist than a composer. In fact, it is a well known fact that Berlin could neither read nor write music and was furthermore, unable to play the piano except in a limited way, in one key (F sharp). It is said that he had his piano fixed with a device that allowed him to transpose any piece of music into his favored key. Just what sort of device that could have been would make for an interesting article in itself. Regardless, from 1907 till 1911, Berlin mostly wrote only lyrics, selling them to publisher and composers such as Ted Snyder, with whom he enjoyed a long association both as a songwriter and publisher later with the house of Waterson, Berlin & Snyder. Berlin's earliest successes came as a lyricist and it was only when a publisher bought one of his songs assuming it included the melody, was Berlin "forced" to write music also. At that time, and throughout his career, he would dictate a melody to an arranger to flesh out the harmony and bass lines to the song.

 

By 1910, Berlin's practice of dictating melody and combining it with his own melody had allowed him to publish a number of songs with him billed as the melodic and lyrical creator. The line, "by Irving Berlin" first appeared in 1908 and by 1910 was appearing more often. Here we have one such song, and one that shows not only Berlin's humorous side but also his more laviscious side. A rather ribald (for the times) novelty song, Try It On Your Piano is one of the best musical uses of double (and single ) entendre I've seen from this period. It is a witty and sexy song, quite extraordinary for 1910. We also see with this song, Berlin's sense of melody and the melding of lyric and music to create memorable and singable songs. This facility and talent would only improve over the years till Berlin became arguably, America's greatest songwriter.

 


Enjoy this early Berlin novelty Printable sheet music (scorch format only)

listen to MIDI version

Lyrics



 

That Beautiful Rag

1910

 


Music by: Ted Snyder
Lyrics by: Irving Berlin
Cover artist: Frew

 

As we said, by 1910, Berlin was still making his mark more by selling lyrics and collaborating with known composers than he was on his own. Here we have one of his last, and better collaborations with Snyder and a song that was highly acclaimed at the time. Still a very young man, Berlin was on the verge of greatness and the following year, he would become a phenomenon with the publication of Alexander's Ragtime Band.

 

Berlin's skill at writing lyrics was so well established by this time that the New York Journal hired him in 1910 to write several hundred verses! (Ewen, p. 23) Two of his lyrics that year, Sweet Italian Love and That Beautiful Rag appeared in a stage revue starring two of the most popular performers of the day, Eddie Foy and Emma Carus. These two songs helped cement his popularity even more and simply set the stage for his mega hit and stardom to come the following year.

 

Ted Snyder (b. 1881, Freeport, Illinois d. 1965, Hollywood, CA) Ted Snyder is the person who gave Irving Berlin his start in the music business by hiring him in 1909 as a song plugger for his publishing company. But Snyder is also recalled as a composer in his own right who wrote hits such as The Sheik of Araby (1921) and Who's Sorry Now? (1923).

 

Little is known of Snyder's early life, other than he attended the public schools in Boscobel, WI., and as a very young man, he posted theater bills for a living. Later, he was a cafe pianist, and then a staff pianist and song plugger in Chicago and New York music publishing houses. Like Berlin, his first publications came in 1907 with his first song There's a Girl in This World for Every Boy, with lyrics Will D. Cobb. Snyder wrote a number of other tunes in collaboration with other important lyricists of the day and in 1909 he began his association with Berlin. Some of their first tines included, Sweet Italian Love, Kiss Me, My Honey, Kiss Me, and Next To Your Mother, Who Do You Love? as well as 1910's That Beautiful Rag.

 

In 1913, Irving Berlin was writing his own melodies, as well as his own lyrics and Snyder's firm is reorganized and is called, Waterson, Berlin and Snyder. Ted Snyder also continued writing his own melodies, often with other lyricists such as Bert Kalmar and Edgar Leslie. Among the songs he wrote with Kalmar and/or Leslie are: Moonlight on the Rhine, In The Land of Harmony and The Ghost of the Violin. From the end of the first World War till 1930, Snyder continued writing songs with other talented lyricists.

 

In 1930, Ted Snyder retired from the songwriting business, settled in Hollywood, CA., and went into the restaurant business. He died in Hollywood. He is a member of the Songwriters' Hall of Fame.
(Adapted from Kinkle, pp 1784-85)


 


Listen to and see this 1910 song Printable sheet music (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version

Lyrics


When I'm Alone I'm Lonesome

1911



Music by: Irving Berlin
Words by: Berlin
Cover artist: Frew

 

Though 1911 marked Berlin's entry into stardom and national acclaim and that year is known almost exclusively as the year of Alexander's Ragtime Band, Berlin did write many other songs that year. In fact, according to Wilder (p. 92), Berlin had a personal regimen that called for writing at least one song every day! In his lifetime, he wrote perhaps thousands, most of which have never seen the light of day or been sung beyond Berlin's own private study. We do know that well over 900 of his songs were published in his lifetime and even many of them are forgotten.

 

Many of Berlin's songs speak to the heart and are deeply emotional. This one is no exception. He clearly was an emotional and feeling person and his life was as full of the tragedies of life that many of us have. He lost his first wife in 1912 when she contracted typhoid while on their honeymoon in Cuba. That event prompted the song, When I lost You (in our feature on tear jerkers from October 2001) a gut wrenching song about lost love. His ability to express emotion through song was impressive and matched by few other songwriters. I believe he was a lonely man, and a solitary and private individual who suffered tragedy with dignity yet managed to deal with it through his music. I believe much of music is inspired by personal events as music is such a language of emotion. Of course though this and many of his other songs speak to strong emotions and sometimes desperation, he was able to also express strong emotions of happiness, warmth and good humor through his music. I think this ability to speak to the heart and our deepest feelings is one reason that Berlin's music has risen above the common song and set a standard for songwriting that will stand above the rest for a long, long time.

 

 


Hear this Berlin sad song (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version

Lyrics

 


 



My Sweetie

1917



Music by: Irving Berlin
Lyrics by: Berlin
Cover artist: Barbelle


On a more upbeat note, Berlin published this cute and wonderful ballad in 1917, a year when Berlin was starring at the Hippodrome in New York and billed as the "Ragtime King". How strange since Berlin had barely even written a true Ragtime tune. It was during these years (after 1912) that Berlin came into his own as the preeminent writer of American ballads and even tried his hand at scoring a Broadway stage work, Watch Your Step, starring Vernon and Irene Castle.

 

This song shows Berlin in a happier mood, telling us a story of a young gent who's been visited by Cupid and has fallen in love. He wants nothing more than to show off his new sweetie and tell everyone about her (see the scorch version or the lyrics links). here we see that Berlin has developed the style that will carry him through the next 70 years as a songwriter. He has become a master of the integration of the melody and lyrics. Unlike the cumbersome flow of Marie From Sunny Italy, his songs have taken on an integrated style that makes it almost impossible to imagine one element without the other. The melody, harmony and poetry all come together in ways that make you wonder how such genius is sparked and maintained. As Wilder says (p. 92), " it is doubly remarkable that Berlin wrote so many songs which deserve to be praised for musical reasons rather than because they were hits."

 

Enjoy this great song Printable sheet music (scorch format only)

Listen to MIDI version

Lyrics

 



Someone Else May Be There While I'm Gone

1917



Music by: Irving Berlin
Lyrics by: Berlin
Cover artist: Barbelle

 

Once again, we see some of the less secure side of Berlin come through in this rather cute and melodic tune about the insecurities many of us feel when we are away from the person we love. With an even more characteristic Berlin harmony and blend of poetry, Berlin show us he is fully ready to take on the musical world with an array of songs that will knock our socks off. Harmonically, this song is one of his best and shows the style and sense of music that he had. Wilder commented about Berlin's use of harmony in his 1972 book, American Popular Song by saying; "though Berlin may seldom have played acceptable harmony, he nevertheless, by some mastery of his inner ear, senses it, in fact writes many of his melodies with this natural, intuitive harmonic sense." (p. 93).

 

Wilder mentioned that he had heard Berlin play the piano during vaudeville and that his harmony was "inept." Clearly this is why Berlin primarily paid professional musicians to harmonize his songs. He would primarily dictate a base melody and then supervise the harmonization. In some respects, we must credit him for his incredible musical sense. On the other hand, I find it rather callous that he took full credit for his final works. Nary a mention of the hard work of his helpers, not a word about arrangers. Though other songwriters have done the same, notably Charles K. Harris, I still find it rather unfair and improper. We cannot deny Berlin's creative genius, but we should know that he was not alone and cannot take full credit for everything published under his name. I suppose like Harris, the adulation of the public and ego hampered sharing fame with those who helped make them successful.


 

Listen to this great old song (scorch format)

Listen to MIDI version

Lyrics

 



See our resources page for a complete bibliography of all resources used to research this and other articles in our series.

 


WAIT! There are many more Irving Berlin hits, including Homesick, Oh, How I Hate To Get Up In The Morning and Always to see and hear. The second part of this issue features many more rare and different works.

More hit music and covers in this month's issue, go to part B.



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