Today marks the 117th anniversary of the birth of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979).
In his book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, the composer and commentator Alec Wilder wrote,
Of all the writers whose songs are considered and examined in this book, those of Rodgers show the highest degree of consistent excellence, inventiveness, and sophistication … After spending weeks playing his songs, I am more than impressed and respectful: I am astonished.
Melodies seem to have poured out of Rodgers with incredible ease. Among his over 900 songs (written for some 43 Broadway musicals), there always seems to be one more undiscovered gem. These songs exhibit a simple, timeless perfection. Each note feels inevitable. A great song sets up our expectation and then, often, takes a thrilling, unexpected turn. Rodgers was a master of this game.
In the 1920s and 30s, Rodgers collaborated with the lyricist, Lorenz Hart. The results were crackling, jazzy numbers like “Thou Swell,” “Have You Met Miss Jones?,” and “Mountain Greenery,” as well as haunting and melancholy ballads like “Where or When” and “My Funny Valentine.” When Rodgers partnered with Oscar Hammerstein II, beginning with Oklahoma! in 1943, his style changed. While the Hart shows were loose collections of catchy songs with a storyline as an afterthought, Hammerstein was interested in a more dramatically sophisticated kind of musical—one in which songs served and furthered the story. The most spectacular and highly developed example of this is the famous “bench scene” in the first act of Carousel. (Stephen Sondheim has called it “probably the singular most important moment in the evolution of contemporary musicals.”) In his collaboration with Hart, Rodgers often wrote the melody first. With Hammerstein the lyric came first and was then set to music.
In future posts, we’ll explore Rodgers’ songs in greater depth. For now, let’s hear a 1926 piano roll recording of Richard Rodgers playing two songs from a show he did with Hart called “The Girlfriend.” First, is the show’s title number—an infectious “Charleston” which seems to capture the giddy, high-flying exuberance of the Roaring Twenties.
The second song, The Blue Room, was the show’s most enduring hit. Listen to the way this melody works its way up the scale with unabashed joy and then gives us a three-note melodic “reward” before falling back. It’s interesting to consider all of the Rodgers melodies that grow out of the scale. Babes in Arms and Do-Re-Mi are the most obvious examples, but also listen to the scale motion in Where or When or Out of My Dreams.
In his 1998 biography of Richard Rodgers, William H. Hyland writes,
“Blue Room” was later singled out as the first wholly distinctive Rodgers song because of a stylistic device that would reappear throughout his career: the use of two or three repeated notes as a basic theme, with phrases built around them. In analyzing “Blue Room,” Rodgers wrote that the repeated pattern coincided with Hart’s repeated use of “room,” as in blue room, new room, ballroom, and small room…
Another dimension of this song is worthy of note: in the release they skillfully used a scale, stretching almost an octave, which builds in momentum and is finally relieved by a graceful phrase that eventually leads back to the refrain. Rodgers often resorted to some form of scale, whether ascending or descending…