Richard Rodgers and the Waltz

At the beginning of the summer, we explored ten enduring songs that Richard Rodgers wrote with the lyricist Lorenz Hart. Today, I want to return to the effortless and seemingly inevitable melodies of Rodgers, this time with a focus on the waltz. Countless waltzes can be found among Richard Rodgers’ 900-plus songs, written for some 43 Broadway musicals. Many contain a trace of the Viennese operetta music Rodgers heard as a child, which included …

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Rodgers and Hart: Ten Enduring Songs

Last week, we celebrated the 117th anniversary of the birth of Richard Rodgers with one of the composer’s piano roll recordings. We discussed the simple, effortless perfection of Rodgers’ melodies and the way his style changed from his work with lyricist Lorenz Hart in the 1920s and 30s to his partnership with Oscar Hammerstein II in the 1940s and 50s. The latter collaboration transformed the Broadway musical from a loose collection of catchy …

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Richard Rodgers on Piano Roll

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 …

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Cole Porter at 128: Five Enduring Songs

Yesterday was the 128th anniversary of the birth of Cole Porter (1891-1964). Born in Peru, Indiana to a wealthy family, Porter rose to prominence in the 1920s and 30s as one of Broadway’s greatest songwriters. His sublime, distinctive melodies and dizzyingly sophisticated lyrics—the delightfully comic portmanteau, ”Tin-Pantithesis,” is just one example—continue to endure even as the cultural references in his crackling list songs, like You’re the Top, fade. In this way, Porter’s work now falls …

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Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim

The American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim turns 89 today. In Sondheim’s songs, music, lyric, character, and dramatic situation blend seamlessly and inseparably. The kind of plot-driven Broadway musical championed in the 1940s and 50s by Rodgers and Hammerstein reached its zenith of sophistication in the works of Sondheim, which include Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), and Into the Woods (1987). These are symphonic scores filled with motivic threads. The songs …

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Five Great Songs by Jule Styne

Today marks the 113th anniversary of the birth of the great American songwriter, Jule Styne (1905-1994). Born in London, Styne grew up in Chicago, the son of Jewish Ukrainian immigrants. He was a child prodigy pianist, performing with the orchestras of Chicago and Detroit before age ten. Later, he played jazz, withdrawing from the concert stage because of the limitations of his small hands. He created the scores for some of the Broadway …

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Bernstein at 100: “West Side Story”

Tomorrow marks the centennial of the birth of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990). As a conductor, Bernstein brought a distinctive, youthful dynamism to the podium, producing performances which sizzled with “edge-of-your-seat” energy. He championed adventurous new American works during his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic (from 1958 to 1969), and sparked a revival of interest in the music of Gustav Mahler. As a composer, he synthesized a variety of musical styles, from …

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