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Irving Berlin: Biography, Songs & Musicals

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Discover how a Russian immigrant captured the American spirit through his words and music. Irving Berlin (1888-1989) wrote over 1,500 songs that touched on every aspect of our culture.

Introduction and Early Life

On May 11, 1988, a 100th birthday celebration for Irving Berlin was held at Carnegie Hall. Among the dignitaries was Walter Cronkite who made this brief, but elegant tribute: 'Irving Berlin helped write the story of this country by capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives. Irving Berlin has written over 1,500 songs, and it is there we find our history, our holidays, our homes, and our hearts.'

When Moses Baline and his family entered the United States at Ellis Island in 1893, his youngest son (Israel Baline) was five years old. The family settled in Brooklyn, New York. Moses had been a cantor in Russia and passed along his love of singing to the young Israel. Moses died in 1901. A year later, the 14-year-old Izzy left home and used his singing skill to make a living. While working as a singing waiter, he would parody popular songs of the day. Izzy could not read or write music, but was clearly gifted. When a rival restaurant published a theme song, Berlin and another waiter collaborated on a song for their restaurant. It was published, and Izzy used the opportunity to have his name appear on the sheet music as I. Berlin.

One of Berlin's earliest songs is a good example of his ability to create lyrics. By putting clever words to Mendelssohn's 'Spring Song', he achieved great success in 1909 with 'That Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune'. With the popularity of ragtime and various dance crazes, Berlin also knew that syncopation was another key to success. Since Berlin would go on to write the words and music, he would slave over each song to make certain there was a good fit of notes to words. He also realized that songs based on everyday events with words that were easy to sing and remember was a winning combination. His next big hit embodied all these elements and created an international sensation: 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' (1911).

In that same year, he legally changed his name to Irving Berlin and became a partner in the music publishing house by which he had become employed. The firm of Waterson, Berlin & Snyder lured dozens of aspiring singers in search of the next big hit. Among these hopefuls was a 20-year-old unknown named Dorothy Goetz. Berlin admired her spunk. They dated, fell in love, and were married in early 1912. After a honeymoon in Cuba they returned to New York. Dorothy fell ill from typhoid fever and died five months later. Berlin would marry again, but not until 1924.

Creative Abilities

Berlin played only the black keys on the piano and owned several transposing pianos over the course of his career. His knowledge of music theory was rudimentary and throughout his life he required the services of a musical secretary to take down his creations so they could be published. Later, other trusted staff would orchestrate and arrange the songs.

One of Berlin's creative abilities was to write counterpoint songs-- two different songs, each with its own style and message, that are each heard alone and then sung at the same time. An early example comes from 1914 when he was working on a musical called Watch Your Step. In one particular scene, a young character sings a syncopated tune about a 'musical demon'. An older character complains about this 'new' music and sings a smoother melody more typical of his own younger days. A charming miracle takes place when these two very different songs, each representing a different generation, are performed together. The result was 'Play a Simple Melody'.

During this time, the Great War (later known as World War I) was raging in Europe, and the United States was soon drawn into the conflict. Irving Berlin was drafted in 1917 and assigned to Camp Upton in Yaphank, Long Island. An insomniac, Berlin did not function well in army life and instead managed to use his skills to write a benefit musical for the camp. Sergeant Berlin created a show called Yip! Yip! Yaphank. One of the songs, 'God Bless America', didn't fit well and was cut. It would resurface later. The fundraiser did contain what would be another hit, 'Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning'. It humorously captures his problem with insomnia and difficulty adapting to the rigors of army life.

In 1924, Berlin met and eventually married Ellin Mackay, a young rich socialite from an Irish Catholic family. She was an author who would go on to publish several books. In his nuptial bliss, Berlin composed 'Always' which was not only dedicated to her, but to which she was assigned the copyright and thus received the royalties. A year later their first child, Mary Ellin, was born. Berlin was inspired to welcome their child into the world with a song. Turning to his own cultural heritage he composed the haunting 'Russian Lullaby'.

As did many others, Berlin suffered huge financial losses from the Stock Market Crash of 1929. Doing what he did best, Berlin continued to compose songs to generate new income. Two hits came in 1932 with 'Say It Isn't So' and 'How Deep Is the Ocean?'. The following year he produced the show As Thousands Cheer, which included the popular songs 'Heat Wave' and 'Easter Parade'. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had recently teamed up in Hollywood and Irving Berlin was contracted to write music for their second movie Top Hat in 1935. In a single day he wrote 'Cheek to Cheek' for the dancing duo.

Storm clouds were again gathering in Europe with the start of World War II. Berlin had written several patriotic songs but none worked very well. He decided to revise the song 'God Bless America' that had been cut from the 1917 show Yip! Yip! Yaphank. It was arranged for Kate Smith to sing during a 1938 Armistice Day broadcast. Berlin dedicated the copyright royalties to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. In 1940, Berlin began work on another film, Holiday Inn. 'White Christmas' and 'Happy Holiday' were among the audience favorites when the movie was released in 1942. Irving Berlin was 53 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He decided to help the war effort by remounting Yip! Yip! Yaphank. The name of the production was changed to This Is the Army and copyright proceeds were designated for the Army Emergency Relief Fund. Berlin insisted the cast be fully integrated. The morale-boosting show toured internationally during the remainder of the war. Berlin was eventually recognized with a Congressional Medal of Honor for his volunteer efforts.

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