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We'll Have Manhattan
The Early Work of Rodgers and Hart
OUP. $34.95 £22.99 360 pp hardback.
30 illustrations, 27 music examples
Intended as the first of two books to deal with the work of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979), Lorenz Hart (1895-1943) and eventually Oscar Hammerstein II ('Ockie'), We'll Have Manhattan covers much of the period between the first meeting of Rodgers and Hart at the Hart family house on West 119 Street in 1919 and Hart's death. Rodgers and Hart were younger than Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and Irving Berlin (1888- 1989), but near-direct contemporaries of George Gershwin (1898-1937).
Broadway had only recently seen the introduction of the saxophone into the pit bands (1913). Indeed, the mid-teens of the new century were when America released itself from the shackles of its European musical legacy. "Early achievement creates a thirst hard to satisfy," wrote Rodgers. Even before he was twenty he had enjoyed his share of success. Yet at seventeen Rodgers could barely read music. The compensation and, perhaps, the explanation, was that he could play anything he heard, simply by listening! He was the first freshman ever to compose a complete score for a varsity show.
Rodgers felt parental pressure to embark on a 'proper' career. Music was a worthy pastime, but the stage was no place to build a respectable livelihood. Rodgers senior was a well-respected doctor; his son would be expected to follow suit. On the threshold of going out to seek a day job, in the sort of rags-to-riches mythology that still beguiles young hopefuls today, Rodgers received a telephone call that led to Garrick Gaieties (1925), and the pair's resultant breakthrough in Revue.
Symonds is perceptive in his observations, noting how for instance in Manhattan (1922) Rodgers teases the listener by avoiding tonic resolution in the melody to present a relaxed, conversational impression of the city's iconicity. Symonds also draws attention to the triple rhyming that was to become a characteristic of the work of Hart, as in: "We'll have a blue room, / A new room, / For two room," or: "I'm wild again, /Beguiled again, / A simpering, whimpering child again." Of purely musical interest is Rodgers use of the mixolydian mode. The seventh of the scale is flattened in this mode, characteristic of Ukrainian music, said to have arrived in Hollywood in the work of composer Dimitri Tiomkin, some two decades before the much-vaunted use of modes in jazz by George Russell and Miles Davis. Rodgers' use of the mixolydian can be heard in My Sweet and Movies, both in America's Sweetheart(1931)
Writing about Dearest Enemy (1925), Symonds observes that the tensions between European sophistication and American vernacular were all too apparent. The suggestion is here made that Rodgers may have been deliberately and cleverly writing material that nationalistically contrasted with the Britishness of the pair's Gilbert and Sullivan pastiches.
An authoritative study, with several musical surprises.
John Robert Brown
Published in Jazz Journal, August 2015. Used by kind permission; reproduction forbidden.