YAA is excited to bring you a new blog column called Paco’s POV. Our wonderful Orchestra Manager, Francisco José “Paco” Cosió Marron, will be writing these every week to give you a bit more background on the production we are currently working on. Check back often to get your fill of Paco’s POV!
So today meet our composer: Irving Berlin (1888 - 1989)
Irving Berlin (born Israel Beilin) was an American composer and lyricist, widely considered one of the greatest songwriters in American history. His music forms a great part of the Great American Songbook. Born in Imperial Russia, Berlin arrived in the United States at the age of five. He was one of eight children of Moses and Lena Lipkin Beilin. His father, a cantor in a synagogue, uprooted the family to America, as did many other Jewish families in the late 19th century. In 1893 they settled in New York City. Upon their arrival at Ellis Island, the name "Beilin" was changed to "Baline". According to biographer Laurence Bergreen, as an adult Berlin admitted to no memories of his first five years in Russia except for one: "he was lying on a blanket by the side of a road, watching his house burn to the ground. By daylight the house was in ashes." As an adult, Berlin said he was unaware of being raised in abject poverty since he knew no other life.
Tsar Alexander III of Russia and then Tsar Nicholas II, his son, had revived with utmost brutality the anti-Jewish pogroms, which created the spontaneous mass exodus to America. The pogroms were to continue until 1906, with thousands of other Jewish families also needing to escape, including those of George and Ira Gershwin, Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, L. Wolfe Gilbert, Jack Yellen, Louis B. Mayer (of MGM), and the Warner brothers. When they reached Ellis Island, Israel was put in a pen with his brother and five sisters until immigration officials declared them fit to be allowed into the city.
He published his first song, "Marie from Sunny Italy", in 1907, receiving 33 cents for the publishing rights, and had his first major international hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band" in 1911. He also was an owner of the Music Box Theatre on Broadway. "Alexander's Ragtime Band" sparked an international dance craze in places as far away as Berlin's native Russia, which also "flung itself into the ragtime beat with an abandon bordering on mania." Over the years he was known for writing music and lyrics in the American vernacular: uncomplicated, simple and direct, with his stated aim being to "reach the heart of the average American," whom he saw as the "real soul of the country." In doing so, said Walter Cronkite, at Berlin's 100th birthday tribute, he "helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives."
He wrote hundreds of songs, many becoming major hits, which made him a legend before he turned thirty. During his 60-year career he wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 20 original Broadway shows and 15 original Hollywood films, with his songs nominated eight times for Academy Awards. Many songs became popular themes and anthems, including "Easter Parade", "White Christmas", "Happy Holiday", "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)", and "There's No Business Like Show Business". His Broadway musical and 1943 film This is the Army, with Ronald Reagan, had Kate Smith singing Berlin's "God Bless America" which was first performed in 1938.
Note that Mr. Berlin lived a full century and his contributions to the American music book and to American culture span many subjects and eras. We will investigate the time when he wrote our musical and the time the musical was set in in our next email.
Francisco José Cosió Marron
YAA Orchestra ManagerYoung Artists of America at Strathmore