Magazine | September 9, 2019, Issue

The American Songbook

A dress rehearsal of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story at the 2003 Bregenz Festival, Austria (Miro Kuzmanovic/Reuters)
In the hurly-burly of politics, we usually don’t stop to note our simple, unadorned love of the things that make this country so marvelous. That’s what we’ve asked our contributors to our latest special issue, "What We Love about America," to do.

If, at the end of time, nations are summoned before a divine tribunal and asked to present their greatest contributions to world culture, Austria will cockily throw down Mozart and Schubert; Germany will proffer Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, just for starters; Poland, undaunted, will invoke Chopin; Italy, France, and Spain will bring their own musical geniuses. Then all eyes will turn expectantly — perhaps skeptically — to the U.S., which will saunter coolly up to the bar and spill out the boundless cornucopia that is the American Songbook, that decades-long explosion of astoundingly fecund melody, propulsive energy, mesmerizing rhythm, urbane sophistication, joyful optimism, wit, and irony, created for the 20th-century musical stage. 

This supreme expression of American confidence and creativity seemed to come out of nowhere. Nothing in America’s tepid 19th-century contributions to European classical music adumbrated it; nor did the homely and sometimes hokey popular songs of Stephen Foster. European operetta and German singspiel provided the American musical its combination of spoken dialogue and song; the inclusion of dance traced a lineage to French baroque opera. But what a difference! 

Unlike the formulaic airs, gavottes, and courantes of French opera, often performed by a separate troupe of dancers or by the court audience itself, the singing stars of the American musical themselves executed the demanding, seamlessly integrated choreography, which, like the music, burst with power and a highly specific characterization of mood. Only a few operatic libretti repay close attention; the lyrics of the American Songbook, by contrast, dazzle with their audacious rhymes, humor, and fantastical conceits. Western classical music had long known syncopation. But no one had felt compelled to snap his fingers to music before American jazz and musical theater, which sent a previously undiscovered current coursing through the body, demanding outlet. 

The judges will start sorting through the glittering jewels that the Americans have just strewn before them, perhaps picking up Cole Porter. They find “From This Moment On,” “I’ve Got You under My Skin,” “It’s All Right with Me,” and “Night and Day,” each containing more piercingly bittersweet harmonic progressions and suave melody than one can possibly fathom. Already shaken, they come across George and Ira Gershwin: “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” “But Not for Me,” and then that Mephistophelean fiend, Sportin’ Life, from Porgy and Bess, whose “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York” is an even more gloriously, shockingly audacious seduction gambit than Don Giovanni’s “Là ci darem la mano.” 

Determined to push onward, the judges find Rodgers and Hart: “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “Falling in Love with Love,” and the most hilarious satire of male bonding ever written: “Come with Me [to Jail].” My Fair Lady, South Pacific, and other triumphs too numerous to be named still lie ahead, even before they hit Leonard Bernstein, who upped the jazz wattage further. And in a time when most of America still treated blacks with callous contempt and condescension, its great black singers and instrumentalists graced this music (which their smoking jazz helped create) with a heartbreaking nobility and generosity of spirit. 

In that thrilling fusion of erotic malice and religious grandeur that is the Te Deum from Puccini’s Tosca, the Baron Scarpia cries out: “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (“Tosca, you make me forget God!”) Confronted by our musical heritage, this judge is driven to say: “American Songbook, you make me forget Mozart!” (at least for a while).

In This Issue

What We Love About America

U.S.

American Men

American men — with few exceptions — treat you like a human being, in a free, natural way, because they’ve done it from the nation’s youth.

Books, Arts & Manners

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