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Jerome Kern

Jerome Kern

by Stephen Banfield, Geoffrey Block (Foreword by)

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A founding father of the modern American musical, Jerome Kern (1885–1945) was the composer of legions of popular songs, including such standards as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Ol’ Man River.” His 1927 Show Boat with Oscar Hammerstein II helped to set a new standard for musical theater.

This book is the first to


A founding father of the modern American musical, Jerome Kern (1885–1945) was the composer of legions of popular songs, including such standards as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Ol’ Man River.” His 1927 Show Boat with Oscar Hammerstein II helped to set a new standard for musical theater.

This book is the first to provide a critical overview of Kern’s musical accomplishments throughout his career. Stephen Banfield ranges from Broadway, to Hollywood, and to London’s West End, drawing on unpublished manuscripts and scores to assess the composer’s extraordinary oeuvre.

Kern’s life, personality, and working methods are given due attention, as is the development of his work from the early musical comedies through the collaborations with Hammerstein and P. G. Wodehouse up to the later film scores. Banfield focuses especially on the musical and lyrical structures of Kern’s compositions, illuminating beloved works and shedding light on compositions often overlooked.

Editorial Reviews

Journal of the American Musicological Society

"Evinces an impressive fluency with Kern, musical theater history, and its social and cultural contexts."—Elizabeth A. Wells, Journal of the American Musicological Society

— Elizabeth A. Wells

Gerald Bordman
"Stephen Banfield's study is a major addition to Kern scholarship."—Gerald Bordman, author of American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle

Michael Feinstein
"Banfield's book is heroic in its scope and coverage of a neglected but essential American music icon."—Michael Feinstein, Singer, Music Historian

Mark Steyn
"Stephen Banfield has written a book that’s intelligent and authoritative but also a vivid evocation of early twentieth century show business. This lively study not only conjures Kern and his world but lays out clearly why this music is of value and why it will last."—Mark Steyn, author of Broadway Babies Say Goodnight

Journal of the American Musicological Society - Elizabeth A. Wells

"Evinces an impressive fluency with Kern, musical theater history, and its social and cultural contexts."—Elizabeth A. Wells, Journal of the American Musicological Society
Library Journal
In this volume of the "Yale Broadway Masters" series, Banfield (music, Univ. of Bristol, U.K.) takes a scholarly look at the composer of Show Boat, which many commentators have lauded as the most important Broadway musical of all time. Instead of writing a full-fledged biography, however, Banfield focuses on the music and cultural artifacts created by the composer and his collaborators. Here, footnotes appear throughout, unlike in previous books on Kern (including Gerald Bordman's biography, Jerome Kern: His Life and Music). The five lengthy chapters describe Kern's life, his place in musical comedy, his collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, several shows in act-by-act detail, and Kern's move to Hollywood toward the end of his life. Three shows in particular are examined: Sitting Pretty, Show Boat, and The Cat and the Fiddle. Of special note is an extended discussion of the relationship between Kern and his musical collaborators and orchestrators, Robert Russell Bennett and Frank Saddler, which emphasizes the collaborative nature of Broadway musicals. An important contribution to the literature on the American musical; highly recommended, especially for academic libraries.-Bruce R. Schueneman, Texas A&M Univ. Lib., Kingsville Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Product Details

Yale University Press
Publication date:
Yale Broadway Masters Series
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x 1.16(d)

Read an Excerpt

Jerome Kern

By Stephen Banfield

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11047-0

Chapter One

Introducing Kern

Prelude: The State of the Subject

The name of Jerome Kern is well known; the composer is not. During his lifetime and for years after his death eulogists spoke of "no more gifted composer in the American scene ... since the passing of the late Victor Herbert[;] ... one of the truly great songwriters of all times"; of "the composer of Show Boat and many another great musical score" as one who enjoyed "a special place in the hearts of all music lovers everywhere" and wrote some of the "greatest classics of American songwriting." Kern and Oscar Hammerstein were "America's greatest team of composers," Kern's melodies "as much a part of us as our voices and our hearts, for which they were written"; Kern had earned "a lasting place in his nation's memory" and "many of his works will be written in[to] the folklore of American music." David Ewen, in the first book on Kern, called him "a great composer, a genius." Commemorative postage stamps were issued for his centenary in 1985, and the Gramatan Masonic Lodge of Bronxville, New York, into which Kern had been initiated in May 1919, dubbed him "King of the American musical stage" in a first-day cover note thataccompanied them.

Such reverential pronouncements were sometimes challenged, for example, when a review of Kern's 1946 "biopic," Till the Clouds Roll By, deplored lines like "Yours are the folksongs of a nation" as "alien corn." But they have remained standard, with the effect of sacralizing a small number of Kern's songs as though, still more than folklore, they were favorite hymns. Perhaps only "Ol' Man River" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" could be hummed by the person in the street today, although "The Way You Look Tonight," "Look For the Silver Lining," "All the Things You Are," and one or two more might come to memory with prompting; others such as "She Didn't Say 'Yes,"' once heard or reheard, are never forgotten. At the same time the very familiarity of Kern's best-known songs militates against thinking about them. How often is it recognized that the end of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" lacks its proper verbal closure? Otto Harbach wanted to perfect his poetic conceit by twisting it to "It's when a lovely flame dies, / That smoke gets in your eyes" in his last two lines, but Kern was unwilling to supply two extra melody notes (for "it's" and "that"). Or did he realize that Harbach's proper emphasis would be musically insoluble?

Kern's music has not been critically investigated, or even conserved, whole. Only forty-six of his songs are easily available in print, plus a few more in the published piano/vocal score of Show Boat, whereas he wrote well over 1,000, probably nearer 1,350, though nobody knows for sure in the absence of an annotated thematic catalogue. Few of the mature ones are less than excellent, and Kern never repeated himself, though he reused many of his songs (most commonly the refrain portion). Almost all of these songs were first performed on the stage or on screen in dramatic presentations mixing sung music with spoken dialogue. Yet of the forty-odd stage shows for which Kern was principal or sole composer, none was ever published in a score that included the script; indeed, only four of the scripts were published at all, and only in England in Kern's lifetime, in editions so ephemeral that even the British Library lacks them. The music on its own has fared slightly better, for a complete piano/vocal score was published for fourteen of his shows, yet this still leaves nearly thirty of which major portions (ensembles, underscored scenes, and finales) exist only in manuscript or in hire-library photocopies or, worse, have perished, as with Three Sisters. As for the orchestrations, never produced by Kern himself but by right-hand men, notably Frank Saddler and Robert Russell Bennett, almost as many are lost as locatable, and none has been published. Nor is any Kern musical edition planned. An unannotated and incomplete reprint edition of his published songs has petered out, though one is thankful for its sixteen modest volumes. Perhaps eight hundred or more of Kern's songs were published as individual pieces of sheet music for voice and piano, but most if not all except the anthologized forty-six have long been out of print, now sought after as much for their delightful cover art as their musical content. Kern is not alone in these respects: the outputs of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and the earlier Richard Rodgers are scarcely more consolidated; Harry Warren is worse off. Even the Rodgers and Hammerstein scripts, once available in a handy bound volume, have now been taken out of retail circulation because of legal complications.

The music for films has fared as badly as Kern's stage works. Nothing beyond individual songs, generally truncated, has been published as sheet music. There are no published screenplays. Worse, where underscoring and vocal or choral arrangements and general routining are concerned-and they constitute a much greater proportion of a film's music than within a stage score-one cannot even be sure what was written by Kern and what was supplied by the studio's musical director or the film's orchestrator, with or without Kern's involvement and approval. In many cases the film archives may eventually answer such questions, but the work has not yet been done, and in some cases may not yet (or may no longer) be possible. On the other hand, one can hear a film musical's songs as they sounded on the original soundtrack and as they graced the narrative, for many of the films remain available. This is untrue of the stage music, for with minor though important exceptions there are no surviving recordings by the original cast, orchestra, and musical director of Kern's Broadway musicals, and throughout Kern's lifetime such stars as Fred Astaire went into the recording studio not to recreate what they had sung on stage or screen but to make a song popular as vocalist for a dance-band arrangement. London treated its musical theater composers somewhat more generously during the years of Kern's prime, and Show Boat, Oh, Boy! (as Oh Joy!), and Sally were all extensively recorded with their original London casts. These are crucial historical documents, one of them, "Wedding Bells" from Oh Joy!, a Kern song apparently surviving on record but not in score; this number also includes a generous portion of spoken dialogue for George, Jim, and the Judge. London and Broadway performance practice-at least for Kern's type of show-was comparably anglophone in style in those days, but it is still galling to admit that we do not know what Kern's stage shows sounded like in New York at the time of their initial run. Singing, speaking, acting, and orchestral playing have all changed greatly since the 1920s and 1930s, and the intimate recorded sound of film rendered conditions and performance practice in the Hollywood studio different from the start from those of Broadway, which did eventually come into line, but slowly. Latter-day recordings of Kern's stage shows, even when restoring the original orchestration, have been performed by singers and players trained or experienced in different traditions, including those of the modern studio, the amplified Broadway stage, the postwar symphony orchestra, choir, and conservatoire, and even the early music movement. Few if any of them are the inveterate troupers of more artisanal times.

Latter-day recordings and concert performances there have at least been, and John McGlinn stands preeminent in the Kern historiography for his work of reclamation. The complete Show Boat is his major monument, Sitting Pretty and the Jerome Kern Treasury scarcely lesser ones. Other show recordings are in the offing. New York, London, and West Coast concert stagings of such musicals as Very Warm for May, Music in the Air, and Sweet Adeline have given those who attended them, over the past two decades or more, unexampled insights into the uncanonic Broadway Kern; but virtually all of Broadway Kern is uncanonic, Show Boat being the glaring exception. Leave It to Jane ran off Broadway some decades ago, left behind a recording, and like a few of the other shows very occasionally enjoys, or suffers, an amateur or student production. Very Good Eddie has been professionally revived, but with the usual paraphernalia of rewritten libretto, reorchestrated score, and interpolations that prevents critical assessment of the show in its full historical context and, worse, substitutes the new "book" for the old one in the rental library. Where does the old one go to? Too seldom does anyone know.

Recordings, even McGlinn's of Show Boat, do not include all the spoken dialogue. A concert performance does, but one still needs to see the show fully staged to judge its emotional and dramatic potential. Not until a decent number of Kern's musicals have found their way back to the theater shall we really be able to say we know the composer.

Meanwhile, the Kern literature is naturally of considerable help to the critical musicologist, but in certain respects only. Gerald Bordman's Jerome Kern (1980) is a reliable, painstaking, and exhaustive monument, though with patent limitations, not least a publication date prior to the discovery of the Warner Bros. warehouse material in Secaucus, New Jersey, in 1982. Bordman researched fact and undermined the fiction of Kern mythology, untangled the songs in the shows (he indexes them all), and has something germane to say about most of them. We are lucky to have such a biography. Yet Bordman is not a musician and cannot bring Kern the composer, Kern the Broadway master back to life. He also did relatively little research on the film music or the London shows. Most seriously for subsequent scholarship, his research is unfootnoted and there is no bibliography.

Bordman's is hardly a coffee-table book, indeed is distinctly dense in its attention to detail. Why scholarly apparatus is deemed anathema to such musical theater critiques is therefore a mystery, but it affects many of them, and this has queered the pitch for whole generations of scholars who are accordingly supposed to be in the know about the primary source repositories without the help of a documentary trail. Admittedly access to private collections and to Kern's contemporaries by way of interview accounts for much of Bordman's working material, but since the former can change hands (the residual holdings of Kern's daughter, Betty Kern Miller, who died in 1996, are now in the Library of Congress) and the latter are now dead, it is all the more important to be able to trace remarks and artefacts to their source.

Of the other four books solely devoted to Kern, one, Andrew Lamb's Jerome Kern in Edwardian London (1981, revised 1985), is more an essay in detective work on the young composer's movements than a rounded monograph, but exemplary in approach, content, and procedure, altogether fascinating, and invaluable. Ewen's two studies, The Story of Jerome Kern (1953), a modest introduction, and the somewhat larger The World of Jerome Kern (1960), while couched for the general reader of their period and sometimes responsible for spuriousness of fact that has died hard, should not be overlooked, for two reasons. First, he was close in time to his sources; second, while The Story of Jerome Kern is bland, Ewen is surprisingly candid, sometimes negative in The World of Jerome Kern, evidence of a long hard look at the subject fifteen years on from Kern's death by the composer's widow (who died in 1959) and daughter as well as the author. But again, Ewen does not cite his sources and occasionally makes a bad mistake. Michael Freedland's Jerome Kern (1978) lacks scholarly integrity and although readable is full of errors and largely superseded by the more accurate Bordman, though it includes some "hitherto untold family stories" from Betty Kern Miller and material from other interviewees that does not appear elsewhere.

Beyond these, particular labors of love are Miles Kreuger's Show Boat: The Story of a Classic American Musical (1977), Steven Suskin's Berlin, Kern, Rodgers, Hart and Hammerstein: A Complete Song Catalogue (1990), which lists 938 copyrighted songs by Kern (in three ways: separately, by show, and by lyricist), and Lee Davis's Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern (1993). Davis, by quoting lyrics and portions of dialogue as well as reviews, gives more of the flavor of the shows than Bordman and is clearly in control of a wide range of unpublished sources, though he stops short of music examples and relies rather heavily on P. G. Wodehouse's and Guy Bolton's own account of their musical theater collaborations, Bring on the Girls (1954). Who wouldn't? Bring on the Girls as hilarious reading will win out over more meticulous scholarship for a long while yet; one would relinquish many of its anecdotes, true or false, only with extreme reluctance. Given Wodehouse's and Hammerstein's importance in Kern's career, various documentary publications on the former-most recently Barry Day's The Complete Lyrics of P. G. Wodehouse (2004)-and the biography of the latter by Hugh Fordin, Getting to Know Him (1997), are indispensable, as is Stanley Green's Rodgers and Hammerstein Fact Book (1980). But by the same token the absence of any scholarship at all on Otto Harbach leaves a big gap, as does the paucity of journal articles on Kern. There have, however, been various American dissertations on him and his collaborators, mostly about the Princess shows; James Randall's Becoming Jerome Kern (2004) is superior, a significant contribution to the literature. One primary source postdating Bordman in print was Robert Russell Bennett's autobiography, The Broadway Sound (1999, edited by George J. Ferencz). It contains so much on Kern and the creation of his shows and films as to be a major item of bibliography.

But what of published critical commentary on Kern's music? Alec Wilder, in his inimitable way, analyzed about forty of Kern's songs in American Popular Song (1972), Allen Forte six at greater length in The American Popular Ballad (1995) and one in Listening to Classic American Popular Songs (2001). For a contextual model of musicological investigation of Kern the composer, however, one has to turn to Geoffrey Block's chapter on Show Boat in Enchanted Evenings (1997). Block's work is the nearest thing to a model available to me.

Journeyman Kern

Jerome David Kern was born on 27 January 1885 in New York City to prosperous middle-class parents, both Jewish. He was the sixth and penultimate son-there were no daughters-of Henry and Fannie Kern, though four of Jerome's brothers were dead by the time he was a teenager (the careers of the other two, Joseph and Edwin, do not feature in anybody's narrative). Louis Hirsch, another musical theater composer, grew up next door on East 56th Street, in a neighborhood now extremely select. (Kern's birthplace does not survive.) Henry Kern was born in Germany in 1842, Fannie, whose maiden name was Kakeles, in New York ten years later, though both her parents came from Bohemia. She was a fine pianist, and it can hardly be by chance that Jerome Kern wrote magnificently tuneful and rhythmic polkas throughout his life as the 2/4 or 2/2 staples of his shows and films, which though mostly unlabeled and rarely recognized as such breathe the dance's phrasing and gesture at every turn. (See ex. 1.1, its tunes recast in 2/4 meter where necessary to make the point; fig. 1.5, "Two Dachshunds," is another excellent example.)


Excerpted from Jerome Kern by Stephen Banfield Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Stephen Banfield is Stanley Hugh Badock Professor of Music, University of Bristol, England.

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