Magazine article Musical Times

Claiming Kern

Magazine article Musical Times

Claiming Kern

Article excerpt

Claiming Kern Jerome Kern Stephen Banfield Yale Broadway Masters Yale University Press (New Haven & London, 2006); xiii, 375pp; £20. ISBN 0 300 11047 2.

JEROME KERN has been the subject of several earlier books that remain worthwhile: Gerald Boardman's biography (Jerome Kern, 1980), and Miles Kreuger's Show Boat: the story of a classic American musical (1977). Both are valuable - particularly Kreuger's exemplary documentation of a seminal Broadway show. For Show Boat, Geoffrey Block's Enchanted evenings (1997) is also essential reading (especially from a musical point of view), as is Lee Davis's Bolton and Wodehouse and Kern: the men who made musical comedy (1993), which includes extracts from rare scripts. Until now, though, there has been no attempt at a thorough discussion of Kern's musical language - which is what Stephen Banfield's illuminating new book does in absorbing detail. The result is an outstanding contribution to the serious literature of Broadway.

Banfield's writing is an elegant combination of commentary on the genesis and production of Kern's shows and movie musicals, on the one hand, and searching but never dense examination of the music itself, on the other, preceded by a biographical sketch. There are revelations even about the most famous and familiar of Kern's tunes. Not the least of these is the transcription of Kern's ink sketch for 'Ol' Man River', printed above Robert Russell Bennett's subtle rewriting of the rhythm and harmony. To this, Banfield adds a description of the bewilderingly different harmonisations of the song to be found in early piano-vocal scores of Show Boat and separate editions of the song.

Banfield's opening chapter offers a striking justification for his new book: 'The name of Jerome Kern is well known; the composer is not'. This claim becomes all the more persuasive when put to the test: aside from a handful of world-famous tunes ('Ol' Man River', 'Smoke gets in your eyes', 'The way you look tonight', 'All the things you are', 'Bill', 'Can't help lovin' dat man'...), how many of Kern's songs - there are over one thousand of them - are established in the canon of Broadway standards? Despite being claimed more than once (during his lifetime and afterwards) as one of the very greatest American song composers, his output is much less widely known than, for instance, that of George Gershwin or Richard Rodgers - both, incidentally, passionate admirers of Kern.

British readers may be delighted, as I was, by some of the passing details in Banfield's narrative. Not only did Kern have an English wife, but their wedding was not in Manhattan, but at Walton-onThames in Surrey. Kern's London visits not only found him a wife (they were married for 35 years), but also a number of his earliest successes on stage and some of his most interesting collaborators (notably Guy Bolton and PG Wodehouse).

Why is so much of Kern's music so little known? As Banfield demonstrates not only in prose but in the generous music examples, it's certainly not because of any lack of quality or imagination in the music itself. Part of the problem lies with publication, or rather the lack of it. Only about one-third of Kern's shows exist in piano-vocal scores, and several of those are so rare as to be virtually unfindable. …

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