Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical

Oscar Hammerstein II coverOscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical
Laurie Winer
Yale University Press (January 31, 2023), 505 pages
Kindle edition $16.99, Amazon hardcover $29.25

After reading two fairly heavy-duty books, Culture: The Story of Us and Ways of Being, I decided I needed something lighter. In some respects this book filled the bill, but in another regard Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical burdened me with more detail than I really wanted.

Author Laurie Winer states she wanted to write a book about the best American musicals, but in her research she realized that the book she needed to write was about Oscar Hammerstein II. (Hammerstein was II not because of this father. It was his grandfather who was Oscar Hammerstein I.)

Winer tells us that Oscar Sr. was an opera producer who overextended himself, and that his son Willie was a theater manager who was not very good at what he did. She states that to understand the grandson we need to understand the grandfather. She then delves into a long and detailed account of his career, which to me did little to enhance my understanding of the life of Hammerstein II.

The author describes how Hammerstein met with financial success early on writing shows that weren’t exactly musicals. She goes into great detail recounting his collaboration with Jerome Kern in the creation of Show Boat, which can reasonably be called the first American musical. Winer explores how the show was innovative in that it had a multi-racial cast in an era before integration was the norm.

Obviously Winer devotes considerable space to the collaboration between Hammerstein and Richard Rogers. And although this is supposed to be a biography of Hammerstein, she writes in detail about the collaboration between Rogers and Lorenz (Larry) Hart, and how Hart had trouble staying available for the work to be done, and and staying sober to get his songs written.

Winer writes about Hammerstein’s basic optimism and how that is reflected in so many of his lyrics. She also details how unpleasant a person Richard Rogers was to work with, and how difficult it became for others to work with him when Hammerstein became ill and was no longer there as a buffer. Rogers was, in fact, terribly tight with money and refused to share royalties even when a collaborator was fully entitled to such sharing. Winer suggests he twisted Hammerstein’s arm to go along with this approach.

The author delves into the sources of the various musicals. She writes extensively about the sources for South Pacific and The King and I. The source for South Pacific was the James A. Michener short story collection, Tales of the South Pacific. Hammerstein struggled with converting the disparate stories into a coherent narrative. He received assistance from Josh Logan, who originally brought the idea to the attention of Rogers and Hammerstein. Logan was never compensated for that work. The basis for The King and I came from a novel based on the autobiographical writing of Anna Leonowens, who was an English tutor to the children of the King of Siam in the late nineteenth century. Though some of the material was interesting, there was more detail than I needed.

I cannot fail to mention Hammerstein protégé Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim first became acquainted with Hammerstein as a youngster and admired him from the beginning. As Sondheim began writing his own pieces Hammerstein encouraged the work. How the lyricist with such a positive outlook became a mentor to a protégé with (often) such a dark vision is a question without a good answer.

If you enjoy the American musical, Oscar Hammerstein II and the Invention of the Musical is probably worth your time. Just be prepared for more background and history than you might be interested in.


Declassified: A Low-Key Guide to the High-Strung World of Classical Music
Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch
read by the author
Penguin Audio (October 11, 2022), 6 hours and 48 minutes
$14.62 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The reviewer in The New York Times Book Review who wrote that this audiobook was delightful to listen to had it right. Declassified, part memoir and part classical music primer, is eminently listenable and thoroughly enjoyable.

Arianna Warsaw-Fan Rauch’s father was a professional musician, and Arianna got her love of music sitting underneath her father’s piano as he played. This led to her getting a violin and lessons at age two. Rauch writes about her relationship with the violin and music. She writes about her various violin instructors (some of whom she loved and some of whom she hated), and the path of her music education. Rauch initially auditioned for Julliard but was turned down, so she went to Northwestern. She again auditioned at Julliard for her junior year where she was accepted, and where she got her bachelor’s degree followed by her master’s. The author mentions her stormy relationship with a man she refers to only as Golden Violin Boy or GVB, and how she broke up with him right before a performance. She tells us about a much healthier and more stable relationship with a non-musical German.

Intermixed with the memoir Rauch writes about the world of music in a lighthearted manner filled with wit. She discusses the stories she heard about competition and sabotage at college music programs and how that compared to the reality. (The competition was friendly and the sabotage was a myth.) She playfully lists the stereotypes of various musicians and their instruments. But Rauch writes less playfully about conductors, most of whom (except for the first one she worked with) she held in low esteem. She discusses the relative selling price of various instruments in the orchestra and tells stories about composers and their romances. Rauch provides an overview of the various genres in classical music and offers advice on how to listen to it.

The author does not hide her biases. For example, she hates medieval music. (I personally rather like Gregorian chant). Because Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair” uses a similar musical framework, she also hates their music. Nor does she hide the fact that she is a movie fan. Movie references abound throughout the book, culminating with a list of classical music related movies at the end of the book.

Interestingly, what prompted Rauch to write this book was not her life as a professional musician, but her giving up that life. She writes about a Mendelson violin concerto which

quoteset me down the path of becoming a serious violinist, a path that would ultimately take me away from my early love of music and into a prison-like labyrinth of technical pressures and demands.

After learning that she was pregnant she completed one last concert tour and then put her violin away in favor of becoming a listener and teaching her child an appreciation of music.

Accompanying the audiobook is an extensive PDF that provides comprehensive resources on genres, composers, works, and movies. I assume all of this content is somehow integrated into the print and e-book editions.

If you are acquainted with classical music you may find some passages rather basic and simplistic, but any classical music lover would, to my mind, find it difficult not to enjoy this book.

All Saints’ Day

candles for All Saints' DayFor many years on All Saints’ Day I wrote about our beloved beagle-border terrier mix, Tasha. That’s because we brought her home from the shelter on All Saints’ Day in 2005. We lost her in February of last year. She was a big part of our lives and we still miss her.

So today I thought I would write about the music of All Saints’ Day. There are two songs that Episcopalians tend to sing on All Saints’ Day. The first is hymn # 293 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal: “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” One of my former rectors when I lived in Gilroy really loved the song, and my current rector is quite fond of it as well. It speaks of one’s aspiration to live a life like the saints. The three verses end as follows:

they were all of them saints of God—and I mean,
God helping, to be one too.

and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.

for the saints of God are just folk like me,
and I mean to be one too.

I can’t relate. The song does not resonate with me. While I strive, as we say in the confession in the Book of Common Prayer, to: “delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name,” I don’t think sainthood is something I am capable of.

I much more closely relate to hymn # 287: “For All the Saints, Who from Their Labors Rest.” I like to give credit to Ralph Vaughan Williams, who composed the music, but it was William Walsham How who wrote the words. Verse four begins:

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine

That’s much more my speed. And yes, I do know that the next line reads:

yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.

If you observe All Saints’ Day, may it be to you whatever brings you the most meaning.

honoring Pete Seeger (and more)

When I buy postage stamps I make a point of buying commemorative stamps rather than the plain vanilla generic stamps. I have noticed, however, that the United States Postal Service (USPS) has not offered any terribly interesting stamps during the past couple of years.

Pete Seeger StampsThat changed earlier this summer, however. The USPS issued a Pete Seeger commemorative stamp. I have long been a fan of Pete Seeger and admired his conscience and social activism (never mind his powerful folk music). Now, like most of us, I don’t put things in the mail much anymore. And at the time I was really in pretty good shape as far as postage stamps went. But Pete Seeger? I bought two twenty stamp panes because… Well, because Pete Seeger.

And now the postal service is making things interesting again. They issued a Hubble Space Telescope stamp on September 8 and there will be a set coming out on September 30 honoring Charles Schulz and his Peanuts comic strip.

But I don’t have anyone to whom I need to send mail.

Maybe our Christmas cards this year will have Hubble or Peanuts stamps on them.

Uncommon Measure

Uncommon Measure: A Journey Through Music, Performance, and the Science of Time
Natalie Hodges
Bellevue Literary Press (March 22, 2022), 214 pages
Kindle edition $15.38, Amazon paperback $16.19

Natalie Hodges opens her memoir by describing her performance anxiety in playing the violin and writes about her worries over the specific passages in a piece where she was afraid she was going to slip up. She writes about her different violin teachers and their differing approaches. Hodges describes the moment she realized she would never be successful as a concert violinist and put down her instrument. She then spends several pages writing about improvisation. Hodges admits to not being good at improvisation herself but goes into detail about a woman who was accomplished in that regard. She writes about the medical research into musical improvisation and discoveries about how the brain works in that manner.

After dwelling on the abstract concepts of improvisation, Hodges suddenly shifts gears and gives us a concrete picture of her childhood. Her mother gave her the violin to play as soon as she was big enough to hold it in her hands. She was one of four children, all of whom received an instrument. Hodges’s mother was Korean, but she married an upper class white man. At one point in her childhood her father summarily left her mother for a well-off white woman whom he believed was more appropriate for him in what he thought to be his station in life.

Hodges writes about her mother’s efforts to raise the four kids as a single parent and how she ensured that they continue their music education. The author admits that she woke up her mother, exhausted after finally having gotten the youngest sibling to sleep, to have her critique her playing.

In the midst of all of this Hodges digresses and talks about physics: both classical (the law of entropy) and quantum. The author covers a lot of territory in this short book.

Hodges concludes the book by describing how she picked up the violin again one last time to tackle one particularly challenging piece. The then put her violin away permanently. Hodges says playing the violin and then giving it up gave her something to write about and the opportunity for a different creative outlet. I’m sad that she gave up the violin, but I am happy that she took up the written word. I hope we see more of Hodges’s writing.

On Jazz

On Jazz coverOn Jazz: A Personal Journey
Alyn Shipton
Cambridge University Press (May 5, 2022), 312 pages
Kindle edition $15.49, Amazon hardcover $24.95

When I read about a book that captures my interest and the review or mention of the book appears before the publication date, I set a reminder in my Outlook calendar to download the Kindle sample on the actual date of publication. That was the case with On Jazz. Based on the review I was eager to read the book.

Certainly the author is well qualified to write about jazz. Alyn Shipton has played bass since his teens, he has written extensively about jazz, he was an editor at the publishing house Macmillan in the United Kingdom, responsible for accepting or rejecting books on jazz, and he has a long history at the BBC, hosting or producing jazz programs. As a longtime jazz aficionado and one who listens to jazz six evenings a week, I was looking forward to reading the book.

I was disappointed. I shouldn’t have been, I suppose. Shipton makes clear that the reader should take the subtitle, “A Personal Journey,” at face value and directs the reader to other books he has written for a more objective history of jazz.

Shipton writes about his experience with jazz in New Orleans and provides profiles of some of the greats in jazz history: Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and others. He takes a unique approach to these profiles. He interviews the musicians who worked with these artists and provides transcripts of those interviews. The conversation was often hard to follow, however, as the interviewees were speaking in a conversational, vernacular manner which Shipton leaves as-is. He moves from one individual to another, and it’s often hard to keep track of who is speaking. The problem is exacerbated because the book uses the British convention of single quotes for quoted material with double quotes inside quoted material: the exact opposite of the American convention that I am used to.

Then there’s the fact that Shipton doesn’t define his terms. He writes about the swing era and about big bands, but he doesn’t define what kind of music either is associated with. He talks about Old Testament and New Testament music without telling the reader what those terms mean in the context of jazz. Late in the book he discusses the advent of fusion and he writes about bebop, without any clarification of what the terms mean. Added to that is the musical terminology that Shipton assumes the reader knows the meaning of.

From an archival standpoint I like the fact that the recollections of the rank-and-file musicians who worked with the big stars of jazz are preserved in Shipton’s book. But for a readable history of jazz and its evolution there are no doubt better choices.

Honoring Simeon

It’s been more than ten years since the Episcopal Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for use in worship, replacing the lectionary found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The Episcopal Church does deviate from the RCL a couple of times during the year, however. One of those times is the two Sundays after Christmas. (We have two Sundays after Christmas this year; that’s not the case every year.) For the First Sunday after Christmas the Episcopal Church uses the prologue to the Gospel of John for the gospel reading. This does not make me happy. First, John really annoys me for a number of reasons, which I won’t go into here. Second, I like hearing the story of Simeon and his song on the First Sunday after Christmas. (You’ll find Simeon in Luke 2:22-35.)

But wait. The RCL does not specify the Simeon passage for every year. The only time the Song of Simeon is designated is for Christmas 1 for year B, the year of Mark. (For those of you who are not liturgically inclined, we began Year C, the year of Luke, on the First Sunday of Advent this year.)

The Song of Simeon is one of my two favorite passages in the New Testament (the other being the Emmaus story). Simeon has inspired many great works of music. Simeon’s song begins, “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace, your word has been fulfilled.” The Latin “nunc dimittis” means “You now dismiss (your servant)” and many of the works use the Latin.

Since we don’t find Simeon in the lectionary today I’ll share one of those musical pieces with you.

our newest Echo device

I have written about our Amazon Echo devices and about how much we enjoyed having two of them, one in the kitchen and dining area, and one in the bedroom. I also wrote that I was content to continue enjoying the trusty internet radio in my office until I learned that the service that powered it was going away, making it for the most part useless.

Amazon Echo ShowI wrote that I thought about getting a new internet radio that would be powered by a newer service, but as I considered the matter I decided that an Amazon Echo could play all the stations and streaming services that an internet radio could, and that it could do a lot more. With the Echo I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or to give me the weather forecast. I can ask it to play my current audio book or give me the score of yesterday’s Dodger game.

Deciding to buy a new Echo, it only made sense to go for quality. I wanted an Echo Show so I could have the visual element as well. I bought a third generation Echo Show 10. It’s pretty amazing. It has excellent speakers and the screen is sharp and clear. I like seeing the artist and song title on KNX-FM 93 (clearer and more easily readable than on my internet radio) and that information plus a nice image of the album cover on my Pandora stations. I recently signed up for Amazon Music and am amazed at the breadth of choices available. I can ask Alexa to play just about any classical work, and when I play popular songs most of them display the lyrics.

Echo Show MusicOf course it’s not perfect. Sometimes it’s easier to punch a button than give a verbal command, and sometimes Alexa doesn’t understand what you want. Podcasts are a particular problem. If I ask Alexa to play either of the two astronomy podcasts, StarDate or Earth and Sky, I get something Star Trek related for StarDate and a mystical podcast of the same name for Earth and Sky. But then Alexa has no problem bringing up John McWhorter’s podcast on linguistics, Lexicon Valley. Too bad he’s going to stop doing it.

Still, though, for the most part all three of our Echo devices work very well.

The new Echo Show was an indulgence, to be sure, but given the income I’ve been getting from my contract writing work, I decided I could use some of that money for fun stuff. And this is really fun stuff.

Always a Song

Always a Song coverAlways a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Ellen Harper
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.

Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.

It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.

Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.

Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.

When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”

Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.

On Highway 61

On Highway 61 coverOn Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom
Dennis McNally
Counterpoint (October 14, 2014), 384 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.61
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $3.99

This book is Dennis McNally’s attempt to document the fight for racial equality and social justice in America through the nation’s popular music. The idea of Highway 61 is that it roughly parallels the Mississippi river, near which so much of the social justice movement had its roots. However, he begins with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts and ends with Bob Dylan in (mostly) New York, though he makes a token attempt to return to the Highway 61 theme in the closing paragraphs of the book.

McNally writes about the early music of the slaves before the civil war, and the white musicians who adopted their style, put on blackface, and made a living doing minstrel shows. He discusses the earliest days of jazz and follows the art form into the twentieth century, with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. In fact, a disproportionate portion of the book is focused on jazz and blues.

The final section is focused on Bob Dylan, though others in the folk movement, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary are mentioned. McNally describes how the group Peter, Paul and Mary was put together by promoter Albert Grossman, which I knew. That Grossman was also Dylan’s personal manager I didn’t know. But that explains why the group sang so many Dylan songs. McNally says of Grossman, “In a left-wing folkie world that valued spirit over finance, Grossman was a barracuda surrounded by dinner.” ‘nuff said.

McNally writes briefly about the relationship between Joan Baez and Dylan, but not enough to really make clear its importance to the music of each. But there are other books to discuss that. Positively 4th Street comes to mind.

I bought this book in the Kindle edition when it showed up in an Early Bird Books email for $3.99. It was well worth the price. But $13.99 full price for the Kindle edition? Maybe. Maybe not.