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Irving Berlin: Personification of American Music of the Twentieth Century Essay

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Updated: Jul 30th, 2019


Irving Berlin is not just one of prominent American composers who shaped American musical landscape. He is not only one of the most significant personalities of Tin Pan Alley composers whose music is regarded as “a benchmark for popular songwriting” worldwide (Scheurer 87). As Jerome Kern stated “Irving Berlin has no place in American music” since he “is American music” (qtd. in Berger 2).

Admittedly, Berlin created melodies and songs which have reached the bottoms of Americans’ hearts and are popular even at present. It is necessary to point out that Irving, being a talented composer, was also financially successful (Ferris 156). In fact, he is the personification of American dream since he reached many tops due to his talent, diligence, mind and a bit of luck. His life and career are depicted in numerous books, but there is still a lot to say about this remarkable person who influenced the development of American culture.

Tin Pan Alley

It is important to point out that Irving Berlin did not revolutionize American music, but felt the latest trends and gave people what they wanted most of all. Berlin should be regarded as the personification of the era of Tin Pan Alley.

Tin Pan Alley is one of the “most monolithic institutions” of American culture symbolizing peculiarities of music production in 1880-1950s, and “a style of promotion” of music (Scheurer 87).

Basically, it “dictated America’s musical diet” for seventy years (Scheurer 87). Monroe Rosenfeld, a newspaperman, called a block on 28th Street, where publishers like M.Witmark and Sons, Charles K. Harris, Jerome Remick, Tin Pan Alley and, at the same time, coined a term for a great era of American music (Scheurer 87). Composers and songwriters of that era are often referred to as Alleymen.

They created music for theatres, vaudevilles, radio, movies, bars and even departments stores. The era of Tin Pan Alley is often regarded as market driven. Admittedly, Alleymen followed their audience desires. Berlin once said: “I write a song to please the public – and if the public doesn’t like it in New Haven, I change it!” (qtd. in Scheurer 88). This was all Alleymen’s approach which is still a rule in the contemporary popular music world.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to add that though Tin Pan Alley was market driven, the music was not simplistic since audience demanded creativity. Thus, late Tin Pan Alley period is characterized by sophistication which is still admired (Scheurer 88). Many composers used their classical music experience when creating songs. Some relied on their talent and creativity.

When considering Tin Pan Alley it is important to mention the development and increasing popularity of Broadway, radio and movies production. There was a symbiosis of Alley and these media. Both shaped each other: the media relied on Alley and at the same time, Tin Pan Alley music was shaped by the demands of these media (Scheurer 89). Irving Berlin is one of the brightest representatives of Tin Pan Alley era since he created music for all these media relying on their peculiarity and audience needs.

Irving Berlin: personification of American music of the twentieth century

Some facts from the past

As has been stated above Irving Berlin was a personification of the American dream. He was a Jewish immigrant from Russia, called Izzy Baline born in 1888, whose family consisting of his parents, and his five siblings came to America for better life.

His father Moses managed to earn $35 dollars per each member of the family which enabled them to start their new life in the United States (Cullen et al. 98). When interviewers asked Berlin, who was successful at the time, abut his family, the composer used to say: “There was always bread and butter and hot tea” (Cullen et al. 98).

However, this brief description is rather vague and is in odds with reality. All members of the family including little Izzy had to work. Fr instance, Izzy was selling newspapers to help family. After his father’s death Izzy left home and school and became one of those numerous boys who lived in the street, sold newspapers or shined shoes, or were stealing and formed gangs (Cullen et al. 98). Izzi did not want to be a burden for a family and decided to live alone and work to better himself.

Izzy had a sense for music and quite nice voice, so he started singing in numerous Manhattan saloons. It goes without saying that this was not a very good place for a boy since these places were flooded by sailors, prostitutes, criminals and poor people, but these people formed the first audience of the future legendary composer (Cullen et al. 98). These people knew what they wanted to hear and what could amuse them.

He was also a plugger, a person who was sitting in the audience and started applauding when necessary. At the age of eighteen Izzy was working as a singing waiter. It was then when he saw the way to achieve success. He understood that sheet-music publishing business required “constant supply of new songs” (Cullen et al. 99). Izzy grabbed his chance and became successful.

First success and popularity

Izzy wrote his first song (“Marie from Sunny Italy”) and it was published (Cullen et al. 99). The publisher got Izzi’s name wrong and the public got a new composer, I. Berlin. The audience liked the song and it became quite popular. Of course, the song did not make a young singing waiter overnight famous.

However, it was a good start. Interestingly, Irving could not play piano, read or write music, but he decided to write songs (Cullen et al. 99). Soon he wrote music for “Sadie Salome, Go Home” which was also very good, and which “earned” him a job at Waterson & Snyder in 1909 (Cullen et al. 99). He worked as a lyricist.

Berlin’s “My Wife’s Come to the Country (Hurrah, Hurrah)” is consider to be his first hit. The years spent in salons became a good school for the young composer and lyricist since he knew what the public wanted. For instance, Berlin believed that the audience did not want to listen to what a singer was feeling, instead Berlin claimed “the singer does not tell the audience he is happy, he shouts “hurrah!” (qtd. in Cullen et al. 99).

Berlin’s approach to writing songs which was audience-oriented made the composer that popular and rich. During the first years of his career as a songwriter Irving Berlin earned $100,000 in royalties and was making more and more money each year (Cullen et al. 99). It goes without saying that he is not famous for his financial success, but for his beautiful music which is often regarded as a symbol of the Tin Pan Alley era and American music of the twentieth century.

His songs are characterized by unique sense of the moment. He reveals all tinges of human emotions in his songs. His songs can be funny and even burlesque, he wrote many beautiful and romantic songs, but he also created really personal ballads where he revealed his own sorrows and grief (Berger 3).

For example, he wrote a song about his first and great love to the girl, Dorothy Goetz, who died shortly after they got married: in five months after their honeymoon when the girl contracted typhoid fever, “When I Lost You” (asajol). This is a touching and sincere story revealed in a beautiful melody.

This sincerity which is present in many Berlin’s songs made them that popular. Irvin Berlin once said: “My ambition is to reach the heart of the average American” (Berger 3). He managed to do this due to his sincerity and, at the same time, responsiveness.

At this point it is necessary to add that Berlin wrote a great number of songs and many of them became popular. This fertility evoked many talks and Berlin was often accused of buying songs from poor songwriters and publishing them under his name (Cullen et al. 99). However, all these rumors were never proved to be true, and those who knew Berlin used to say that he was not the kind of person to do that and there was no need since Irving Berlin was a talented composer who created musical masterpieces.

Berlin’s songs and his works in the world of theatre and cinematography

The catalogue of Berlin’s songs contains 1,500 songs (Berger 1). The New York Times called “outpouring” the following songs:

”Always,” ”Remember,” ”Blue Skies,” ”Puttin’ On the Ritz,” ”A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” ”What’ll I Do?” ”How Deep Is the Ocean,” ”Easter Parade,” ”God Bless America,” ”Heat Wave,” ”White Christmas,” ”Cheek to Cheek,” ”Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” ”Change Partners,” ”It Only Happens When I Dance With You,” ”I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” ”This Is the Army, Mr. Jones,” ”Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” ”I Got Lost in His Arms,” ”The Girl That I Marry” and ”There’s No Business Like Show Business.” (Berger 1)

It is important to note that many regard Berlin as a “man of the theatre” since he created his most renowned works for theatre shows (Zinsser 189). Zinsser described Berlin’s style quite specifically: “he was a chameleon, changing colors from one number to the next” (189). Basically, that was what Berlin always did, he changed if the audience wanted him to change. However, it is also impossible to forget his ever-lasting works for Hollywood. Some songs deserve special attention.

For example, Berlin’s “White Christmas” which was written for a theatre became a “holiday anthem” (Berger 1). Sammy Cahn, a songwriter once said that “you couldn’t have a holiday without his permission” (Berger). In our days this statement still remains up-to-date.

However, there can be no secret in such popularity of the song. It is light and smooth, it contains a sparkle of the most cheerful days in the year (5thAvenueTheatre).This song does give the public what the public wants to get from the song (and the show): melody revealing cheerfulness and happiness. The song is like the “Hurrah” of the singer who sings that everyone is happy in Christmas.

Another masterpiece of Berlin is “Annie Get Your Gun” which was written in 1946. Zinsser called this work “the supreme display of Berlin’s genius” (190). It is difficult to oppose this definition since every song of the show is a work of art. The show is funny and romantic at the same time. It is entertaining and, of course, it is very melodic.

For example, the song “Anything You Can Do I Do Better” is an amusing song where eternal question is being discussed: who is better a man or a woman? Berlin managed to reveal in music all those male and female arguments and this is a very difficult task (AngelsBwaySongs).

One more work to be mentioned is Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (BachScholar). This song is one of those which gained popularity worldwide. The melody perfectly fits a theatre show or a movie. It is light and entertaining. It gives people what they want to get: high spirits and a slight flavor of philosophy of life.

More so, it is a musical embodiment of life with its twists and turns. Notably, a man who could not write music, created a melody which was even more than music since it was life. Admittedly, a composer who created such things was one of the greatest representatives of the world of music who contributed greatly into its development.

Berlins role in the development of American culture

It goes without saying that Irving Berlin left a deep trace not only in the history of American music, but in the history of America as well. In the first place, he was one of the pioneers of the modern popular culture. He understood the simple concept of success: it is necessary to give the audience what the audience wanted to get. However, he also remained very sincere and touching.

Berlin was the brightest representative of Tin Pan Alley era which presented so many musical masterpieces to the public. He also was in the right place and in the right time. He always saw perspectives. He understood that cinematography has a really bright future, so he played a great role in the development of cinematography as well. His melodies which adorned Hollywood films shaped the movie industry. Of course, it is necessary to admit that the industry also shaped Berlin’s works.

Apart from significant impact on culture and show business Berlin created songs which became anthems for American people. For example, his song “White Christmas” is admired by four generations of Americans and it is often perceived as a beautiful song-reminder of one’s childhood (Berger 1).

Berlin’s song “God Bless America” which he wrote in 1938 was even more than that, it became an unofficial anthem of the country (TheEdSullivanShow). The song inspired many Americans and united the nation. It goes without saying that the song was a great inspiration for people in the following wars and in difficult times for the United States.

However, he was not only iconic for his being great contribution into the development of American culture, or even entire American society. Berlin is the personification of the American Dream. Those who know the story of the great composer can see that the United States is a great country of great opportunities where a poor Jewish immigrant can become an idol of the entire nation. Kern once said:

Emotionally, he honestly absorbs the vibrations emanating from the people, manners and life of his time and, in turn, gives these impressions back to the world -simplified, clarified and glorified. (Berger 2)

Admittedly, amazing life of the outstanding composer shaped his music and made it achieve the major goal of Irving Berlin: reached people’s lives. The composer lived a long and productive life (he died at the age of 101) and all these years he created musical masterpieces which reached the bottoms of people’s lives worldwide.


On balance, it is necessary to point out that Irving Berlin is an iconic figure in American history. The music of this talented composer is still admired worldwide. Irving Berlin was the person who was the first one to combine responsiveness and sincerity since he always gave what audience was longing to obtain but managed to remain sincere and even personal in his works.

Berlin’s music reveals the secrets of American soul. Irving Berlin makes people smile and life, think and cry. This is one of the major aims of any person of art – to make people feel. Thus, Berlin remains one of the glorified composers who was not simply a minstrel, but was the embodiment of the American Dream.

Works Cited

5thAvenueTheatre. “.” Youtube., 26 Aug. 2009. Web.

AngelsBwaySongs. “Anything You Can Do – Annie Get Your Gun.” Youtube., 13 Aug. 2009. Web.

asajol. “”. Youtube, 8 Jul. 2009. Web.

BachScholar. “”. Youtube., 24 Dec. 2009. Web.

Berger, Marilyn. “Irving Berlin, Nation’s Songwriter, Dies.” New York Times., 23 Sep. 1989. Web.

Cullen, Frank, Florence Hackman, and Donald McNeilly. Vaudeville, Old and New. New York: Routledge, 2007.

Ferris, Jean. America’s Musical Landscape. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Scheurer, Timothy E. American Popular Music: The nineteenth century and Tin Pan Alley. Bowling Green, OH: Popular Press, 1989.

TheEdSullivanShow. “.”Youtube., 15 May 2010. Web.

Zinsser, William. Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs. Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine Publisher, 2006.

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