The Romantic Sensibility of Jerome Kern

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
Pic Musical Notes

Officially, my tenth birthday was in 1975.  But I turned ten in 1955, like some of my friends.  Others turned ten in 1970, despite all of us having been born in 1965.  Visiting my grandparents took us to 1945, via a time machine known as a car.  On Mondays, I entered 1965 because my fifth grade teacher was like that.  However, third grade was in 1935 because of Mrs. Wright.  She once asked for a volunteer to stand up and sing a song before the bell.  Craig stood up.  He sang “Loco-Motion” and did a boogie.  “Everybody's doing a brand-new dance, now / Come on baby, do the loco-motion / I know you'll get to like it if you give it a chance now / Come on baby, do the loco-motion…”  Craig was doing 1962-1972 all at once in 1973.  Mrs. Wright told Craig to sit down. That was 1935 putting the nix on 1962-1972.  For Western Civilization, the twentieth century was not “a time.”  It was a clash of sensibilities.  A time – a year or a decade – is not just a number on the Gregorian calendar.  It’s a sensibility.

Music forms and expresses sensibility.  I grew up in “1955,” musically.  “1955” is a metaphor for a popular musical sensibility from 1945-1965.  It was romantic, un-synthesized, whimsical and witty.  Dad started in radio in the late ‘50s, which may as well have been the late ‘40s.  He stayed in the business until 1968 when, for radio, the ‘40s ended.  Music’s “feel” was changing not just with rock-n-roll (which at first had a conservative sensibility) but with the advent of the Moog synthesizer.  When dad left WNNJ, he inherited a library of vinyls discarded by the station.  Therefore, despite the forthcoming 1970s, our home’s musical atmosphere remained in “1955,” or pre-Moog.  It was a world of easy romantic sensibility, begotten by the light opera of American musical theatre, an offspring of 19th century romanticism.  Among the formateurs of this metaphorical “1955” was composer Jerome Kern (1885-1945).  Richard Rodgers – of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame – encountered Kern’s early music when he was thirteen years old.  Reflecting on Kern’s 1915-1920 compositions, Rodgers wrote this in his autobiography:  “It was his own – the first truly American theatre music – and it pointed the way I wanted to be led….The lyrics floated out with clarity, and there was good humor as well as sentiment in the use of instruments.  Actually, I was watching and listening to the beginning of a new form of musical theatre in this country.” 

A founding father of the American musical, Jerome Kern composed 1300+ songs, mostly for stage, though no one knows for sure how many.  About forty-six of his songs are now readily found in print.   Most were first sung on stage or screen.  He’s most famous for his scores in the 1927 musical Show Boat.  Like Taylor Port wine from Upstate New York, made from Concord grapes, his works are Americana in all its sweet and sentimental beauty and shame, signified and sung in a powerful ballad like “Ol’ Man River.”  Kern wrote the music and Oscar Hammerstein the lyrics.  It’s been said that Kern and Hammerstein were America’s greatest composer team.  Kern’s mystique has much to do with what we don’t know.  There are no extant recordings of the original casts performing his Broadway musicals.  No one knows what Kern’s songs sounded like in a New York stage debut.  Like medieval church music, much of what we know about Kern comes from secondary and popularized renditions.  For example, Fred Astaire performed Kern’s music not to mimic what he heard on stage, but for the purposes of popular song and dance.  It was the budding age of radio, screen and – not long in coming – television.

Listen to songs like “A Fine Romance,”  “All the Things You Are,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Long Ago and Far Away,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “The Song is You” and “Look for the Silver Lining.”  These are Kern’s best-known pop-masterpieces, all written for stage or film musicals.   They also hit the big bands.  A favorite of mine is Artie Shaw’s rendition of “All the Things You Are.”  Kern’s tunes formed pop-music’s sensibility of the post World War II era (1945-1965), sung by mostly female vocalists of big band genesis.  To name a few and a tune: Jo Stafford (“Long Ago an Far Away”), Ella Fitzgerald (“A Fine Romance”), and the jazzy Keely Smith (“All the Things You Are”).   Even in the mid-60s, the hip light-rock of the smooth-and-goofy British Invasion duo, Chad and Jeremy, could manage “The Way You Look Tonight.”  Margaret Whiting may be Kern’s most privileged soloist.  In her 1960 album, Margaret Whiting Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook, she elegantly recorded some of Kern’s extant repertoire.  Among its rare gems is the melancholic romance, “Poor Pierrot,” lyricked by Otto Harbach.   It’s a takeoff on the animated tale in Charles-Emile Renauld’s 1892 film (among the earliest), “Pauvre Pierrot.”  The song “Poor Pierrot” was first performed in 1931 by Peter Chambers and Lucette Valsey in the allegedly “under-appreciated and undeservedly obscure” play The Cat and the Fiddle.  George Byron recorded it in 1957.  But Whiting put it out there, even for today’s age of Apple Music.  “Poor Pierrot loved his fair Pierrette.  Golden the glow of the happy hour when they met....What heaven they knew only lovers may know….How should he know that a girl may vow then forget… What hell rages in one’s heart none may know….”  And then, there’s “Bill” – a song written in 1917 for the musical Oh, Lady! Lady!! – which was composed by Kern and lyricked by English humorist, P. G. Wodehouse:  “Oh, I can't explain / It's surely not his brain / That makes me thrill / I love him / Because he's... I don't know / Because he's just my Bill.”  That’s a poetic joke.  Put it to Kern’s music, it magically becomes romance.

G. K. Chesterton said, “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason.”  A maddened world is a world of “reasons” without cultivated sensibilities.  Sanity is a sentiment before it’s a thought.  It can’t be explained.  It’s cultivated by human affection, nature, music and – most importantly – by God’s grace.  Sensibility starts in childhood and grows within like a vine – often unawares – through perilous paths in adolescence and adulthood and into maturity.  Noble and romantic sentiments in music powerfully form sensibility.  They’re prelude to sentiments needed to confront life’s hard knocks: duty, weakness, death, tragedy, grief, loneliness, sorrow, penance, purification, failure, hope and suffering for love’s sake. The sentiments of romantic music have effects that transcend boy-meets-girl romance.  Nonetheless, romantic music is prelude to romantic feelings that are most natural to youth and that, in a way, never leave us.  Falling in love is a milestone in sensibility’s growth.  Here’s a lost secret of Western Civilization: romance thrives in chastity.  Unchastity disorients romantic experience, though not irredeemably.  Catholic teaching on chastity is romance’s greatest guardian.  That said, romance (like romanticism) involves a naïve confidence or idealism – an unguarded confidence – that “love” can make everything right, forever.  The fact that this feeling is bound to be disappointed, in one way or another, is part of the experience.  Boy-girl romance, and its subsequent pain, plays on throughout life, forming sensibilities about life and death, right and wrong, joy and grief, basic courtesy, society, and transcendent truths.  Romance is fertile soil for Christian hope – if it can forgive wrongs and withstand temptations to bitterness or resentment. Music like Kern’s nourishes sensibility, tames the heart, and forms a “sense of proportion” as no schooling can ever do.  It chastens, but gently.

Contrast this to the aggressive agitation of turning on the Moog and upping the voltage, per the late ’60 and beyond.  In Kern’s sensibility, there’s neither the agitation nor the aggression of dis-tonic electric “music,” which may not be music, etymologically speaking.  “Music” means “silence,” or “out of the silence” – like romance – as in the words “mute” or “mystery.” The late schoolmaster, John Senior, said, “Music is the voice of silence.”  Plato said as much.  A steady diet of aggressive “music” eclipses romantic sensibility – and the longing for it – that’s otherwise natural to youth.  As innocence is essential to childhood, romance and romanticism are essential to adolescence and young adulthood.  In the ‘80s, I recall having this thought about synthesized pop music: “I don’t feel that way.”  Feelings cultivated in youth play like background music throughout life. Romantic feelings play like a voice of conscience, guarding against hardness and cynicism, keeping adults from becoming controllers and manipulators. Romance – when purified of possessiveness and envy – blossoms into empathy.  Human experience, in all its joyous and tragic richness, is sanctified when we delve into what the Song of Songs romantically calls the “wine cellar of love” (Songs 2:4).  

Kern’s music is not in league with great Western classics, any more than Taylor Port from Upstate New York is in league with Taylor Fladgate from Portugal. But it’s an offspring. “Great” music evokes transcendent sensibilities. “Good” music evokes common sensibilities.  The “great” and the “good” are integral and feed on each other.  Kern’s easy-to-digest songs connect with simple and ordinary experiences, like young man-woman romance.  They tame the heart. They soften, not harden. Grace and virtue can grow in this soil. “Other seeds fell into the good soil…” (Mark 4:8).  The wordless beauty of Kern’s music transforms absurd lyrics, like Italian opera transforms absurd plots. “Long ago and far away / I dreamed a dream one day / And now that dream is here beside me / Long the skies were overcast / But now the clouds have passed…” George Gershwin wrote that.  Read in a poetry recital, it’ll be laughed off stage.  Sung to Kern’s music, it’s elegantly romantic.   It evokes, for simple folk, a sense of life’s vast expanse and hope, like a reflection on the grace of  Baptism.  Romantic hopes are never fulfilled in time.  They are fulfilled by grace – in the “wine cellar of love” – beyond death and time, “with the choicest gifts of the ancient mountains and the fruitfulness of the everlasting hills” (Deuteronomy 33:15).  That’s a vow that shall not be forgotten.