Sometimes It’s More Than Just the Composer’s Intent

Up to this point we have discussed the way in which the composer and the orchestrator bring their minds together to realize the “intent” of the music.  However, sometimes, the composer and the orchestrator start to work before the lyric is ready.  In many instances, it won’t make that much of a difference, if the role that the song plays in the show is clear.  What if the musical number is not a song but a dance?

While working at RKO Pictures in 1936 on a movie with Jerome Kern (Swing Time, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers), Robert Russell Bennett got a last minute call from Kern to say that they needed a new dance.  “Go over and see Fred [Astaire] and find out what he wants.”

Bennett recalls feeling a little put out:  “Composers are supposed to give their arrangers a little more time than that, but they don’t always do it.  After a short visit with Astaire I came up with the ‘Waltz in Swing Time.’ ”  

Wow! Maybe Bennett should have felt “a little put out” more often, if this is the result!  Let’s listen to the bouncy version (taken from long missing Warner Brothers scores) as recorded by John McGlinn for EMI.

Bennett knew that what should be and what was didn’t always coincide; however, he also had been on the “giving” side in his relationship with Kern.  In 1927, Bennett had heard Kern tell a number of people that talking pictures, made with the Vitaphone process, would never amount to anything.  At the time, Kern and Bennett were working on the song “Make Believe” for Show Boat (1927.67).  Bennett knew that the melody’s ending (“For to tell the truth, I do”) needed “the tenderest possible playing of, obviously, a muted solo violin.”  Bennett decided to be a little playful and listed “English Horn and Vitaphone” as the instrumentation.  Kern looked at the musical sheet and let out a yell; then started laughing as he walked over the window.  To the best of Bennett’s recollection, Kern’s laugh was the “loudest and longest” Bennett had ever heard.

The next recollection from Bennett tells us a lot about intent.  Up to now, we have been talking about the intent of the composer as though the composer was the only creator.  In this instance, we see the power of the lyric.

“The next thing in the score of Show Boat is now known to all as ‘Ol’ Man River,’ but when he [Kern] handed me his sketch it had no name and no lyric.  It was thirty-two not wholly convincing measures that sounded to me like they wanted to be wanted.  In the first place it starts with two harmonically powerful and self-reliant bars and then comes to a mud puddle and doesn’t know where to put its feet for the next two.”

Bennett recalls there wasn’t much he could do with it at that point.  A few days later when he looked at it with Oscar Hammerstein’s words written in, he turned to Kern:  “Gee, that’s a great song.”  Kern replied “ ‘You didn’t say that when I gave it to you.’ He knew as well as I did that it wasn’t a song at all until Oscar came in with the words.”