The 1920’s: A Time When American Composers Matured

Our featured image shows the founding members of ASCAP (1915); but it was the 1917 decision of the Supreme Court in Herbert v Shanley that established the right of a composer to the payment of a fee every time copyrighted music was played for the public. Up to then, no dance band, restaurant or concert hall paid composers anything. The laws governing the rights of composers matured.

So, it is entirely appropriate that the ability of the composers would mature as well. The Father of the American Musical Theatre, Victor Herbert, who brought the case against Shanley, passed away in 1924.

The American composers who followed in his footsteps in the 1920’s varied in age and experience on Broadway. What they had in common was their ability to master their art in that decade. During that  time period, some of them would reach their peak, while others were merely starting their journey. This overview should continue to put some of our future posts into an historical perspective.

In the case of two of our best composers of operetta, Sigmund Romberg and Rufolf Friml, their careers both blossomed during the 1920’s and peaked at the same time.

Until the 1920’s, Romberg had only written one score for the musical theatre—Maytime in 1917, with its one great song, “Will You Remember (Sweetheart).” His three immortal scores were written in the 1920’s: The Student Prince (1924), The Desert Song (1926) and The New Moon (1928).

Likewise, Rudolf Friml wrote a pleasant score for The Firefly in 1912; but his best work came in the 1920’s: Rose-Marie in 1924, The Vagabond King in 1925 and The Three Musketeers in 1928.

Jerome Kern, who alternated between operetta and popular music, wrote four altogether lovely scores that we have listened to from 1917/1918; but his four great scores for Broadway came in 1927 with Show Boat, in 1929 with Sweet Adeline, in 1932 with Music in the Air and in 1933 with Roberta. His work in the 1930’s and 40’s was done mostly for movies, such as new material for Roberta in 1935 (“I Won’t Dance” and “Lovely to Look At”), the score for Swingtime in 1936, three new songs for the 1936 movie version of Show Boat, and the scores for You Were Never Lovelier in 1942 and Cover Girl in 1944. He died in 1945 in NYC as he prepared to write the score for Annie Get Your Gun.

George Gershwin was heavily influenced by Kern and wrote most of his Broadway scores in the 1920’s, including what may well be his best score for a musical comedy in 1930 for Girl Crazy. His best vocal score would come in 1935, with the opera, Porgy and Bess. We will never know what he could have achieved because he died at 39 in 1937.

Richard Rodgers was also heavily influenced by Kern’s work, and Rodgers wrote some lovely scores in the 1920’s. However, he saved his best work with Larry Hart for the next decade, the 1930’s. By the 1940’s, he had teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein, starting with Oklahoma! in 1943.

Irving Berlin perfected his craft in the 1920’s, but his tunes were mainly for musical revues. He wrote two scores for Broadway shows in the 1930’s—Face the Music in 1932 and Louisiana Purchase in 1940; but his great Broadway score was written in 1946 for Annie Get Your Gun, as a replacement for Jerome Kern. His great film scores were written between 1935 (Top Hat) and 1948 (Easter Parade).

Of all of the great composers for the Broadway stage, Cole Porter was the most enigmatic. In 1916, his first musical, See America First, was a box office and artistic failure. In truth, he was not yet ready to write a full score for a Broadway show.

From 1917 until the late 1920’s, he spent most of his time in Europe. However, his musical studies led him to write good music for Paris in 1928 and Wake Up and Dream and Fifty Million Frenchmen in 1929. In our view, his score for Fifty Million Frenchmen served notice that Cole Porter could and would write excellent musical scores for Broadway musicals. Porter proved that this assessment was accurate when, in 1932, he wrote a fine score for The Gay Divorce. In 1933, he followed with Nymph Errant, and, in 1934, he wrote one of his best scores for Anything Goes.  His score for Jubilee in 1935 was quite good, although his greatest show on Broadway, like Berlin’s, came in the late 1940’s with Kiss Me, Kate (1948).