Irving Berlin

The American composer Irving Berlin (1888-1989) produced about 800 songs, many of which attained worldwide popularity. His patriotic songs, especially "God Bless America," seemed to epitomize the mass American sentiments of the era.

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Tyumen, Russia, on May 11, 1888. The family of nine fled the persecutions of Jews in Russia in 1893 and settled in New York City, where, like so many other immigrants of that time, they lived on the Lower East Side. The family's first years in America were very difficult—at one time they all sold newspapers on the streets. Israel, the youngest child, was first exposed to music in the synagogue in which his father occasionally sang as cantor; he also received singing lessons from his father.

When the boy left home at 14, he made money by singing in saloons on New York's Bowery. He attended school for two years but had no formal musical education; he never learned to read or notate music.

It was while working as a singing waiter that Israel Baline, collaborating with a coworker named Nicholson on a song entitled "Marie from Sunny Italy," became I. Berlin, lyricist. This was the name he chose to appear on the sheet music when the song was published shortly after, in 1907.

Subsequently, Berlin began to gain recognition as a clever lyricist. He provided words for "Queenie, My Own," "Dorando," and "Sadie Salome, Go Home." The last was something of a success, and he was hired by a Tin Pan Alley publisher to write words for new songs. Within a year, despite his continuing difficulty in writing English, Berlin was established as a rising talent in the popular-music business.

Somewhat belatedly music publishers became interested in exploiting ragtime, the highly original creation of African-American musicians in the South and Midwest during the 1880s and 1890s. Berlin contributed lyrics (and a few tunes) to several mild ragtime songs. In 1911 he wrote the words and music for "Alexander's Ragtime Band," which started toward worldwide popularity when sung by Emma Carus in Chicago that year. It is ironic that one of the most famous of all "ragtime" songs employs a few conventional syncopations but no real ragtime at all.

Berlin's fame soared. He wrote his first complete musical score in 1914, Watch Your Step, followed by Stop, Look, Listen. In the Army during World War I he wrote a successful soldier show entitled Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1919), which contained "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning." In 1919 he founded his own music publishing company, Irving Berlin, Inc.

His most successful subsequent shows included Ziegfeld Follies (1919, 1920, 1927), Music Box Revues (1921-1924), As Thousands Cheer (1933), This Is the Army (1942), Annie Get Your Gun (1946), and Call Me Madam (1950). His best-known scores for films include Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Holiday Inn (1942).

Among Berlin's best known songs are "White Christmas" and "God Bless America" which are perennial holiday favorites to this day.

Commenting on the composer who produced more popular hits than any other of his generation, Harold Clurman wrote in 1949, "Irving Berlin's genius consists not so much in his adaptability to every historical and theatrical contingency, but rather in his capacity to discover the root need and sentiment of all our American lives."

Berlin's 100th birthday was celebrated in a televised special from Carnegie Hall. When he died in New York on September 22, 1989 he was remembered as a symbol of the nation. As fellow songwriter Jerome Kern was quoted in Alexander Woolcott's biography of Berlin: "Irving Berlin has no place in American Music. He is American Music."


Further Reading on Irving Berlin

Alexander Woollcott, The Story of Irving Berlin (1925), is an affectionate and stylishly written account of Berlin's early career. The Songs of Irving Berlin (1957?), a catalog of his works, was published by the Irving Berlin Music Corporation. For background on Berlin and American musical comedy see David Ewen, Complete Book of the American Musical Theater (1959; rev. ed. 1968) and The Story of America's Musical Theater (1961; rev. ed. 1968), Stanley Green, World of Musical Comedy (1960; rev. ed. 1968), and Laurence Bergreen, As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin (1990).