Off to see the Wizard

I had a good idea for a post over the weekend. I still have it; I sat down to write it last night and ended up spending the entire evening surfing for Harold Arlen songs. Well, that’s a good idea for a post, too.

Here’s a 1950s Arlen song, “I Never Has Seen Snow,” from a criminally obscure Broadway show called House of Flowers that he co-wrote with a young Truman Capote. (This is from a Boston Pops telecast; even if you’re not a Vanessa Williams fan, Martha Babcock’s cello solo makes it all worthwhile.)

Arlen is a composer I didn’t really appreciate until I started accompanying musical theater students. I think you have to physically get your hands on the music before you discover how creative and audacious he is—he’s constantly toying with odd phrase lengths, tricky polyrhythmic syncopations, and slippery harmonies that you don’t notice as a listener because his feel for the overall style is so suave. That might be why, even though so much of his musical vocabulary is immediately recognizable, he never had as high a profile as some of his more publicly celebrated colleagues. The more I get to know the songs, though, the more I’m convinced that he and Gershwin are in a class by themselves.

One comment

  1. Thanks for sharing the spoils of your surfing. It’s always a pleasure to hear Martha Babcock play. I would like to hear an “unstylized” version of the song though. Much of what seems to make this performance successful is Rob Mathes’ arrangement and Martha Babcock’s cello playing, and, if you like that sort of thing, the “vocal stylings” of Williams.

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