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American Songbook

Arlen: I Wonder What Became of Me; Gershwin: Our Love is Here to Stay; Weill: Youkali

November 12, 2023: Angel Blue, soprano; Bryan Wagorn, piano

I Wonder What Became of Me

Harold Arlen

Born in Buffalo, New York, February 15, 1905; died in New York, April 23, 1986

After composing Broadway musicals in New York in the 1930s, Harold Arlen began writing for Hollywood films—he is best-known for his songs for The Wizard of Oz, in particular, “Over the Rainbow” with lyricist Yip Harburg. He spent the next two decades composing primarily in collaboration with lyricist Johnny Mercer, helping to shape the spectacular effusion of American popular song at the time.

In the mid-1940s Arlen again turned his attention to the theater, and it was for the 1946 Broadway show St. Louis Woman that he and Mercer wrote “I Wonder What Became of Me.” The lead, Della, was supposed to sing it as a lament that luxury has not brought fulfillment. Though the song was dropped in pre-Broadway tryouts, it took on a life of its own with such illustrious interpreters as Lena Horne. Arlen liked to break the mold of a thirty-two-bar popular song form on occasion, just as he sometimes felt some songs just need to “get into another key” than where they began.” “I Wonder What Became of Me” does both—it employ sections uneven in length and ends up in a new key in reflection of its wistful lyrics.

Our Love Is Here to Stay

George Gershwin

Born in Brooklyn, New York, September 26, 1898; died in Hollywood, California, July 11, 1937

Pursuing his prodigious musical talent after dropping out of high school, George Gershwin went to work at age fifteen for a music publisher of popular songs, singing and playing them at the piano to attract buyers. Soon he began composing his own songs and piano pieces, and when he got a better job as a pianist for Broadway shows, it was a small step for him to compose his own shows, for which his brother Ira wrote the lyrics. They scored their first big hit in 1920 with the song “Swanee,” recorded by Al Jolson. George gained further celebrity with his highly original works combining jazz and classical styles for the concert hall such as Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. By age thirty he was America’s most famous composer. He and Ira continued to write successful Broadway shows through the 1930s, but George’s untimely death of a brain tumor at age thirty-eight robbed the world of one of its most innovative and successful composers.

“Our Love Is Here to Stay” was the last song Gershwin wrote before his death on July 11, 1937. His brother Ira fit it with words after George’s death as a tribute to him for the film The Goldwyn Follies (1938), in which it was sung by Kenny Baker. The song’s extraordinary popularity, however, stems from its use in the hit film An American in Paris, where Gene Kelly sings it to Leslie Caron.


Kurt Weill

Born in Dessau, March 2, 1900; died in New York, April 3, 1950

Kurt Weill had already earned recognition as Germany’s leading avant-garde theater composer when the rise of Nazism forced him and his wife, singer and actress Lotte Lenya, to move to Paris in 1934, then to New York in 1935. His greatest European successes—Mahagonny (1927) and Die Dreigroschenoper (1928), with its hit song “Mack the Knife”—had resulted from his collaboration with satiric dramatist Bertolt  Brecht. Weill quickly adapted to the very different world of Broadway, having already begun to use American jazz and popular song elements in his European theater works. Writing for stage, film, and radio in America, Weill became especially known for works such as Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), which contains the ultra-popular “September Song”; Lady in the Dark (1940); Street Scene (1946); and Lost in the Stars (1949).

Weill originally composed an instrumental version of the tango that became “Youkali” while in Paris as an interlude for the 1934 play Marie galante by Jacques Duval. The following year Roger Fernay (pseudonym of French actor Roger Bertrand) wrote lyrics for it, and the song was published jointly by the two under the title “Youkali.” It lay in obscurity, however, until the aging Lenya turned over a stack of Weill’s materials to Canadian-born soprano Teresa Startas, whose career at the Metropolitan opera spanned thirty-six years. Though written and first published in France, this “Tango Habanera,” as it is subtitled, holds a place in the “American songbook” because it emerged from oblivion when Stratas recorded it in 1981 in New York on her album The Unknown Kurt Weill. “Youkali” refers to an idyllic land where one can escape life’s troubles, but which turns out to be only a dream.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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