Pardon me while I suspend use of my usually proper grammar: Y'all ain't no Americans if y'all ain't never heard Irving Berlin! And even if you don't know the name, songs such as White Christmas and God Bless America remain cultural staples even decades after they were written.
But what about the sheet music art? Well, I have a treat in store for you, because today I will count down my picks for the top five Irving Berlin sheet music covers.
5.) Won't You Play a Simple Melody (art by Albert Wilfred Barbelle, 1914): In one of my articles about the sheet music covers of Albert Wilfred Barbelle, I described this cover at length, and I don't think I could say it any better this time around, so here's a quote from that entry:
"This song is actually a fairly well known one, particularly among Irving Berlin fans, (of which I used to be one not long ago.) It's a duet between two characters, one of whom prefers old fashioned songs from before the Civil War, while the other wants nothing more than to listen to ragtime. (This leads to some very interesting counterpoint between them in the chorus line.) The lead singer, (Ernesta, the antebellum music-lover,) sings about how she longs to hear more of 'the kinds of songs they sang when mother was a girl.'
"As for the cover, it does appear to be a visual interpretation of Ernesta's reverie, as its color palette and hazy use of charcoal in soft, muted strokes gives it an obviously dreamlike quality. And the choice of sepia strongly suggests the daguerreotype, which was one of the dominating photographic mediums of the pre-Civil War period. It looks as if Ernesta (in the foreground, with the sparkly head dress,) is reaching into a daguerreotype of the couple at right (who are presumably her parents,) immersing herself into it further and further until she becomes the image. But if you look closely, behind Ernesta's left leg is a demonic figure playing a jarring tune on his fiddle, presumably a symbolic representation of the other character who will only listen to whatever's currently popular. (Portraying him as a demon is, to be fair, not entirely Barbelle's idea, as the lyrics include the line 'Musical Demon, set your honey a-dreamin''.)
"This depiction of a deep feeling of nostalgia is very evocative and haunting, and I can't think of a better way to sell such an emotionally charged tune."
4.) All By Myself (1921): There are many positive things one can say about this cover, and one of the first that come to mind is its rich use of color and detail, the latter of which is made possible by the use of thin, finely executed pen lines.
Aside from all this, the composition is what really draws the eye in. The hand lettering at the top arrests the attention, drawing the eye down and to the right, where flourishing letters announce the well-renowned composer, and then down further, where we see the reclining woman. The window behind her, revealing the lonely night, helps to balance out the composition further.
3.) The Voice of Belgium (art by Albert Wilfred Barbelle, 1915): The use of bright pastel colors is perhaps the most obvious feature of this cover, but it's the composition that lends itself more to comment. Before we discuss that, however, it's important to have some background information on Belgium's role in WWI.
In early August, 1914, Germany was attempting to ambush France by way of what they called the Schlieffen Plan. Since Belgium remained neutral at that time, the plan was to enter France through Belgium. But there was one little problem: In 1839, the British had entered into an agreement to protect Belgium from attack in the event of war, and the fact that they were still honoring that agreement was what led to their entry into WWI.
The Germans still managed to occupy Belgium during the war years, and as the Belgians resisted German occupation, retaliation was fierce. Many buildings were burned, and hundreds of people were killed.
This cover was published two years before America's entry into WWI, but it clearly shows that, even though there was no formal action being taken yet, sympathy for war-torn countries ran high. Here are two brief excerpts from the song lyrics: "I hear the voice of Belgium calling far across the sea, I speak of wives and mothers waiting patiently. I hear the cries of children praying sad as they could be, I can hear them say 'Please bring my Daddy back to me.'" "See a hand stretched out for mercy, with a plea to every man, 'Tis the call for help from Belgium, answer if you can."
Now back to the art: the wives and mothers waiting patiently, and the children praying sad as they could be, are the focal points, placed in the background and given bolder lines and brighter colors for emphasis. They are the ones who need our help, and their visual emphasis is crucial for this reason.
But in the background, Belgian soldiers led by the feminine hand of Liberty are depicted in a ghostly haze, which to my mind hints at the uncertainty of their return. A sad and poignant visual depiction of a tragedy, and hopefully one that helped them get the relief they so desperately needed.
2.) The Century Girl (1916): This cover is definitely one of the most fun and spontaneous works of art I've ever seen from this time period, not only for its subject matter, but also how it was depicted. The use of bright colors, composition, and fluidly moving characters with liveliness and charm are enough to make one want to smile, laugh, and sing! It's all around a lively and fun piece, just like most of what I offer in the catalog.
Before I unveil my number one pick, here are some honorable mentions:
That International Rag (art by E. H. Pfeiffer, 1913)
I Love to Quarrel With You (art by John Frew, 1914)
Ziegfeld Follies of 1920 (art by Morris Rosenbaum, 1920)
1.) At the Devil's Ball (art by E. H. Pfeiffer, 1913): Just as with number five above, this was mentioned in a prior blog entry, so here's what I had to say about it:
"Many music experts will tell you (incorrectly) that the first songs about the Devil were those by bands such as Black Sabbath in the 1970s, but that's completely untrue. Here we see one such example: a song written by Irving Berlin about a dance hosted by the Devil 'in his great, big fiery hall.' I've heard this song many times, and have even tried playing it on the piano, because I love how catchy it is.
"Artistically, I also find the cover to be so appealing in so many ways. I especially like the bold use of red throughout, as well as the composition, where the Devil, (looking like a real Casanova,) appears to be beckoning us into his dance hall to enjoy a good time. It's a playful and ironically non-threatening depiction of what is considered by religious folk to be the biggest threat of all. In spite of ourselves, we kind of want to dance there--but as long as it's only for one night!"
That's it for this list. Which Irving Berlin sheet music covers do you like the best? Are there any you wish I had included? As always, please let me know in the comments, and we can have a nice chat.
Till next time!