A Tribute to Jerry Bock by Glen Roven


When I heard the brilliant composer Jerry Bock had died last week, I made my own private listening memorial: I programmed a play list of his songs on my iPod -- "I Love A Cop," "Politics and Poker," "What Makes Me Love Him?" "Will He Like Me?" "Vanilla Ice Cream" and course the entire score to Fiddler. What joy he gave me, and I know he will continue to give me long into the future.

Fiddler was the first complete Vocal Score my parents bought me; I must have been about eight years old. I was so excited to have the entire score and not just the pathetic-published-for-the-non-professional-vocal-selections, I couldn't possibly go to school the day the score arrived. I didn't even have to fake my temperature by sticking the thermometer in the lamp. I was so emotionally overwrought, I ran a fever. I needed to play through the entire show, including I Just Heard, not learn long division.

With no personal stories to tell about Bock, I choose here instead to concentrate on his music; and not just on any song, but one of the great theater songs of all time, "If I Were a Rich Man." Some may argue that a poor dairyman would never use the subjunctive tense, and it should be, wrong according to grammarians, but correct according to character: "If I Was A Rich Man," like "If Mamma Was Married." But I think it's perfect the way it is, and I know the brilliant lyricist Sheldon Harnick could easily explain his choice.

On to the music, and what glorious music it is:

The melody, on the words "If I were a rich man," outlines a falling fifth: the "if" down to a "man." A fifth is the distance of five steps from a C to a G going up; to hear it your head, think of the opening statement of the Star Wars theme. That fifth goes up, but this fifth goes down. Instead of hurling towards outer space, this falling fifth bears the weight of the world, the falling world, the tired world of a dairyman as he sings.

Then comes the quasi-Hasidic Jewish riff, the Daidle-deedle section. Zero Mostel, and most subsequent Teveys, have had great fun playing around with this section, but what I find wonderful is that after the tired, world-weary falling fifth, the music starts to climb upwards. Slowly, cautiously, but ever upward to heaven. Yet, the journey is not a pleasant one. Just before the melody would reach its destination, it falls into a bluesy note called a seventh. That gives the whole melodic line its color, and because it's only a seventh and not the eighth, which would be an octave and feel resolved, the listeners feels the yearning. Bernstein used that interval of a seventh to great success (as did Beethoven!) in the song "Somewhere." That "a" in the lyric "There's a place for us" is set on the seventh, the note of the blues, the note of pain.

A note about the accompaniment, or the harmony: the song starts out in a lilting Broadway "four" feel, everything major, sunny, just a poor dairyman dreaming his little dream. But then five bars in, instead of coming back to the jaunty major, Bock slips into a minor mode ("All day long I'd biddy-biddy-bum"). Everything about the harmony suggests we should simply return to the major mode, but no, this is where the master composer shines: he surprises us. It is, as Bernstein used to say, completely surprising and yet, completely inevitable.

But quick as you can say, "Sounds crazy, no?" we're back to major, the second "A" section, the repeat of the tune with the lyric, "Wouldn't have to work hard." All sunny again. As if nothing just happened. But of course, at the end of the phrase, Bock slips back to the minor; but then the music instanteously "rights" itself and goes back to the major. Major, minor, major, minor. Unsettling to say the least. How strange the change from major to minor, indeed.

Now we arrive at the bridge, or the release; the part of the song that's a contrasting part to the first statement of the song. Lo and behold, the minor mode wasn't a little hiccup at all. This release section is about as minor as it gets. What I like even more about the harmony here is the melody. Tevye wants his dream so badly and sees it so clearly, there is virtually no movement in the melody at all! It's as if he has parked himself firmly in the future and not even a Pogrom can pry him from his place. "Big tall house with rooms by the dozen" and "Right in the middle of the town," are virtually only two pitches with some embellishments. That's a far cry (and a sublime aural relief) from the falling fifth and the outlined seventh of the opening.

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