A Tribute to Jerry Bock by Glen Roven

A_Tribute_to_Jerry_Bock_by_Glen_Roven_20010101

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.

So, here we have this minor-sounding section and then he repeats it, three times. But the third time -- wait for it -- miracle of miracles, it's in major! "I'd fill my yard with ducks and turkeys and geese, etc., is the same minor release turned on its head by being major. Is it because Tevye is taking his fantasy even further, this dream of wealth becoming more and more a reality in his mind and thus more and more major?

But no. At "squawking just as noisily as they can," the song returns to minor and the first complete section of the song finishes in a minor mode.

Now two questions arise: can the lay audience hear this the first time, or even the 100th time they hear the song? Of course not. But it's all there in the music and adds to the depth, the breadth and the genius of the piece, a reason why Bock's music appeals to both the lay audience and the sophisticated listener. Question two: did Bock put all this in, or was it an unconscious accident? Answer: it doesn't matter. It's there, and as Freud said, "There are no accidents." Although he probably wasn't talking about Musical Theater.

The next part of the song proceeds as one might expect, a direct repeat of the two "A" sections and the release, but of course, with additional verses of brilliant Harnick lyrics. A bit of an aside about Broadway lyricists and style: I would say that in 90% of the operas written between 1600 and 1800, when the "song" style operas were in fashion, if there was a musical repeat of whole sections, and there often were, the lyric would also repeat. The melody would be ornamented but the same words would be sung, which led to a stagnant dramatic line, no matter how gorgeous the tune. It's a particular Broadway invention to change the lyric the second time, thankfully, and move the plot forward to keep the audience interested even as the music repeats. (Another aside: I've worked with a few play directors who are attempting their first musicals. Every one of them insists upon trying to cut out second "A" sections of songs, even WITH a new lyric. It's epidemic. Play directors can't understand the value of the repeated chorus. As Yenta would say, "Oy!")

On to my favorite part of the song:

We've heard two very complete sections. The song could end here. It would be fine as is, or maybe Bock could have added a coda. But nothing in the previous sections prepares the audience for what happens now.

Suddenly, the entire rhythm of the song breaks down. No more jaunty, Broadway lilting four, no more subtle playing with major, minor, or falling fifths. There's a completely new section. It's almost as if the music (and Tevye) is falling prostrate on the floor, begging God to listen.

This is an out-and-out operatic recitative in the middle of a Broadway "want" song. Only Tevye, with his relationship to God, could command this kind of music. And only a great composer like Bock could write it. First we get two measures of stentorian eight notes with a little trill added at the end, Tevye walking into the center of town holding court. Now, listen to the bass line after "fawn on me." With every chord the bass line plummets another step, like Tevye's power is filtering through every corner of his little shtetl. Another little Kelzmeric cadenza tops off this section. This writing is truly amazing, a combination of Mozart recitative and Richard Strauss harmonies.

Just when we're exhausted from the ingenuity, and we figure we're about to return to the beginning sections, there is another surprise. With "And it won't make one bit of difference" we are not at the expected first bit of the song but smack-dab back in the release, the third section of the release at that, the major section. Surprising but inevitable. As Tevye sings about his great wish to sit in the "synagogue and pray," the music is the gorgeous section of the release in the major mode.

What is next? Well, finally, we are back to home base, back to where we've started. The music returns to the opening statement, falling fifth and cantorial chant. In four minutes or so we've explored every aspect of Tevye's character. And all through music. No wonder this song is such a joy for performer and audience alike.

Of course, given Bock's brilliance, he has one more trick up his sleeve. Instead of ending the song, he takes the penultimate phrase of the song, "Lord, who made the lion and the lamb," and repeats it. Three times. A final prayer, perhaps? A final nod to the minor mode? But this time, the minor is really hitting home because it's so aggressively repetitive. The rhythm stops, the chords sustain, Tevye insists, cajoles, pleads. What's next?

Why, a jaunty, Broadway refrain in major for the final note and ride-out. The major mode has triumphed, Tevye has had his apotheosis and we're right back to where we started. But upon what a journey Mr. Bock and Mr. Harnick have taken us. Gratias.

Glen Roven, four-time Emmy Winner, recently had his show Pandora's Box produced at NYMF. He will make his third appearance at Carnegie Hall this Spring accompanying Bass-Baritone Daniel Okulitch who is singing Roven's classical music.

 

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