Tin Pan Alley 1905

Series: Places in music (3)

Musicologist Georg Rudiger introduces some of the places that are important for certain works performed in Klosters. Today: “Tin Pan Alley” in New York, the birthplace of the “Great American Songbook”.

You won’t find “Tin Pan Alley” on the map of Manhattan. Nevertheless, this street has written music history. From the beginning of the 20th century, this was the centre of the American music industry. Here, on 28th Street between 5th Avenue and Broadway, music publishers were congregated at a time when radio and sound film were not yet popular or even invented. The music publishers had not only employed composers who delivered one song after another as if on an assembly line. Most important were the pianists, the so-called song pluggers, who brought the notes to life and were able to give their thoughts on whether a song had what it took to be a hit or not. Many of the hits created here were included in the “Great American Songbook”, from which Thomas Hampson and the Janoska Ensemble chose some particularly beautiful songs for Klosters. Music journalist Monroe Rosenfeld was reminded of the clattering of tin pans by the tinkling on the piano in the publishing buildings – which is how Tin Pan Alley got its unusual name.

George Gershwin came to Tin Pan Alley in 1914 at the age of 16 and was employed by the publisher Jerome H. Remick. “As a song plugger, he had to sit at the piano for eight to ten hours a day to play and sing the pieces entrusted to him, to sell the ‘merchandise’,” reports Wolfram Schwinger in his biography of Gershwin. Sometimes Gershwin even sneaked a song of his own into the music programme he was to play. His first song “When You Want ‘Em You Can’t Get ‘Em” appeared in print in 1916. However, Gershwin was not only an excellent pianist and soon also a remarkable composer, but had an unmistakable sense of musical quality even as a teenager. He was particularly impressed by Jerome Kern, who had great success with his show “The Girl from Utah” in 1914. “I adored Kern’s work. I studied every one of his songs. I paid tribute to him by imitating him,” wrote Gershwin. But Irvin Berlin, who like Gershwin was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, also inspired him. “His colourful melodic richness never ceases to amaze all of us who compose songs. Irving Berlin is America’s Franz Schubert.” Songs by these three composers and others such as Cole Porter, Kurt Weill and Harold Arlen can be heard at the “Blue Skies” concert with Thomas Hampson and the Janoska Ensemble on Swiss National Day.

1. August 2024, 5 pm, Concert Hall, Arena Klosters

Thomas Hampson (baritone), Janoska Ensemble