- - Monday, August 8, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A COLE PORTER COMPANION

Edited by Don M. Randel, Matthew Shaftel and Susan Forscher Weiss

University of Illinois Press, $95, 372 pages, $34.95, paper

It’s just plain irresistible to talk about the great American composer and lyricist Cole Porter without resorting to his own trio of adjectives — “delightful, delicious, de-lovely” — in describing his work. Its wild popularity in his own time and pretty much ever since testifies to its easy accessibility. To borrow a theme and title from one of his contemporaries Irving Berlin, enjoying Porter songs only requires “doing what comes naturally.”

So is there a need for a book like this, a compendium of essays by scholars and experts in musicology, music history and sundry ancillary specialties? The answer is an emphatic yes. For even in that well-known adjectival trio quoted above, you see Porter’s inventiveness, his playful, imaginative way with words and, as anyone who has heard them sung, his preternatural feeling for just the right music to fit them like the proverbial bespoke glove.

Understandably, because the pieces that make up this “Cole Porter Companion” are by different authors, there is some overlap and repetition, particularly in discussing Porter’s private life. Since the essays are by distinguished figures in the world of music studies, it is equally unsurprising that you will find excerpts from scores. For the musically literate, these will greatly enhance their appreciation of the songs under discussion and the authors’ analyses. But, even if you cannot read music — like me — fear not, for there is generally explicatory information and enlightenment galore in the verbal text without need of treble and bass literacy.

Even more than is usually true with songwriters, life influenced art with Porter. Indeed, a considerable amount of attention is given to his personal as well as professional life in these pages. His privileged background, prep school and Ivy League education, his unconventional but happy marriage, and the social whirl in which his most productive and happy years were lived all receive due attention.

Very much a figure in society — from high to cafe — he was not above introducing figures from that world into his lyrics. So you can learn here the identity of the Lady Mendl who, in the kind of shuffle only Porter could pull off, replaced “You’re a Bendel bonnet / A Shakespeare sonnet” with “You’re a bonnet from Bendel / You’re Lady Mendl” in the ever-changing lyric cast of “You’re the Top.” Being the wife of Sir Charles Mendl gave her the necessary rhyme, but it was her decades first as a pioneer and then as an iconic fixture of interior decoration that provided the necessary status to be one of the elect worthy of the towering designation.

Perhaps the most valuable knowledge I took away from this book was Porter’s hardworking, seemingly endless tinkering with his lyrics, his daring and predilection for the louche pushing the boundaries of taste and possibility ever closer to their edges. And if any song illustrates that propensity, it is “Anything Goes.” Here again, that favorite Lady Mendl works her magic as a muse:

“When you hear that Lady Mendl standing up / Now turns a handspring landing up — On her toes, /Anything goes.”

But not quite anything went even there. “Kate the Great,” a song about the Russian Empress Catherine the Great was still so much more “shocking than a glimpse of stocking” that star Ethel “Merman is reported to have feared that she couldn’t sing it ‘in front of her mother on opening night.’ ” Consequently, it was axed, as was the phrase in the show’s title song about “love affairs with young bears,” apparently also at her behest.

One thing is certain: Porter was always pushing the envelope just as far as, but no further than, he could get away with. In private, his use of four-letter words was legendary, but in a celebrated verse of this ever-titillating song, referring to them was, to quote Oscar Hammerstein this time, about as fer as he could go:

“Good authors too who once knew better words / Now only use four-letter words, / Writing prose, / Anything goes.”

Even when “The world has gone mad today, / And good’s bad today,” there were still some limits, even for Cole Porter.

As one of the contributors to this protean volume, Robert Kimball, puts it in summing up Porter:

“There were many tributes offered at his death, but none was more eloquent than the citation that accompanied his long-overdue honorary degree from Yale University, presented at his apartment in the Waldorf-Astoria on 9 June 1960: ‘Cole Porter: As an undergraduate you first won acclaim for writing the words and music of two of Yale’s perennial football songs. Since then you have achieved a reputation as a towering figure in the American musical theater. Master of the deft phrase, the delectable rhyme, the distinctive melody, you are, in your own words, and in your own field, the top . Your graceful, impudent, inimitable songs will be played and sung as long as footlights burn and curtains go up.’ “

Like his fellow contributors, Mr. Kimball is not only a learned expert on Porter but is superbly attuned to the nuanced as well as the obvious in his work. No, (to return to Irving Berlin), “ya don’t need any larning” to appreciate this most sophisticated and well educated of American songwriters, but the huge amount of detail and analysis packed into this book enhances that appreciation, for sure.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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