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Composer Richard Rodgers, Revisited


Were the accomplishments of American legend and composer Richard Rodgers somewhat less than how history perceives them? Was he more tunemaster than composer?

Larry Stempel, Ph.D.
photo by Tom Stoelker

Larry Stempel, Ph.D., professor of music, presented some revelations on Feb. 1 in “What Is/n’t a Broadway Composer? The Case of Richard Rodgers,” the keynote lecture for Fordham College at Rose Hill’s 21st Annual Arts and Sciences Faculty Day.

Sempel approached Rodgers from a music historian’s perspective that relied not just on first-person interviews, but on analysis of original composition notes, and placement of the subject within historical context.

He placed Rodgers amongst contemporaries that included Frankfort School philosopher Theodor Adorno and set out to frame not just the nature of Rogers’ art, but also the nature of Broadway composers more generally.

Adorno felt that certain composers (Kurt Weill, for one) lost sight of what it means to be a composer through an association with the commercial venue of Broadway. According to Stempel, composer Weill considered the hugely successful Rodgers to be his direct competition.

The very notion of a composer, said Stempel, grew out of the 18th-century court musicians who struck out on their own as artists. By the end of the 19th century the Romantic idea of the composer as an autonomous artist had fully evolved.

On Broadway, however, a composer is hardly autonomous, said Stempel, but works with orchestrators, musical editors, conductors, vocal arrangers, and many more in a collaborative effort.

In the context of Adorno’s claim that Weill had abandoned the true composer’s ideal, Stempel said that Rodgers’ true talent lay in his tuneful songwriting rather than his composing.

Stempel gave as an example an early version of the song “Oklahoma” as presented in an out-of-town performance in New Haven, Conn. At the time the show was called Away We Go and was in desperate need of a showstopper.

Stempel studied a copy of Rodgers’ original composition of “Oklahoma” in the archival holdings of the Library of Congress. The composition shows Hammerstein’s lyric inserted into Rodgers’ chorus music, syllable-to-note. The song’s harmonies were altered during production, however, by music arranger Robert Russell Bennett, who was summoned by Rodgers himself.  The new version of “Oklahoma” was so good that the show’s name was changed to bear its title, Stempel said.

“The song took on new heft,” said Stempel. “From a cultural perspective it [was]transformed into something more like an anthem… as the chorus now strove vocally to embody, in sound, certain tropes in the mythology of the American frontier.”

One risks settling for a more limited understanding of the song’s “cultural moment” without taking Bennett’s arrangement into account, said Stempel. But practically speaking, Bennett’s work gave the show its much-needed commercial appeal.

Stempel said that Rodgers worked with Bennett again in Carousel and with choral arranger Trude Rittman on The Sound of Music—the latter collaboration undertaken because Rodgers’ abilities in writing polychromatic liturgical music were “lacking.”

He addressed the larger question of what is a Broadway composer. “Generally, it’s the one who writes the music, however primitively or complete, to all or most of the songs in a Broadway musical,” said Stempel.

And what isn’t?

“Generally, all those musicians who write everything else, from the overture, to the exit music, the musical transitions, the underscoring to the spoken dialogue. So with rare exceptions in the Broadway arena, there is no single composer in the conventional autonomous sense.”

Stempel’s lecture preceded the 21st annual Arts and Sciences Faculty day, which recognizes faculty for excellence in teaching. Awards went to Brian Johnson, Ph.D., department of philosophy, for undergraduate teaching in the humanities; Melissa Labonte, Ph.D., department of political science, for undergraduate teaching in social sciences; Silvia Finnemann, Ph.D., department of biology, for undergraduate teaching in the sciences; and Benjamin Dunning, Ph.D., department of theology, for excellence in graduate-level teaching.


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