Have you ever wondered what is actually over the rainbow? While everyone’s familiar with the popular song “Over the Rainbow” and the question it poses, many don’t know who actually composed the Broadway hit. Walter Frisch, a professor of music at Columbia University, will be holding a lecture this Friday at 5 p.m. in the Burton Memorial Tower discussing the complex works of Harold Arlen, the composer of the famous tune.

“Appreciating Arlen”

Friday at 5 p.m.
Burton Memorial Tower

Like most people, Frisch was introduced to Arlen while watching “The Wizard of Oz.” However, his curiosity took him a step further into examining the composer’s lesser-known pieces.

“I had been looking through the works that had been made by the great masters of that time, such as Richard Rogers, and was drawn in by the qualities of Arlen’s music,” Frisch said. “I find his songs very expressive and moving.”

“The song forms he uses often transcend the standard form, as he’s frequently interested in longer structures that keep unfolding. The way he approaches this genre really gives him the quality of what we might think of as an art song, and there’s a kind of completeness and richness that is satisfying to listen to,” he added.

In addition to the form of Arlen’s music, Frisch is interested in the songs’ key changes, hinting at their novelty.

“There’s a song that he wrote with Johnny Mercer, from a show called ‘St. Louis Woman,’ that starts in the key of B flat and ends in A flat,” Frisch explained. “I think he just sort of follows his instincts. He obviously could begin and end in the same key, but he loves to play with things like that.”

Arlen drew inspiration from specific types of music, as well as his religious background, and continues to inspire various artists to perform his songs.

“He denied he was just a blues composer, but his harmonies are very much tinged with blues scales and notes,” Frisch said. “Some people say that since he was the son of a cantor in a synagogue, that his melodies and harmonies reflect the Jewish cantorial style.

“ ‘Over the Rainbow’ served as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland, and was also sung by famous singers such as Frank Sinatra and Barbara Streisand, who specialized in singing his pieces,” Frisch added.

With the popularity of some of Arlen’s songs, including “Stormy Weather,” it’s strange no one really recognizes his name.

“It puzzles me in some ways, but I think it’s because he never had a hit show on Broadway. His work was mostly showcased in films,” Frisch said. “Hollywood composers never really got high status like Broadway ones did, they were like second-class citizens. His music has seeped into the consciousness of Americans, but for some reason his name hasn’t gone with it.”

The lecture will include various recordings of Arlen’s as well as other performers’ works.

“I’ll be talking a little bit about how the song ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’ came into being that he wrote for a musical in 1954 when he was working with a less experienced writer named Truman Capote. He guided this talented lyricist into recording that song,” Frisch explained.

“My hope is to give an impression of this different side of Arlen that people may not know about. He was very unusual in the early 20th century in the sense that he was such a complete and rounded talent,” he added.

Invited by the musicology department, Frisch is excited to speak at an institution that accelerated the integration of music as a subject to be studied in Universities.

“The University of Michigan was one of the first departments of music in the country to study American music as a scholarly subject,” he said. “Many people who have made their careers studying music from the United States come from the University, so this is a great opportunity for me to share research with people who have been thinking about it for generations.”

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