The composer Darius Milhaud, who had known Cole Porter in his 1920s Paris days, spoke of a flower always found in his lapel. Milhaud also noted with amusement that many Paris buildings had (do they still?) an enamel blue-and-white placard affixed to the front—“Les Colporteurs ne sont pas Admis”—which meant that the scruffy, bag-toting journeymen you’d sometimes see on the street (even in the 1950s when I was young) were not admitted inside the kind of establishments Porter would have never had trouble entering.
Many years ago, driving to Indianapolis, Joan Morris and I stopped to take a look at Peru, Indiana, where the gently raised Porter hailed from. Hardly a remarkable town from what we saw—you’d be hard put to find evidence that he’d ever lived there unless you happened to be downtown when the Miami County museum, which housed a Porter collection, was open (which it wasn’t that day). Even Porter’s childhood home wasn’t a shrine then; asking around among the townspeople about him was remarkably unfruitful. I’m told it’s somewhat changed now—the Porter house is now a mini-museum with a bed and breakfast—but there isn’t a Porter Boulevard I know of there to commemorate its most famous citizen.
All this makes one wonder where Porter picked up that insouciant sophistication of his. (Where indeed, for that matter, did the Astaires pick up theirs, growing up in the Nebraska that also spawned that suave country boy Johnny Carson?) Maybe it’s a sense from early life of one’s being somehow different (p.x) from the neighbors—one’s needing the roar and pace and elegance of great cities, the availability of the best of the best anytime you want—that makes so many of us escape small-town life for the capitals of the world.
It’s amazing how much college had to do with many of the creators of our “classic popular song”—Rodgers and Hart doing their early show at Columbia, Ira Gershwin proudly going to CCNY—but Porter at Yale even wrote fight songs for the school among his early attempts at musical theater (though it’s hard to imagine him as a jock-type sports fan). Later studies in Paris at the Schola Cantorum exposed him to a more involved harmonic language than other members of the Big Five of Broadway’s golden age, a very different sophistication from Jerome Kern’s Central European chordal vocabulary nearly everybody else emulated. Part of the Frenchiness Porter shares with (surprise!) Virgil Thomson is a certain spareness of musical texture. Sumptuousness is not his game—listen to recordings of Porter playing as he sings with his own metronomic dépouillé piano behind him, and you’ll see what I mean.
Porter was just more urbane than anyone else in American musical theater history as far as I’m concerned. A man who didn’t need to worry about money, he could have just lived the high life had he chosen to, but instead he worked extremely hard and meticulously on his songs. He was reportedly a slow and careful craftsman, and viewing his sheet-music manuscripts, as I did at the Secaucus warehouse (where the Harms music publishers’ handwritten fair copies were stored), shows a painstaking script, the notes almost engraved into the paper—a striking contrast to the offhand fluency of Gershwin’s or Vincent Youmans’s handwriting. In one sheet-music engraver’s copy, I saw Dr. Albert Sirmay (né Szirmai) of Harms, who made no secret of his contempt for the great American songwriters’ musical unletteredness, impatiently taking over (in “Where Are the Men”) from Porter’s struggles in his fluent conservatory hand. Dr. Sirmay delighted in prettying up the piano parts of Harms catalog composers with added Mittel-Europa contrapuntal filigree. Gershwin must have successfully shouted the doctor down often to preserve his originals, but there is no evidence of Porter trying very hard to, and the result is that a collaborative pianist often needs to Zip-Strip away Sirmay’s musical gingerbread to get to the real Porter.
What a confraternity of songwriters the 1920s produced! There exist group photographs of famous songwriters, almost as if at college reunions. As a young man, Porter complained of his not being Jewish enough to sound like Broadway; I’m not alone in suspecting that his attraction to minor-mode sultriness in some songs is a wistful attempt toward that sensibility. The most proficient (p.xi) creators of both lyric and music in song, he and Irving Berlin admired each other enormously. Berlin wrote a salacious party-piece parody of “You’re the Top”—even dirtier than Porter’s own racy double entendres—but I think the surpassing tribute to Porter from Berlin is “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” with its woozy seesawing between major and minor modes, Berlin’s inspiration being the very Porter songs that attempted Jewishness.
Porter’s early 1923 ballet Within the Quota, for the Ballets suédois’s Paris season and the following US tour—when else in the history did an American student composer get to have such exposure, and in Paris yet?—was his try for the avant-garde. Polytonality à la Milhaud was the rage, but Porter only really used whole-tone scales in his “polytonal” passages, albeit written with simultaneous key signatures in different voices, which all could have been written using one signature or none at all. I dispensed with them when I arranged the ballet for the Yale Band and the American Ballet Theater in 1970.
Porter wrote the ballet in piano score—sometimes conceived for five pianos! The orchestration used in the Ballets suédois performance was by Charles Koechlin, a quirkily fascinating character in twentieth-century French music—his compositions include the gamelan-influenced Bandar-Log and an orchestral suite extolling the beauties of film stars like Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe—but the Dance Museum of Stockholm refused to let me see it or let the American Ballet Theater use it for their performance in New York in 1970, despite entreaties from the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris and Koechlin’s son Yves. Time was getting short before the performance, so I holed up in a hotel on the Place de la République and sent sections of my orchestration Air Express to the copyist Lilette Hindin in New York before flying back. The job was done just in time for the afternoon rehearsal with orchestra, and Within the Quota went on that evening. Years later John McGlinn was able to get hold of the Koechlin orchestration and recorded it.
Already the musical language is unmistakably Porter, that désinvolture, or offhand manner, that choosiness, that economy. His French training gave a sophisticated gloss to the work that would show in most of his later Broadway music, separating him from the Central European flavor of so much of Broadway’s golden age. Some compare Porter to Noël Coward (who also wrote a hilariously sexy parody of Porter’s “Let’s Do It”), but Porter could write down his own music (unlike Coward or Berlin). Unlike Kern’s or Harry Warren’s few examples, there is no Porter catalog of non-musical-theater works, except of course Within the Quota. His is a sensibility without counterpart anywhere else in the world of music. (p.xii)