Irving Berlin’s American Dream. How a guy who didn’t know notes became the author of the U.S. national anthem

Irving Berlin was born on May 11, 1888, in Mogilev to Moses Balin, cantor of the city synagogue. He was the fifth child and was named Israel at birth.

As it turned out, the Weser Bros. company made a piano especially for Berlin that could translate melodies into other tones. The guy could compose beautiful melodies and rhythms, and became America’s most popular composer.

At the age of five, rioters burned down Israel’s house and in 1893 his family had to move to New York. The clerk who registered immigrants wrote down the surname the way an assistant read it to him. Beilin, and later, the typesetter at the printing press where the sheet music was printed typed r instead of i. Then the composer himself changed his name to Irving to make it sound more American. So Israel Balin became Irving Berlin.

From the age of 13, Irving worked as a singer in a bar and wrote songs at the same time. He became more and more popular, and singers dreamed of having his song in their repertoire.

One day singer Dorothy Gautz snuck into the composer’s office and begged Irving to give her any song. Suddenly a second singer burst into the room with the same intention. Dorothy gave her rival a slap. The girls clashed and continued to fight on the floor. Berlin gave the song to the second singer and married Dorothy. Five months after the wedding, Dorothy fell ill with typhoid fever and died.

Berlin then began dating a journalist, the daughter of a millionaire and telegraph magnate. The girl’s father was against marriage to a «homeless Jewish immigrant,» so he kidnapped his daughter and took her to Europe. As a result, she ran away from home and married her lover after all.

The marriage ceremony was held secretly. At that time the girl was 22 years old and Berlin was 37. Her father was furious and deprived her of her inheritance. Later the newlyweds had a daughter, and «Russian Lullaby», recognized as the best song of 1927, was written in her honor.

«God Bless America» Berlin wrote in 1918. The manuscript sat for 20 years.

The song «God Bless America» was first performed in 1939 on World War I Memorial Day, and the audience stood and listened with their hats off, as when the national anthem was sung. The song made a lot of money, but Berlin said: «You can’t make money on patriotism,» and signed a contract under which all royalties from the song went to the Boy Scouts Association of New York.

In fact, during his lifetime Berlin composed a thousand and a half songs in a variety of styles, from Yiddish songs that mocked stereotypes about Jews, to imitations of African-American jazz and gospel, to hymns celebrating traditional «American values. Berlin’s creativity declined by the 1950s, after 1966 he stopped composing.

Irving Berlin died in 1989, when he was 101. He passed away quietly and in his sleep.

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