Cole Porter’s “Jewish Tunes”

November 20, 2020 | Terry Teachout
About the author: Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary.

One of the wonders of modern Jewish history is the way that certain fields of human activity have, for periods of time, been almost entirely the domain of Jews. This was true of psychoanalysis in early 20th-century Vienna, photography in much of pre-World War II Central Europe, the movie business in the early days of Hollywood, and, of course, the golden age of American musical theater. But then, writes Terry Teachout, there was Cole Porter:

From Rodgers and Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim, virtually all of the great pre-rock Broadway songwriters were first- and second-generation Jews who were either born in New York or grew up there. None was observant, but they were all very much aware of their Jewish roots. Cole Porter was a rare exception to this rule. Like his admiring friend Irving Berlin, he wrote both the words and the music to his songs, but the two men had nothing else in common. Berlin had been born in the Pale of Settlement. Porter was the only child of a wealthy family of WASPs from Indiana and was groomed by his father to be a lawyer. But he studied music at Yale and decided to become a professional songwriter instead.

[One] of Porter’s songwriting fingerprints is hinted at in a remark he made to Richard Rodgers when he claimed to have discovered “the secret of writing hits. . . . I’ll write Jewish tunes.” Porter almost certainly had in mind his marked propensity to fluctuate at will between major and minor modes, a familiar characteristic of Jewish folk music. “I Love Paris,” for instance, begins in the minor key, then shifts to major with the suddenness of a sunrise as the singer explains that he loves Paris “every moment, . . . because my love is near.”

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