Why Cole Porter’s melodies and lyrics produce musical magic

Arts

GWEN IFILL: Cole Porter left a legacy as one of the nation's finest composers and songwriters. He was born in Indiana 125 years ago this month.

To celebrate, Jeffrey Brown once again joined composer and musicologist Rob Kapilow at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia.

It's the latest in our occasional series on what makes great music great.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rob Kapilow, welcome back.

ROB KAPILOW: So great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cole Porter this time, OK, so you have picked one of his most famous songs, "You're the Top!"

ROB KAPILOW (singing): You're the top. You're the Coliseum.

Who could forget that?

JEFFREY BROWN: You're the Coliseum, it shows he's a man known for the sophistication of his language, right, the sort of high-Brown, but low-brow as well.

ROB KAPILOW: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for the songs, because he did both.

ROB KAPILOW: He did both, but the truth is, though he's really famous for these incredibly witty, sophisticated lyrics with these erudite rhymes and imagery, it's actually the way they combine with the music that makes it so unforgettable.

And people often underestimate how crucial the music is to those famous lyrics.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, how does it work in this song?

ROB KAPILOW: So, let's take the most famous one, "You're the Top!" the opening one.

Now, it seems like who could possibly ruin that great lyric? I mean, it's got an exclamation mark. "You're the top!" But let me ruin it for you.

OK. He could have written this.

(singing): You're the top.

Now, I mean, the lyric stays the same. My version simply leapt one octave to the same notes. He leaps one note higher to this great dissonance, but then a full octave higher, this huge leap. It's a leap up to the top.

And in a way, that leap, all the energy of the leap and the dissonance already tells us what "You're the Top!" is about before we have heard a single note from the voice.

COLE PORTER, Musician (singing): You're the top. You're the Coliseum. You're the top. You're the Louvre museum.

JEFFREY BROWN: This song, it's not a story, right, because not much happens. It's just him — over and over again, you're the top, in different language. But you're saying it's also in different music.

ROB KAPILOW: It's the music that makes the language so witty, just that difference.

It could have been after this leap, all even notes, you're the top. But, instead of square on the beat, you're the top, it's syncopated, not just the top, you're the top, but even you're. You're the top.

And it's that swingy rhythm that tells us what you're the top feels like. So instead of a boring version, you're the top, it's the music that makes it — you're the top. That's what makes it so fantastic.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he was one of these composers who did both music and lyrics.

ROB KAPILOW: He did do both the music and lyrics, and that makes people tend to think that somehow it really matters which comes first.

It's the most frequently asked question of all songwriters. Which comes first, the music and the lyrics?

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course.

ROB KAPILOW: It makes no difference. In a great song…

JEFFREY BROWN: No difference?

ROB KAPILOW: No difference whatsoever.

In a great song, once words and music combine, they become a new, completely interdependent element. Words cease to have a purely literary meaning, and music ceases to have a purely musical meaning. Though it's true, these are enormously sophisticated lyrics, without the music, they would never work, and the last line of this first verse is a perfect example.

I mean, it's everything that people think of when they think of Cole Porter. You have got these three great images. So, what are you? You're a Bendel bonnet. That means a bonnet from that upper-class women's store, Bendel's. You're a Bendel bonnet and a Shakespeare sonnet.

The first thing that makes it great is this syncopation. He goes, you're up, Bendel bonnet. The same thing for Shakespeare sonnet.

COLE PORTER (singing): You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare's sonnet. You're Mickey Mouse.

ROB KAPILOW: So what do we finish with? You're Mickey Mouse, incredibly low-brow, popular in the '30s, introduced in 1928.

And it's that combination of the syncopation and the music underneath that makes these witty, sophisticated lyrics unforgettable.

(singing): You're a Bendel bonnet, a Shakespeare sonnet. You're Mickey Mouse.

And then the piano almost speaks to you.

(singing): Yes, you're Mickey Mouse.

And we're back for another round of great Porter.

JEFFREY BROWN: This goes to what we often talk about, what makes a great song, right?

ROB KAPILOW: Yes. What makes a great song is not the great words and it's not the great music. It's the combination of the two. Words mean nothing by themselves. Music means nothing by themselves. The two reinforce themselves and become a new unit that cannot be understood separately. And in Porter's case, he wrote both and they are both great.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cole Porter.

Rob Kapilow, thanks.

ROB KAPILOW: Thank you.

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