Friday, November 18, 2005

Oscar Hammerstein vs. Rhyme

My previous post mentioned the Rodgers and Hammerstein song "Isn't it Kind of Fun." One arcane thing I didn't mention is that Hammerstein's lyric for that song was an early example of a technique that he came to favor in his songwriting, namely, using as few rhymes as possible and not rhyming lines that would normally be rhymed. The typical Hammerstein lyric from about 1945 onwards tends to consist of a lot of unrhymed words placed on the ends of musical phrases, with only a token rhyme or two at the very end of a section. Example:

Maybe you'll never be
The love of my life,
Maybe I'm not the boy of your dreams.
But isn't it kind of fun
To look in each other's eyes,
Swapping romantic gleams?
("Isn't it Kind of Fun")

It takes all kinds of people
To make up a world,
All kinds of people and things.
They crawl on the earth,
They swim in the sea,
And they fly through the sky on wings.
("All Kinds of People," Pipe Dream)

And of course, more famous under-rhymed songs like:

Some enchanted evening,
When you find your true love,
When you feel her call you
Across a crowded room,
Then fly to her side
And make her your own,
Or all through your life
You may dream all alone.

Hammerstein's early lyrics often had a lot of rhymes, but he never felt completely comfortable with lots of rhyming, and felt that too many rhymes were distracting. Some of his early lyrics, like "Ol' Man River," put this theory into practice by using as few rhymes as possible, but it was in his work with Rodgers, writing the lyrics before the music and therefore essentially free to structure a lyric any way he wanted, that he started to show a really strong preference for the sparsely-rhymed lyric.

Sometimes he'd make up for the lack of rhyme by using "balance" words, repeating the same word twice instead of rhyming it. Sometimes he'd balance an under-rhymed lyric by taking a whole phrase and repeating it twice:

A fellow needs a girl
To sit by his side
At the end of a weary day,
To sit by his side
And listen to him talk
And agree with the things he'll say.

A fellow needs a girl
To hold in his arms
When the rest of the world goes wrong,
To hold in his arms
And know that she believes
That her fellow is wise and strong.

A related strategy for the lyricist who doesn't want to write a lot of rhymes is to match similar vowel sounds or consonants at the ends of lines, so there's a slight "chime" without anything that really sounds like an attempted rhyme:

Shall we still be together
With our arms around each other,
And will you be my new romance?
On the clear understanding
That this kind of thing can happen,
Shall we dance? Shall we dance? Shall we dance?

Hammerstein's very sparse use of rhyme, along with his use of those self-conscious repetition and balance techniques, plus his oddly formal language ("I am starry-eyed and vaguely discontented"), gives his lyrics a rather stilted quality, almost as if he thinks he's writing poetry rather than theatre lyrics. Since Hammerstein thought of himself as a poet, and reportedly sometimes considered giving up theatre writing for poetry, that's not surprising.

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