Jimmy Van Heusen: The Songwriter as Composer

David Carson Berry

Jimmy Van Heusen (1913-90) played a considerable role in the history and development of popular song in the U.S., attaining great critical and commercial success with both film and non-film songs, many of which have become standards. From a musical perspective, what is most distinctive about his songs are their ingenious compositional designs, which embody the traits of thoughtfully coordinated art songs. For example, motives are presented in both large-scale, embellished forms and in compact versions; inventive and unconventional formal structures include modeling one section on a previous one through transposition and/or recombination of melodic cells; and Van Heusen's expressive harmonic vocabulary and text settings are related in that striking intervallic combinations are reserved for highlighting titular or otherwise important words. In short, his music typically has a carefully coordinated structure underpinning an engagingly simple surface; his songs embody a concealed compositional sophistication that is as remarkable as it is often overlooked. My paper raises awareness of this fact by examining several songs, thereby increasing our understanding of the structure and syntax of these musical artworks.


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