Happy Birthday to Richard Rodgers!

Richard Rodgers at the piano, Richard Rodgers Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Today we remember Richard Rodgers and his incredible contribution to musical theater and popular song on what would be his 110th birthday! Rodgers (1902-1979) wrote more than 900 songs and composed for 43 musicals and left an immeasurable impact on the American songbook, influencing arts from the worlds of pop, classical, jazz, and beyond. Rodgers’ music, whether in collaboration with Hart and Hammerstein, or his independent projects, truly crosses and connects generations of listeners – my grandparents, parents, and I are equally entertained and moved by “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Oklahoma!,” to name only a few of the myriad of classic melodies with which he graced us.

The Music Division is privileged to hold the Richard Rodgers Collection, an archival collection that contains Rodgers’ music manuscripts for most of his works, including sketches and fair copies (final drafts in his hand). I personally had not taken the opportunity to examine Rodgers’ manuscripts until this week, when my colleague took a few moments to point out a few fascinating aspects of the collection. One of the most striking to me is Rodgers’ sketch for the famous “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” from Oklahoma. In the sketch, where the voice would start singing “Oh what a beautiful morning,” you see Rodgers write out the tune in C major following a G-E-B-C-E-G-B flat-A melody, the melody we all know by heart; however, upon careful examination, you’ll notice some erasures that indicate to us that the original tune in his head went, G-E-C-G-E-C-B flat-A – a far less interesting melody!

There have been rumors in the past that Rodgers wrote “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” in 10 or 15 minutes, but this is far from the truth! Rodgers himself wrote to former Chief of the Music Division Harold Spivacke that, “I sweat very little less than a ditch-digger, even though my perspiration is cerebral rather than muscular.” He also commented to musicologist James T. Maher that, “Anyone who thinks that ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ can be done in ten minutes…is displaying a lack of perception that is almost alarming.”

I’m even more invigorated now to explore Rodgers’ manuscripts and see for myself what other fascinating traces of creative process I can find within his sketches. What’s your favorite Richard Rodgers song? Whatever it is, take some time out today to listen to it and think about Rodgers on his big day, as well as his incredible gift to music!

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