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Music in the Air

Lindbergh's historic flight inspired a myriad of musical tributes

The transatlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh in May 1927 was acclaimed around the world as the heroic feat of the era, a symbolic victory over nature and space by human ingenuity and technological progress. A "common man" stepped out of his frail plane to the reception of a Superman. Instantly Lindbergh was a star bigger than any of Hollywood's. Now, as the century and milennium draws to a close, its dramatic impact seems to have been eclipsed by space exploration in general and the moonwalk of Apollo 11 in particular. But in the musical domain, there's no contest. Lindbergh wins hands down.

Within days of the flight, dozens of Tin Pan Alley publishers rushed into print with topical tributes to Lindy -- prompting the illustrious songwriting team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson to take a break from rehearsals of Good News in order to compose the satirical "This Song Is Not about Lindbergh." By then, "Lucky Lindy" was already sweeping the country. L. Wolfe Gilbert and Abel Baer finished their hit-to-be just as news of a safe landing at Le Bourget came over the radio on May 21. That night it was performed to great acclaim in several Manhattan clubs, and Leo Feist printed it over the weekend. It was on sale by Monday, May 23, and on Tuesday it headlined the marquee of the Paramount Theater, where it was featured on the Wurlitzer between showings of the week's movie, Rough House Rosie, starring Clara Bow.

In the two-year period following Lindbergh's flight, the U.S. Copyright Office recorded three hundred applications on Lindbergh songs. But the competition didn't fare as well as "Lucky Lindy." Thirty songs carried the same title, "Spirit of St. Louis." A dozen were just "Lindy," thereby avoiding the spelling problems which afflicted many of the others: Lindberg, Lindburg, Linberg, Linderburg, Linbergh. "Lone Eagle" came in a close third. Among the catchier titles: "Won't You Take Me to Heaven, Please, Lucky Lindy Do," "Like an Angel He Flew into Our Hearts," "Just Like a Butterfly through Sun and Rain," and "He Did It, the Thing that Couldn't Be Done." Lindbergh's tour of the United States after his triumphant return spawned a number of competitors for "Lucky Lindy," including "When Lindy Comes Home" by George M. Cohan, with which Cohan made his radio debut on the eve of New York's welcome-home ceremony.

Tin Pan Alley's interest in Lindbergh had all but faded out by the time Weill and Brecht, still aloft from the phenomenal success of The Threepenny Opera late in 1928, decided to write a radio cantata about Lindbergh's flight for the prestigious contemporary music festival in Baden-Baden the following July. When Weill's other commitments prevented him from composing the entire score, he shared the commission with Paul Hindemith, his chief rival, thereby extending the theme of the festival, "communal music," to the process of composition itself. After the festival, both composers withdrew their contributions, and Weill completed his own setting, which Otto Klemperer conducted at the Berlin Staatsoper in December 1929. In April 1931 the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski performed the American premiere in a translation by George Antheil, and it was broadcast nationwide. Soon after its publication by Universal Edition in 1930, Weill had sent Lindbergh a copy of the piano-vocal score, inscribed "Dedicated to Charles Lindbergh with great admiration by Kurt Weill." But, as one might expect, Weill and Brecht's cantata is not a straightforward celebratory homage to Lindbergh, but rather a historicized, strangely "distanced" commentary on the significance of the event, with little audible evidence of the hero's American origins.

--copyright Kim Kowalke 1999


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