It is perhaps the most renowned and iconic song of the 20th century and is often synonymous with the Jewish experience of WWII. Written in 1939 with a strong set of lyrics about escaping beyond the rainbow to a land “where the clouds are far behind,” the song’s appeal continues to this day and has captured the hearts of many people along the way.
One only has to look to Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s fabled rendition on the tenor ukulele, which currently has over one billion views on YouTube. The Austrian-born American composer Walter Aptowitzer was so enraptured by the song’s beauty that he took on Harold Arlen’s surname, becoming Walter “Arlen” upon arrival into the U.S.
Yet, the reality of the story behind the music is more complicated. Although, in a broader sense, the world was deeply troubled by the events unfolding under Nazi rule in Europe, Harold Arlen may have been more pre-occupied with lightening up the rhythm in such a way that it could be best sung by a young, teenage girl, while ensuring that Harburg’s lyrics fall in just the right place. That young girl happened to be Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz, who was only 16 at the time and immediately shot to stardom as a result of the movie’s success.
The composer of the music, Harold Arlen, was the son of Lithuanian-Jewish refugees. His father Samuel was the well-respected cantor of Pine Street Synagogue in Buffalo, NY, who could instantly improvise melodies to any text. In doing so, he gave his son perhaps the most prized musical education of his most formative years.
We continuously yearn to know what was on a composer’s mind when they wrote their most inspired works and the reality is rarely consistent with our expectations. For example, G.F. Handel had noticed a teardrop fall onto his score as he had penned the famous Messiah, while Mozart often wrote his operas at the very last minute, sometimes just hours before a performance.
Great music like great interpretations can happen at a moment’s notice and are rarely accompanied by an underlying explanation. Let’s simply enjoy “Over The Rainbow” for what it is – one truly great tune!