Profile of a Composer: Oscar Hammerstein II

Oscar Hammerstein II was the other half of the duo that brought The Sound of Music to life.  His lyrics beautifully matched the melodies of Richard Rodgers.

Oscar Hammerstein II
Oscar Hammerstein II

Hammerstein was born on July 12, 1895, in New York City.  His grandfather was the theatre producer of the early 20th Century, Oscar Hammerstein I.

The longing to work on theatre hit him early, although his father {also a theatre producer} was opposed to him making a career in the world of vaudeville and theatre.

After his father’s death, while he was a student at Columbia University, Hammerstein participated in his first play.

In 1917, he married Myra Finn. The couple would have two children, Alice and William.


Kern and Hammerstein
Kern and Hammerstein

He left law school to pursue his love of theatre and teamed with a number of composers.  He was an apprentice to Otto Harbach.

He found great success with Jerome Kern.  In 1927, their biggest hit, Show Boat, changed the way musicals were written, produced and performed.  Show Boat was a huge hit, incorporating the music into the story, and is still revived today.

The duo had other hits including, Sweet Adeline, Music in the Air and The Desert Song.

Kern began to turn towards filmmaking and the partnership with Hammerstein slowly fizzled.

In 1929, Hammerstein divorced his wife and married his second wife, Dorothy Blanchard Jacobson.  The couple would have a son, James.  Dorothy also had two children from a previous marriage.

When Richard Rodgers approached Hammerstein to work on the adaptation of Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs’ the new partnership of Rodgers and Hammerstein formed.  {Both of their former partners declined this project}.   This became their first hit, Oklahoma!Rodgers and Hammerstein 2

The duo worked together until Hammerstein’s death.  The last song he wrote was Edelweiss for The Sound of Music.

In his later years, Hammerstein was a mentor to a young Stephen Sondheim.

Hammerstein died on August 23, 1960 of stomach cancer at his home in Pennsylvania.

Hammerstein is considered a great book writer, making the story central to the musical.  He stated in later years he much preferred working on Broadway and at his own pace, than the fast pace of Hollywood.

He is said to have contributed the lyrics to more than 850 songs.  He won two Oscars and eight Tony awards for his work.

Many of his songs remain in the American psyche.