Cole Porter’s Legacy

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


1. INTRODUCTION - Why Cole!?

When glancing at the life and work of American composer and society figure Cole Porter (1891-1964), one soon comes to the conclusion that, nearly 50 years post mortem, the man's legacy and memory are not in bad shape.
However, more in-depth research shows that things are not entirely rosy. Of the seven hundred songs of which both music and text - both by Porter - are still available, the 35 ones that are recorded are invariably the same.

The question arises whether this has come about due to a 'natural' logical selection. Or is it wrong to leave Porter's legacy hanging out to dry while focusing solely on the greatest hits?
The purpose of this study is to determine what the non-standard songs have to offer. In other words: to achieve a solid exploration of the alternative material.

A second overarching question is whether the last has been said about Cole Porter as a highly individual artist. Is it possible to outline a nuanced picture of the composer-lyricist? Who was Cole Porter? There is an overwhelming feeling that the biographies that have appeared to date are subject to significant change.


This PhD in the arts has attempted to combine research techniques from the world of classical music with elements from the domain of popular culture, in which modern technologies are perhaps more common.
The culture of books and theses, which represents an indispensable vertical depth, is combined with the horizontal visual culture, which is lighter and more frivolous. The premise is that both techniques are highly compatibly and that they support each other.

2.1. Essay - Cole Porter European

The gauge of a thesis and thorough research were pursued in the article 'Cole Porter European'. It elaborately discusses the extremely colourful and wide-ranging world in which Porter resided during his stay in Europe, which lasted nearly two decades. This academic article also has an artistic component. The songs that sketch an impression of Porter's environment are added to a USB drive with concert recordings.

2.2 Documentary - Looking for Cole

The touch of visual culture that supports this academic text is realised through the documentary 'Looking for Cole'. This is the pictorial examination of an often Quixotesque quest for the essence of Porter's music and important biographical elements that shaped his life. The documentary takes the viewer to places of importance in Porter's life. It also features a continuous dialogue with people, musicians and theorists who have also been moved by Porter. Porter's music is present as well, of course, through recordings of various concerts.

2.3. Performances on website -

The primary part of this research is unquestionably the art itself: the songs of Cole Porter, for which he wrote both the text and the music.
The substantial results of this research can be found online: the performances of two hundred and eighty Cole Porter songs, brought at thirteen recitals at 'Rataplan vzw'. It is first and foremost the portrayal (through video and audio) of naked performances (vocals: Wilfried Van den Brande, piano: Dirk Baert) of the work of the composer-lyricist. The chronology adheres to that of the 'Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter' published by Robert Kimball. The performances are true to the sheet music (piano/vocal) written by Porter and as such have a clear didactic purpose.

2.4. Comments accompanying the performances
The texts accompanying the songs during the recitals are included in the Annex. These are notes that were recited to the audience in order to provide very specific information and to create a clear context.

2.5. CD recording - When Love Comes to Call

The new CD recording that is presented with this PhD is the final culmination of an eight year course of trial and error in which what feels like the right interpretation of Porter's music was extensively explored, insofar as this is possible. In close consultation with Peter Hertmans and Jos Machtel, a confrontation between two worlds took place: that of a classically trained singer and that of two veteran jazz musicians.


From World War I until the late 1920s, Porter lived primarily in Europe. There he gained a perspective, similar in many ways to that of the 'lost generation' of literary exiles, that set him apart from the other great creators of American musical theater. His perspective was shaped during his time in Europe between the late 1910s and the early '30s. The diverse communities and interesting people that he encountered while exploring every corner of the continent have left their mark on a multitude of splendid songs.

3.1. A Jet-Set Environment
3.2. The High Brow Classical Music Scene
3.3. An Environment Of Popular Music And Jazz
3.4. On The Fringes Of Society

Porter's art is defined as 'Different'. Both his music and lyrics are nonconformist. His music is very classically inspired but also lends an ear to jazz and popular influences. No other lyricist of his day sounded as worldly as Porter, as naughty, as vivacious. His art is stylized autobiography.
Cole Porter was the composer and lyricist of some of the most outstanding songs of the 20th century, songs that explored and expressed the 'condition humaine' in the best tradition of the 19th-century Lied.


The result of my research is the ascertainment that Cole Porter has proven to be a man of paradoxes.

4.1. A hunger for attention, but 'at an arm's length': While Cole Porter desired the attention of the whole wide world, he never allowed anyone to jeopardize his peace of mind.
4.2. Tragic and humorous: Cole Porter possessed to a singular degree the art of expressing depth through apparent frivolity. The effervescent wit and technical bravura of his songs are matched by their unguarded revelation of feeling.
4.3. .'Amour lointaine' vs. scabrous explicitness: Cole's concept of love is often courtly,
but his texts can be quite scabrous as well.
4.4. Tragic and yet 'appetitive': Love is so absolute that it swallows one's identity. While most of the undercurrent of his work has a tragic feel to it, the surface displays itself as utterly optimistic and humorous.
4.5. A subversive aristocrat: Cole Porter is a soft revolutionary; an ultra-progressive man with some very conservative traits.
4.6. Quantity and quality: Porter's songs are the ideal crossing of quality - high class content - and quantity: he reached, and continues to reach, a vast audience with them.
4.7. Porter, life artist: Hedonist and Stoic. The Hedonist who enjoys the virtues of life turns into a Stoic when he is working, hours a day
4.8. Chronicler of his era, but still very relevant today: though the references have dated the songs are still as alive and meaningful as in the time they were written. Both the biography and the art of Porter are an extraordinary prism through which to view the history of the twentieth century. His songs allowed him to transcend life's hardships, perhaps this may count for both the performer and audience as well.


Half the repertoire has now been charted, so a lot of work remains to be done. would eventually become:
* an interactive forum in which all knowledge about the composer is shared, an excellent guide and starting point for the aspiring researcher
* the reference site on which Porter's 'difficult' music is unveiled with a didactic purpose for a popular audience
* an example of cross-media use of media, in which the depth of text and the horizontal width of image reinforce one another
Date of Award17 Mar 2014
Original languageDutch
SupervisorPiet Van de Craen (Promotor) & Peter Swinnen (Co-promotor)


  • music performance
  • music analysis

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