By STEPHEN HOLDEN, New York Times
Hugh Martin, the composer, lyricist, arranger and pianist best known for creating the Judy Garland standards "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song," died on Friday at his home in Encinitas, Calif. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by his niece Suzanne Hanners.
The three songs with which he is most identified all belonged to the score of the 1944 MGM musical "Meet Me in St. Louis." Although Mr. Martin shared songwriting credit with his longtime collaborator, Ralph Blane, who died in 1995, Mr. Martin insisted in his autobiography, "Hugh Martin: The Boy Next Door" (2010), that he had written all three songs by himself. Mr. Martin and Mr. Blane, who met as cast members in the 1937 Broadway revue "Hooray for What?," both wrote words and music, usually independently of each other, before combining their efforts, having agreed to share credit on everything.
Garland initially refused to sing the holiday ballad, which began, "Have yourself a merry little Christmas/It may be your last," until that second line was softened to "Let your heart be light." "They'll think I'm a monster to that little Margaret O'Brien," he recalled her protesting.
"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is one of a triumvirate of achingly wistful seasonal ballads from World War II (the others are "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas") to have transcended their era. In his book "American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950" the composer Alec Wilder described it as "the most honest and genuine of all the attempts to wish one well musically in a season which otherwise has come to be symbolized by guilt and the dollar sign."
Mr. Martin wrote the music and lyrics for five Broadway musicals: "Best Foot Forward" (1941, with Mr. Blane), "Look Ma, I'm Dancin'!" (1948), "Make a Wish" (1951). "High Spirits" (1964, on which he collaborated with Timothy Gray on book, music and lyrics) and the 1989 stage version of "Meet Me in St. Louis," for which he wrote new songs.
Besides "Meet Me in St. Louis" his film credits include the movie version of "Best Foot Forward" (1943), "Abbott and Costello in Hollywood" (1945), "Athena" (1954), "The Girl Rush" (1955) and "The Girl Most Likely" (1958), all with Mr. Blane. On his own he wrote the songs for a 1958 television musical, "Hans Brinker."
Born in Birmingham, Ala., on Aug. 11, 1914, Hugh Martin studied music at Birmingham Southern College. He intended to be a classical musician until he discovered George Gershwin.
" `Rhapsody in Blue' changed my life," he recalled in a conversation with the singer and pianist Michael Feinstein in the liner notes for their 1995 album, "The Hugh Martin Songbook."
"It was Gershwin and Kern and Arlen," he said. Those three were my top-echelon people."
A letter he wrote to Richard Rodgers about vocal arrangements on Broadway earned him an invitation to arrange "Sing for Your Supper" for the Rodgers and Hart show "The Boys From Syracuse" in the style of the Boswell Sisters, and he began a distinguished career as a Broadway and nightclub arranger.
While working with Garland on "A Star Is Born," he left the picture after a dispute about how to sing "The Man That Got Away," which he didn't want her to belt. As the musical director of "Sugar Babies" years later, he faced a similar conflict about interpretation with Ann Miller.
His score for a movie short about the primitive artist Grandma Moses, orchestrated by Mr. Wilder, became the semiclassical "New England Suite."
In his autobiography Mr. Martin wrote of his onetime amphetamine addiction, from which he recovered. In his later years he became a Seventh-Day Adventist and an accompanist for the gospel singer Del Delker, who recorded a religiously slanted version of his holiday standard: "Have Yourself a Blessed Little Christmas."
Mr. Martin is survived by a brother, Gordon, of Birmingham.
Sunday's MUSIC OF THE STARS will honor Hugh Martin and his works.