Gershwin at 100
One hundred years after his birth, George Gershwin is the most widely remembered of the songwriters who dominated American popular music between the end of World War I and the rise of rock-and-roll. Some three dozen of his 700-odd songs, most of them written in collaboration with his older brother Ira, continue to be performed regularly, and his name remains a potent symbol of an era and a musical style.
But Gershwin’s special place in American popular culture is not due solely, or even primarily, to his songs. Instead, he is remembered above all for having been, in the words of Irving Berlin, “the only songwriter I know who became a composer.” In 1924, at the age of twenty-five, he wrote Rhapsody in Blue, a work for piano and jazz band that would become the most frequently performed piece of concert music by an American; he would go on to compose a tone poem, an overture, a full-length opera, and three more works for piano and orchestra prior to his untimely death in 1937 at the age of thirty-eight.
As Berlin’s remark suggests, Gershwin was unique in his attempt to compose “classical” music while simultaneously writing scores for Broadway and Hollywood. This was what first brought him to the attention of the general public, and it also explains why he is now better known than such gifted contemporaries as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers. Unlike them, he longed to do something far more ambitious than writing popular songs; he sought in his concert works to create, in his own words, “a musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.”
Ambition is the father of controversy, and Gershwin has long been the subject of rancorous debate. Many classical composers, including Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson, dismissed his concert works as unimportant, though others, most notably Maurice Ravel and Arnold Schoenberg, took them very seriously indeed. Some of the criticism directed at Gershwin’s music during his lifetime betrayed anti-Semitic and nativist sentiment. Conversely, many black musicians have claimed that his work is entirely derivative of jazz, sometimes going so far as to accuse him of actual plagiarism.
While such controversies have done nothing to diminish Gershwin’s popularity, they may have slowed his acceptance as a legitimate subject of research. No scholarly biography has yet been written (in part because Gershwin’s estate has long been reluctant to cooperate with independent scholars), and it is only in recent years that musicologists have begun to produce serious studies of his work.1
These studies, whatever effect they may have or fail to have on the disputes provoked by Gershwin’s concert music, do at least make the listener’s task easier. For Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess cannot be truly experienced until they are stripped of the obscuring camouflage of unstylish performances and ideology-driven criticism and allowed to stand on their own. To approach Gershwin’s music in this historically aware way is the first step toward taking it—and him—seriously.
George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershvin in Brooklyn on September 26, 1898. He was the second son of Moshe Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, who emigrated from czarist Russia to the United States in the 1890’s. As Ira Gershwin would unsentimentally recall:
Most of our early childhood was spent on the Lower East Side of Manhattan where my father engaged in various activities: restaurants, Russian and Turkish baths, bakeries, a cigar store and pool parlor. . . . When my father sold a business and started another we would inevitably move to a new neighborhood. George and I once counted over 25 flats and apartments we. remembered having lived in during those days.
Gershwin did not begin studying piano until the comparatively late age of twelve, but his progress thereafter was rapid. At fifteen, he dropped out of high school to become a Tin Pan Alley “song plugger,” a pianist who demonstrated new songs for performers. He cut his first player-piano rolls in 1915, and four years later wrote La La Lucille, the first of two dozen Broadway scores. Meanwhile, he intermittently continued to study harmony and orchestration with Edward Kilenyi and Rubin Goldmark, the latter of whom was Aaron Copland’s first composition teacher.
Gershwin soon established himself as one of the outstanding musical-comedy composers of the day. His theater songs were superbly crafted miniatures whose clear-cut, beautifully balanced melodic lines, elegant harmonies, and ebullient spirits proved irresistible to singers and audiences alike; they were set to Ira Gershwin’s witty lyrics, technically no less accomplished though tending to the emotionally shallow. (Interestingly, Ira’s most deeply felt lyric, for Harold Arlen’s “The Man That Got Away,” was written long after his brother’s death.)
But George’s interests, unlike those of his brother, extended far beyond the field of show music. He composed an unsuccessful one-act “jazz opera,” Blue Monday, in 1922. Two years later, he was the piano soloist for the premiere of his Rhapsody in Blue, a work commissioned by the bandleader Paul Whiteman as part of a program of “symphonic jazz” called “An Experiment in Modern Music.” Despite mixed reviews, the piece was an immediate popular success, and Gershwin and Whiteman subsequently recorded an abridged version for Victor that received wide circulation.2 From then on, he divided his time between popular and classical music, with the latter occupying a steadily growing share of his attention.
Gershwin’s creative energy was as abundant as his oft-remarked vanity. (“Tell me, George,” the pianist Oscar Levant ribbed him, “if you had it to do all over again—would you still fall in love with yourself?”) In addition to continuing his studies with modernist composers like Wallingford Riegger and Henry Cowell, he also taught himself to paint, eventually becoming an accomplished amateur portraitist and acquiring a notable collection of works by such contemporary artists as Picasso, Derain, and Rouault.
Those who knew him best agreed that Gershwin’s personality was more complex—and troubled—than was generally recognized. Incapable of committing himself to a long-term romantic relationship, he had unsatisfactory affairs with the song-writer Kay Swift, the actresses Simone Simon and Paulette Goddard, and others. A lifelong victim of what he called “composer’s stomach,” he eventually became a patient of the controversial psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg.
In 1935, Gershwin completed Porgy and Bess, his first and only opera, a commercial failure that lost $70,000—nearly $850,000 in 1997 dollars. (A subsequent tour brought Gershwin $10,000 in royalties, less than he had spent on copyists’ fees.) To recoup their losses, he and Ira moved to Los Angeles, where they wrote the scores for two Fred Astaire films, Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress. But he found the relentlessly commercial atmosphere of Hollywood incompatible with his increasingly serious musical interests. As he told his sister Frankie:
I don’t feel I’ve scratched the surface. I’m out here to make enough money with movies so I don’t have to think of money any more. Because I just want to work on American music: symphonies, chamber music, opera. This is what I really want to do.
In 1937, Gershwin began to experience severe headaches and other debilitating symptoms that his analyst assumed to be psychosomatic. Given his deepening depression, the assumption was understandable. “I am thirty-eight, famous, and rich, but profoundly unhappy,” he had recently told a friend. But in fact he was suffering from a fulminating brain tumor. An emergency operation was finally done after he lapsed into a coma, but he never regained consciousness, dying the day after surgery.
Historically speaking, Gershwin’s significance as a songwriter lies in his use of jazz-derived techniques. His melodies are full of flattened thirds and sevenths—known in jazz as “blue” notes—and the springy syncopations he picked up from the “stride” pianists of Harlem. But jazz was by no means the only idiom that influenced Gershwin. “Blue” melodic inflections are also to be found in the Yiddish-theater music he listened to as a boy, while his classical training gave him a frame of reference far wider than that of a self-taught tunesmith like Irving Berlin. It was thus a logical development for him to compose longer instrumental pieces in which his varied influences could be integrated into a coherent style.
Rhapsody in Blue, the first of these works, was scored by Ferde Grofé for Paul Whiteman’s 23-piece dance band, in which saxophones and banjo figured prominently. The first recording, made eight months after the premiere, still startles listeners—the instrumental colors are brash to the point of crudity—and it is not hard to imagine the galvanizing effect such sonorities must have had on the work’s earliest audiences. For all the freshness of Grofé’s scoring, it was Gershwin’s indelible melodies and brilliantly effective writing for solo piano that made Rhapsody in Blue more than just a short-lived curiosity.
Many critics have disparaged Rhapsody in Blue as a sanitized piece of pseudo-jazz, interesting only to the extent that it borrows from more authentic musical sources. But they overlook the fact that Gershwin composed Rhapsody at a time when jazz itself was still comparatively young. Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton were then all but unknown outside New Orleans and Chicago, while Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke had yet to make their first recordings.
To be sure, Gershwin had already learned much from jazz. But his music was at least as influential on later jazz musicians, black and white alike, as it was influenced by early ones. In any case, Rhapsody in Blue, like his other conceit works, is not jazz per se but a highly personal stylistic amalgam that owes as much to Tchaikowsky and Liszt—not to mention Berlin, Kern, and the novelty pianist Zez Confrey—as it does to jazz and the blues.
The chief weakness of Rhapsody in Blue is not that it is derivative but that it is made up of good tunes that, ornamented and juxtaposed with considerable skill, are never developed symphonically. It is, in short, much the sort of extended piece one would expect from a talented but inexperienced young songwriter, and had it been Gershwin’s sole attempt at an extended instrumental work, Aaron Copland would have been right to dismiss him as merely “a good Broadway composer.”
Instead, Gershwin chose to grapple systematically with the challenge of large-scale form, and by the end of 1925 he had composed and orchestrated a three-movement piano concerto and appeared as soloist in the first performance, accompanied by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Orchestra.3 The Concerto in F is by no means a perfect piece, but it represents a quantum leap in formal command on Gershwin’s part, one accomplished without losing any of the jazzy vitality of Rhapsody in Blue.
An even more impressive grasp of musical form can be heard in the tone poem An American in Paris (1928). Though Gershwin would produce three more conceit pieces—the Second Rhapsody (1931), the Cuban Overture (1932), and the I Got Rhythm Variations (1934)—none is nearly so memorable as An American in Paris, in which classical music, jazz, and American popular song are decisively fused into a unified, strongly individual style. Here, as in the Concerto in F, most of the alleged “defects” of Gershwin’s scoring are actually the result of insensitive performances by over-large orchestras. When Gershwin’s original orchestrations are played in a straightforward, unfussy manner by a medium-sized ensemble, the clarity of his sonorous image becomes immediately apparent.4
By the early 30’s, Gershwin had acquired a knowledge of the classical repertoire more extensive than that of any other popular musician of his time—he was especially interested in the music of Berg and Stravinsky—and was ready at last to satisfy his longstanding desire to write an opera. In 1929, he had signed a contract with the Metropolitan Opera to compose a stage work based on S. Ansky’s classic Yiddish play The Dybbuk. But he later abandoned the project, and the Met, in favor of a musical version of a once-popular novel by DuBose Heyward about life on Catfish Row, the black ghetto of Charleston, South Carolina.
A flop by Broadway standards when produced by the Theater Guild in 1935, Porgy and Bess is now widely regarded as Gershwin’s masterpiece. The opera’s initial lack of success, it is now clear, had less to do with its qualities as music than with the unfortunate circumstances of its premiere.
A complete performance of Porgy runs for well over three hours, not counting intermissions. (Aida, by contrast, is an hour shorter.) By opting for a Broadway production, Gershwin left himself no choice but to cut the score by about a quarter, a compromise that left no one satisfied. Broadway audiences found the results dull and depressing, while critics, unaware of the structural damage done by the cuts, regarded Porgy as an overblown musical comedy ineptly disguised as an opera. The composer-critic Virgil Thomson, for instance, derided it as the work of a bumptious naïf:
His lack of understanding of all the major problems of form, of continuity, and of serious or direct musical expression is not surprising in view of the impurity of is musical sources and his frank acceptance of the same. . . . The material is straight from the melting pot. At best it is a piquant but highly unsavory stir-ring-up together of Israel, Africa, and the Gaelic Isles. . . . I do not like fake folklore, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor bittersweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor gefilte-fish orchestration.
Thomson’s anti-Semitic innuendos echoed the view of earlier American composers who had likewise found Gershwin’s “melting-pot” approach incompatible with the maintenance of Anglo-Saxon musical standards. But they also divert attention from the perhaps more significant fact that Thomson plainly resented Gershwin’s relative success.
In 1934, Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, featuring an all-black cast and conducted by Alexander Smallens, had a brief run on Broadway and scored a succès d’estime among the intellectuals. The following year, Porgy and Bess, also featuring an all-black cast and also conducted by Smallens, ran for 124 performances, a disastrously short run by the rigidly commercial standards of Broadway but an unprecedented triumph for a full-length opera by an American composer. Moreover, Porgy’s principal numbers were promptly recorded by famous singers and quickly became hits, while Four Saints went unrecorded until 1947 (and did not receive its New York opera-house premiere until 1996).
Duke Ellington, another American composer who sought without success to write for the stage, made similarly derogatory remarks about Porgy and Bess:
It was taken from some of the best and a few of the worst. Gershwin surely didn’t discriminate: he borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’s kazoo band. . . . The first thing that gives it away is that it does not use the Negro musical idiom. It was not the music of Catfish Row or any other kind of Negroes. . . . There was a crap game such as no one has ever seen or heard. It might have been opera, but it wasn’t a crap game. The music went one way and the action another.
Other black musicians have similarly claimed that Porgy and Bess is inauthentic in its use of black idiom. But surely the “authenticity” of Gershwin’s score is no longer a meaningful issue: what matters is the fact that it is compelling, whatever the means by which it works its compulsion on the listener. In Ellington’s case, moreover, the animus was no doubt motivated in part by his own lifelong inability to master the organically larger musical forms that Gershwin had learned to use so skillfully.5
A more generous appraisal of Gershwin’s abilities was offered after his death by his friend Arnold Schoenberg: “It seems to me beyond doubt that Gershwin was an innovator. . . . [H]e expressed musical ideas; and they were new—as is the way in which he expressed them.” No less enthusiastic was a letter sent by Maurice Ravel in 1928 to Nadia Boulanger, the great French composition teacher whose pupils included Copland and Thomson:
There is a musician here endowed with the most brilliant, most enchanting, and perhaps the most profound talent, George Gershwin. His worldwide success no longer satisfies him, for he is aiming higher. He knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent. Would you have the courage, which I wouldn’t dare have, to undertake this awesome responsibility?
Gershwin, of course, never studied with Schoenberg or Boulanger, and there is no imagining what he might have done had he committed himself fully to classical music, much less lived to a normal age. Yet it is precisely because what he did accomplish was so extraordinary that this unanswerable question continues to tantalize us.
Rhapsody in Blue is a fifteen-minute-long assemblage of hummable tunes stitched together largely in ignorance of the rules of musical form and scored by another hand. A mere eleven years later, Gershwin completed a three-act opera (the vocal score is 559 pages long), every bar of which he orchestrated himself: a work of considerable dramatic subtlety whose “hit tunes” are developed with the sophistication of a far more experienced operatic composer. No other American songwriter of the 30’s—and no jazz musician, not even Ellington—could have composed Porgy and Bess, or anything remotely like it.
For this reason, it may be more appropriate to compare Gershwin not with his fellow songwriters, or even with Ellington, but with a composer like Copland or Samuel Barber. Here, he clearly comes up short, as can readily be heard by placing An American in Paris side by side with, say, Copland’s Appalachian Spring or the Barber Piano Sonata, two acknowledged masterpieces of American modernism that plumb expressive depths Gershwin never came close to sounding. Still, given the small size of his classical output and the cruelly short span of his career—at thirty-eight, the age Gershwin died, Copland had only just begun to write the more accessible middle-period works that made him famous—such comparisons are necessarily problematic.
Perhaps it is enough, then, to say that in addition to being one of the indisputably great popular songwriters of the century, Gershwin left behind three of the most effective concert scores ever written by an American composer, as well as the only American opera yet to have entered the international repertory. This achievement is quite sufficient to commend him to posterity—and it is a particularly noteworthy one just at the present moment. At a time when e pluribus unum has increasingly come to be viewed not as a credo but as an insult, and when one’s ethnic origin is taken as the sole measure of artistic authenticity, it is salutary to reflect on the life of a genius who proved time and again that art knows no borders. Born into an unlettered, uncultured, lower-middle-class immigrant family, George Gershwin became an internationally celebrated composer who made the whole world of music his own. Nothing could be more American.
Gershwin on CD: A Centenary Discography
Ever since the premiere in 1924 of Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin’s music has been recorded and re-recorded by countless classical and popular musicians. Here are some of the best performances now available:
The Composer Plays
Gershwin’s own piano playing—crisp, unmannered, and utterly direct—can be heard on George Gershwin Plays George Gershwin, which contains all of his commercial recordings, including the two abridged versions of Rhapsody in Blue he performed with the Paul White-man Orchestra in 1924 and 1927, both of which use Ferde Grofé’s original jazz-band orchestration; a brisk 1928 rendition of his Three Preludes; and a group of recordings from 1926 and 1928 in which he plays solo piano versions of eleven songs and accompanies Fred and Adele Astaire on four others. Also included is Nat Shilkret’s 1929 premiere of An American in Paris, a stylish interpretation full of vivid period flavor (Pearl GEMM CDS 9483, two CD’s).
The pianist Oscar Levant, Gershwin’s close friend and trusted interpreter, recorded Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, the Second Rhapsody, and the I Got Rhythm Variations; these performances, sometimes heavy-handed but otherwise idiomatic, are collected on Levant Plays Gershwin. Rhapsody in Blue is heard here in Grofé’s 1942 large-orchestra version, the other works in Gershwin’s original, unretouched orchestrations (CBS MK 42514).
Although few European-born conductors have given convincing performances of Gershwin’s concert music, Arturo Toscanini proved a welcome exception to the rule in his 1945 recording with the NBC Symphony of An American in Paris, a wonderfully vital interpretation containing none of the exaggeratedly “jazzy” mannerisms of such later conductors as Leonard Bernstein (RCA 09026-60307-2).
Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony have given us excellent performances of An American in Paris, Cuban Overture, Catfish Row (Gershwin’s own orchestral suite from Porgy and Bess), and Promenade, a witty instrumental entr’acte composed for the soundtrack of Shall We Dance (Angel CDD 64084).
The pianist-composer William Bolcom can be heard in a first-rate performance of George Gershwin’s Song-Book, a folio of eighteen songs arranged by the composer for solo piano in 1932, together with the rest of Gershwin’s solo piano music; the CD version of this album also contains engaging versions of ten Gershwin standards sung by the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris with Bolcom at the piano (Elektra Nonesuch 9 79151-2).
The complete scores of Of Thee I Sing (1931) and Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933) were recorded in 1987 by Michael Tilson Thomas, the New York Choral Artists, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and a cast of experienced theater singers (CBS M2K 42522, two CD’s). Elektra Nonesuch is currently putting out Gershwin’s other Broadway scores in meticulously restored editions based on surviving manuscript materials and prepared in cooperation with the Gershwin estate; the series to date includes Oh, Kay!, 1926 (Elektra Nonesuch 9 79361-2); Strike Up the Band, 1927, rev. 1930 (9 79273-2, two CD’s); and Girl Crazy, 1930 (9 79250-2).
Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, who created the roles of Porgy and Bess, recorded highlights from the score in 1940, accompanied by a studio orchestra under Alexander Smallens (Decca MCAD-10520). Leontyne Price and William War-field, the stars of the 1952 revival that established Porgy and Bess as a viable stage work, recorded extended excerpts in 1963, superbly accompanied by a studio chorus and orchestra conducted by Skitch Henderson (RCA 5234-2-RG). The best complete recording of Porgy and Bess was made by Simon Rattle, the London Philharmonic, and the cast and chorus of the 1986 Glyndebourne Opera production. Rattle’s generally fine conducting is marred by occasional touches of Bernsteinlike overemphasis, but the singing and orchestral playing are of the highest quality throughout (EMI CDCC 49568, three CD’s).
Of the many jazz interpretations of Porgy and Bess on disk, the most interesting is the version arranged for jazz orchestra by Gil Evans and featuring the trumpeter Miles Davis (Columbia CK-65141, 1958).
The George and Ira Gershwin Song-book, a collection of 53 songs recorded in 1959 by Ella Fitzgerald and a studio orchestra led by the arranger Nelson Riddle, has remained continuously in print since its initial release (Verve 825 024-2YH3, three CD’s). In addition to this much-admired album, here are noteworthy interpretations of ten Gershwin standards:
“Embraceable You”—The King Cole Trio (Nat “King” Cole, 1943-1944, Classics 804, 1943).
“How Long Has This Been Going On?”—Louis Armstrong, accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Trio (Let’s Do It: Best of the Verve Years, Verve 315 529 017-2, two CD’s, 1957).
“I Loves You, Porgy”—Bill Evans (Bill Evans at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Verve 314 539 758-2, 1968).
“Isn’t It a Pity?”—Shirley Horn, arranged by Johnny Mandel (Here’s to Life, Verve 314 511 879-2, 1991).
“I’ve Got a Crush on You”—Frank Sinatra, arranged by Axel Stordahl and featuring Bobby Hackett on cornet (Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra, Columbia CK 64852, 1947).
“Liza”—Art Tatum (Art Tatum: The Quintessence, Fremeaux & Associés FA 217, two CD’s, 1934).
“The Man I Love”—Coleman Hawkins’s Swing Four (Coleman Hawkins, 1943-1944, Classics 807, 1943).
“Nice Work If You Can Get It”—Mel Tormé, arranged by Marty Paich (Mel Tormé Sings Fred Astaire, Bethelehem BR-5003/BCP-6013, 1956).
“They All Laughed”—Fred Astaire, featuring Johnny Green on piano (Let’s Face the Music and Dance, ASV CD AJA 5123, 1937).
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”—Tony Bennett, featuring Ralph Sharon on piano (Steppin’ Out, Columbia CK 57424, 1993).
1 The outstanding critical work to date is David Schiff’s recently published Gershwin: “Rhapsody in Blue,” a monograph in the Cambridge Music Handbooks series (Cambridge, 126 pp., $11.95, paper), on which I have drawn extensively in writing the present essay. I am also indebted to William Youngren’s uncollected articles on Gershwin’s concert music. Among published primary sources, Ira Gershwin’s Lyrics on Several Occasions (1959) is the most important; also of interest is Edward Jablonski’s Gershwin Remembered (1992), a wide-ranging collection of memoirs and contemporary accounts.
2 Recordings of Gershwin’s music are discussed in the discography at the end of this article.
3 Persistent rumors to the contrary not withstanding, Gershwin scored all his own concert works after Rhapsody in Blue, though he readily admitted to soliciting the advice of more experienced orchestrators.
4 Unfortunately, An American in Paris and the Second Rhapsody are now usually heard in textually corrupt editions partially rescored by Frank Campbell-Watson.
5 For a more detailed comparison of the two composers, see my “(Over)praising Duke Ellington,” COMMENTARY, September 1996.