GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Matthew has now reached the last lap in his mammoth series of lectures on the Concerto (1900-1950). In his nine lectures so far, he has visited 21 different composers, a feat in itself. The last of the series will take us upon a flying visit to America for two more with concertos by Copland, Barber and George Gershwin – Matthew has earlier examined the clarinet concerto of Copland. I have chosen Gershwin as the subject of my final note for the term partly because we have touched upon him recently in both Matthew’s lecture and my last note on Ravel. More importantly because Gershwin is a completely different kettle of fish from every other composer we have dealt with before.
George Gershwin for many was a brilliant composer of popular songs and music theatre who could, given his due, dabble in classical music, but, let’s face it, could not be said to be in the top rank. For others, whatever his provenance and whatever else he produced or lacked he was the first true composer to spring out of the American soil.
America had been around a long time from its colony era to its independence, its expansions westwards and the war of the states as the civil war was called. It had developed its home grown authors and playwrights, its own painters, poets and theatre. Yet it had not developed a musical style of its own being both derived from the European tradition and yet American at the same time. It had welcomed new arrivals from all over Europe who brought with them their traditions and their folk music. The slaves, the African Americans – no-one called them that then – thought to be without souls or culture, developed their own spirituals which travelled the length of the country after the civil war. As it happened most of the negro spirituals as we know them were recorded or composed by one man, Harry Burleigh at the instance of Dvorak. Dvorak had gone to America in 1892 when offered the position of composition professor at the New York Conservatory. It had been spelt out to him that he was expected to pave the way for an “American” musical style. Just like that. So it was that Dvorak enlisted the help of Harry Burleigh (1867-1949), one of the earliest African-American composers. It was he who introduced Dvorak to traditional American spirituals. It was Dvorak who urged Burleigh to collect and arrange the spirituals he sung, which he then set about doing, about 300 of them. His works included, Deep River; Steal Away; Go Down Moses. Without Harry Burleigh there would have been no Dvorak New World Symphony as we know it. Many towns and cities had developed their own styles, New Orleans, St Louis and Kansas City developing from the spirituals the blues and most had syncopated rhythms in common developing into ragged time to be called ragtime. There were classical composers about in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, notably Edward Macdowall whose second piano concerto owes something to Grieg, and Amy Beach who was a child prodigy, mainly self taught as a composer and pianist. She married a surgeon, Dr H H A Beach who insisted as a married woman she only played twice a year and that she appear and compose as Mrs H H A Beach. I can feel the women libbers amongst you trembling with rage.
Jewish immigration into America had been gradual over the early nineteenth century, mainly German speaking. Between 1880 and 1914 there arrived waves of Ashkenazy Yiddish speaking Jews from the Russian Pale of Settlement fleeing from pogroms in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus. There were similar arrivals in England at the same time and I myself can empathize as my paternal grandparents arrived in this country in or about 1895. Whether in America or England their achievement was that within a generation they and their children had integrated in their new countries whilst able to retain at home their traditional customs. It was in 1895 also that Morris (formerly Moishe) Gershowitz married Rose (Roza) Bruskina in New York. She had arrived from Vilnius. He had followed her. They lived in Brooklyn where he became a foreman leather cutter for women’s shoes. Their first son, Israel, but always known as Ira was born in 1896. George was born in 1898 and always known as George although his birth certificate describes him as Jacob Gershwine. Two further children were to follow.
Morris moved jobs and family home several times and his standard of living increased such that he bought a piano in 1910 principally for Ira to learn. George meantime was a typical back street roller skating boy without any apparent musical leanings but he heard his friend Maxie Rosenzweig’s playing a violin. It was his earliest encounter with classical music. The sound and the way his friend played captured him. His parents, having bought a piano for Ira to have lessons, found to their surprise and Ira’s relief, that it was George who played it. The theatre also was prominent already in Ira and George’s lives. The Yiddish theatre was very popular and the boys attended performances and ran errands for the theatre. George sought various lessons in the piano and after two years was introduced to Charles Hambitzer who became his mentor. Hambitzer taught him conventional piano technique, introduced him to classical music tradition and encouraged him to attend orchestra concerts. At home, following such concerts, George would then try to play at the piano the music that he had heard. Later on, he took composition lessons from the American composer, Henry Cowell thought to be quite avant garde.
George staying on at school for continuing education was not on the agenda. He left school at 15 and took a job as a song plugger at Jerome H. Remick and Co. on Tin Pan Alley. The recording industry had not yet started and piano rolls were a popular form of musical reproduction. However the main turnover business was sheet music. Song pluggers were employed in a store or publishing house and would sit on a balcony or landing demonstrating at the piano the latest sheet music for prospective buyers. Frequently they plugged the same tune over and over again, a bit like Classic FM playing Holst’s Jupiter. In 1915 George was writing his own songs and mixing them in with his playlist.
In 1916, George moved to the Aeolian Company with whom he cut his first piano rolls. He went on to produce hundreds of others, sometimes under his own name, others under pseudonyms. His first published song was when he was 17 and tells us something about George’s progress with the opposite sex. It is entitled “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em, When You’ve Got ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em”. Others followed but it was in 1919 he scored his first big national hit with his song, “Swanee”. Al Johnson heard Gershwin perform it at a party and decided to sing it in one of his shows. Swanee sold one million sheet music copies and an estimated two million records, and it earned George $10,000 in royalties in the first year alone. It was the biggest song hit of Gershwin’s entire career. Before that success George had left song plugging behind and become a rehearsal pianist on Broadway and managing rather cheekily to interpolate his own music into the shows.
From individual songs George teamed up with others to create their own musicals. First with the song writer William Daly with whom he wrote three musicals between 1920 and 1923 and also with Buddy de Silva who jointly created an experimental one-act jazz opera called Blue Monday and set in Harlem. It is widely regarded as a forerunner to Porgy and Bess. However there is no doubt that the ground breaking partnership came about in 1924 when George and Ira teamed up to form the greatest combination.
1924 was also the year when George’s first “classical” work, Rhapsody in Blue, described as “for Jazz Band and Piano”, came into the world. The bandleader, Paul Whiteman had been impressed with Blue Monday and was himself planning a big modern jazz concert. So he approached George for a concerto-like jazz work. To begin with, George turned the suggestion down. A month or two later George got persuaded to take it on although there was not enough time left for orchestrating it. The idea of the theme came to him on a rail journey to Boston “with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang”. It was a combination of a Liszt type Hungarian Rhapsody mingled with the blues. His original thought was to call it American Rhapsody but Ira suggested Rhapsody in Blue as the title after having visited a Whistler exhibition. He was taken in particularly by titles such as ‘Nocturne in Black and Gold’ and ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black’ which you would know better as Whistler’s Mother. George actually wrote Rhapsody in Blue for two pianos and then handed it over to Ferde Grofé, Whiteman’s arranger, for him to orchestrate. The orchestration we hear today is that of Grofé who knew and understood the workings of the Whiteman orchestra. Whiteman was trying to develop jazz of the traditional variety into formalised symphonic jazz with an extended orchestra with saxophones, clarinet, trumpets, trombones supplemented with two horns and tuba. There was an orchestra pianist and drums and timpani combined. The basic orchestra was surrounded by an array of strings and in the middle of the orchestra to cover the jazzier aspects were an accordion and banjo. What is amazing is that Grofé was able to anticipate the Gershwin orchestral sound. Although he had never heard any Gershwin orchestration he had an uncanny instinctive feel which would produce the same sound as Gershwin would later create. If anything marks out the Rhapsody in Blue over anything else it must be that opening glissando on clarinet. It is the most famous sound in all of Gershwin and yet it was not even written by George or Grofé. It actually came about as a joke in rehearsal by the orchestra clarinettist, Ross Gorman. He played the opening bars with a deliberate wobbling glissando to which George reacted by asking Gorman to do it that way at the concert and to put in as much of a wail as possible.
The concert had George himself as solo pianist and was a success with the audience, although panned by some critics. It has become today a cult work but it was not always that way. At the time traditional jazz of the New Orleans or Dixieland variety was still just emerging. It had its great names like King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. The style of jazz that was performed from the late teens to the late 1920s was improvisatory and by nature contrapuntal and might well have been enjoyed by a toe tapping J S Bach had he been around two centuries later. Its adherents were the purists and appalled at what Paul Whiteman was about. The latter had been a violist in the Denver Symphony Orchestra and after the First World War formed his own band using jazz and hailed as the King of Jazz. His orchestra contained some thirty five players for which formal monothematic composition was necessary. He was already earning over a million dollars a year in the 1920’s. However he was seen by the traditional jazz followers as a thieving magpie and a typical white man taking over black culture. At least, the Duke Ellington orchestra, founded in 1926, only consisted of blacks. So there was a split both between classical and jazz and a racial divide between white and coloured to start with. Yet the adherents to classical music, the so-called high brows, were equally hostile to hear jazz sounds with growl trumpets played by an orchestra in a symphony concert. In black and white films the high brow women were depicted with anachronistic lorgnettes frowning down their long noses. So who were its fans and followers? One can say it was the great uncultured mass of the white American middlebrows. Many would eventually opt for a brand of music they could dance and swing to, rather than symphonic jazz, and which by 1935 would come to dominate the American musical scene led by the likes of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller.
By the end of 1927, Whiteman’s band had played the Rhapsody eighty-four times, and its recording sold a million copies. Later, for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics during the Reagan presidency it was played at the opening ceremony with 84 grand pianos!. Whiteman adopted the piece as his band’s signature tune, and opened his radio programmes with the slogan “Everything New but the Rhapsody in Blue.” It has had its detractors, many of them, but in more recent years it has come to be symbolized as A Portrait of New York, an iconic background in the film Manhattan, for romantics such as Woody Allen. However even Gershwin’s greatest supporters cannot lay claim to it being a great classical work. No one could have given greater love or support to Gershwin than Leonard Bernstein who nevertheless wrote in 1955
“The Rhapsody is not a composition at all. It’s a string of separate paragraphs stuck together. The themes are terrific, inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. Your Rhapsody in Blue though is not a real composition in the sense that it must seem inevitable. You can cut parts of it without affecting the whole. You can remove any of these stuck-together sections and the piece still goes on as bravely as before. It can be a five-minute piece or a twelve-minute piece. And it’s still the Rhapsody in Blue.”
On the popular musical front, 1924 was the year when George and Ira Gershwin teamed up, a team like Mozart and da Ponte or Verdi and Boito or Gilbert and Sullivan were teams. George and Ira’s first successful collaboration was Lady Be Good, which included the song, “Fascinating Rhythm”. They followed this with one after another. Oh Kay! (1926); Funny Face (1927) Show Girl (1929) Strike Up The Band (1930) and in the same year Girl Crazy which included “I Got Rhythm” and “Embraceable You” and made Ginger Rogers a star. The Wall Street Crash did not slow down the productivity in Gershwin musicals. In 1931 there followed “Of Thee I Sing”, a musical based on a presidential election campaign which won a Pullitzer Prize for Drama, the first musical comedy to do so. Its sequel was “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” involving the sale of blue shirts following the growth of brown shirts and black shirts in Europe. Back in 1926 George had met Kay Swift, a composer, with whom he had a relationship for 12 years. They didn’t marry although Kay got divorced so as to be able to do so. Kay’s grand-daughter thought that George held back because his mother Rose – shades of the Jewish momma with Maureen Lipman – was unhappy that Kay Swift wasn’t Jewish. The musical “Oh, Kay” was named for her.
Covering this same period is George Gershwin’s progress with “classical” music. Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra had been present at the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue and commissioned Gershwin to write a piano concerto which might be be closer in form to a classical model and, unlike the Rhapsody, would be orchestrated by its composer. Whilst George would later receive formal training from Henry Cowell and Arnold Schoenberg in composition and advanced harmony and orchestration, he had had no such training in 1924. Under the pressure of a deadline to complete the work in 1925, George bought books on theory, concerto form and orchestration and taught himself the skills needed. Because of contractual obligations for three different Broadway musicals, he was not able to begin sketching ideas until May 1925. He began scoring for two-pianos in late July following a trip to London. The original title was intended to be “New York Concerto”. Its three movements were written between July and September with full orchestration carried out by November. The Concerto in F shows considerable development in Gershwin’s compositional technique, particularly as he orchestrated the entire work himself. The first performance was a sell out at the Carnegie Hall in December 1925, and George was the soloist. It was well received by the public but as usual the reviews were mixed, with many critics unable to classify it as jazz or classical. Indeed, there was a great variety of opinion among Gershwin’s contemporaries. Stravinsky thought the work was one of genius, although I doubt he was at the performance or in America at that time. Prokofiev is said to have disliked it intensely. William Walton is said to have commented that he adored Gershwin’s orchestration of the concerto but I have no idea as to when he said it or to whom. Without the Gershwin concerto there never would have been the Ravel, that’s for sure.
Further down the line it was Walter Damrosch again who also commissioned from George a symphonic poem for the NYSO. George made two trips to Paris in the 1920’s, first in 1926 when he stayed with friends, and he returned with more serious purpose in 1928. His object, having met Ravel in America and on his recommendation, was to seek lessons from Nadia Boulanger, a celebrated French composer, conductor, and teacher who taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the day. She also performed as a pianist and organist. Boulanger replied that she had nothing to teach him. Here it is interesting to compare with Aaron Copland, also an American Jewish composer with immigrant parents. He had set out on a different path and took lessons from Boulanger for three years. None of this set George back, as his real reason in coming to Paris was to complete a new work based on that city as well as to write a second rhapsody for piano and orchestra as a possible sequence to Rhapsody in Blue. An American in Paris is his greatest orchestral achievement. He described the piece as a “rhapsodic ballet” because it was written more freely than his previous works. He stated “My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere.” It is a bustling impressionist scene written in five sections. Its principal theme is interspersed by honking motor horns and with a show off trombone theme which I seem to recall was used for an advert by Wrigley’s Chewing Gum. There is a solo jazz trumpet nocturne, pure Beiderbecke, a blues in the night theme, which paints a moment of nostalgic loneliness of the American visitor. Its mood is more Manhattan than Hot Club de France. Later in 1951 there would be the film which also contains music from the piano concerto. Still, when it comes to Gershwin musicals, nearly every film, although containing a few standard songs, had its story line completely changed. The film of An American In Paris is a typical clichéd view of Paris, France as seen by Americans, not that they are any worse than any other tourists but Hollywood happens to have made more films about it than anyone else, except the French. I am afraid that, energetic a dancer as Gene Kelly was, I suffer a bout of nausea when seeing him and the film, which I try not to do.
After returning to America, accompanied by a set of klaxon horns for the first performance of An American in Paris, George was signed up in 1929 by the Fox Film Corporation to compose the score for the film, Delicious. This was the beginning of the talkies. The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson had come out in 1927 but feature films were largely only for music to begin with. To George’s infuriation, only two pieces got used in the final version and the rest of the score was rejected. It would be seven years before George worked in Hollywood again. Still, as we have seen, the stage musicals continued to come out.
Gershwin now turned his attention to opera and a venture he had had in mind for some time. “Porgy and Bess” is now regarded as an important American opera or folk opera as George liked to call it. It is based on a novel “Porgy” by DuBose Heyward, the action of which takes place in a fictional all-black neighbourhood of Charleston called Catfish Row. Just as well, it wasn’t Ferguson. The critics weren’t quite able to make it out. It crossed the barriers. Was it opera, or was it simply an ambitious Broadway musical? All the principal characters were black. That itself was shock enough. The music combines elements of popular music of the day but, as with his other “classical music”, with the clear influence of negro, as it was called, music, not just jazz but spirituals, as well. Yet it contained techniques typical of opera. The songs were sung with operatic voices. It also had recitative and Gershwin introduced an extensive system of leitmotifs. He was no longer writing in pseudo Liszt style but experimenting. It includes a fugue, a passacaglia; there is the use of atonality, polytonality and polyrhythm, and, God Bless Schoenberg, a serial row. Of course we know it best from its individual set numbers, “Summer Time”, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin”, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. These bear a relationship to his other melodies and works, an identifiable Gershwin sound. Take Summer Time, for example, it is more refined but it has the same family relationship to “Some Day He’ll Come Along. The Man I Love”. Take “Bess, you is my woman now” and now think about that steamy trumpet solo in “An American In Paris”. Surely they come out of the same stable? The work was first performed in 1935; it was a box office failure. What Gershwin did achieve was a spirit of mutual sympathy between two peoples, unrelated but with oppressions in common, the Blacks and the Jews. Michael Tippett would do the same in a different way in “A Child Of Our Time” five years later.
After the commercial failure of Porgy and Bess, George was signed up in1936 by RKO to write the music for the film “Shall We Dance” which would star Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The music was to marry ballet and jazz in a new way. For this he needed to move to Hollywood. The music for the film which runs for over an hour took several months to complete. By this time he was a very rich man and lived in luxury in a 14-room duplex, with a gymnasium, an artist’s studio and space for his own paintings and art collection. He was living the “American Dream” but not for long. Photographs of the time show him smoking a cigar at the piano and as having lost his shiny hair leaving a sizable bald patch from the recession. As to that I know what it’s like. I’ve been there. Shall We Dance was followed by “A Damsel In Distress” with Astaire and Joan Fontaine. It was based on a novel by P G Wodehouse and instigated by George as its main character is a songwriter. The film did not get released until four months after George’s death.
At not quite 39 years old, George had developed blinding headaches and a recurring impression that he smelled burning rubber. In February 1937 he was the soloist in his own piano concerto with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Monteux and began hitting the wrong notes. In July he collapsed and was rushed to hospital. For five hours, doctors tried to remove what turned out be a deeply embedded brain tumour. He never regained consciousness and died on 11 July, 1937. Within six months of each other Ravel and Gershwin, each mutually influential on the other, would die during brain operations!
George Gershwin died one of the richest men in the graveyard and his estate still collects royalties. Undoubtedly he was a great popular song writer. In many ways he can be compared to Schubert. Both wrote songs which were popular within their own milieu. Most who listen to Schubert today do so with reverence without realising that he was giving his fans the same pleasure that George would do for his a hundred years later. Their styles were different, that’s all. George Gershwin was not a great giant of classical music but a talented genius to emerge from the American Melting Pot and to lead the way where others would follow. I end by making a comparison between Arnold Schoenberg and George Gershwin. Arnold Schoenberg was a Jewish émigré from Vienna who through force of circumstances lived in America. George Gershwin was the son of a Jewish émigré but himself born in New York. Arnold Schoenberg may have been a great composer but he was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. George Gershwin may not have been such a great composer but he was the right man in the right place at the right time.
AN ALMOST ELEVEN YEAR OLD’S VIEW OF GEORGE GERSHWIN
In 1946, with my father demobbed, we moved to London from Swansea and stayed for a week with my aunt and uncle in Tufnell Park. Already I missed the Swans (Swansea Town FC). My uncle generously gave me some pocket money and suggested I go to see the Arsenal at Tottenham. (Highbury had been closed down and Arsenal played at White Hart Lane when Spurs were away). I was told to get any trolley bus going to Stamford Hill and change for Tottenham. As I waited at the bus stop I saw a trolley opposite clearly going to Tottenham in the other direction. I crossed and got on. I couldn’t be wrong. It had “Tottenham Ct Rd” on the front. Of course the conductor put me down, somewhere in Kentish Town I believe, and it was too late to see the match. Anyway I was not really interested as it was only Arsenal, not the Swans.
Across the road was a cinema, the Rex or the Ritz or whatever. There, they were showing something called “Rhapsody In Blue”. I had no idea what it was about but with my pocket money I went in and sat in the front stalls. The seats were good. They didn’t have springs that stuck in your arse like the Carlton in Swansea. The film was a biopic – not that anyone used that word – of George Gershwin of whom I knew nothing but whose name had been known to me from the wireless. I saw the young George thumping the piano in excitement to his brother Ira. I found that strange because in Wales that was a girl’s name. I loved the way George sung his new song, “Swanee, how I love you, how I love you” and how the two of them in trousers, shirt and braces wearing trilbies on the backs of their heads tapped danced on a desk-table “D-I-X-I-E-ven know my mammy’s waiting for me, waiting for me”. I saw Al Jolson sing Swanee with his face painted black and a great white circle round his mouth. I saw the Paul Whiteman orchestra and the portly figure of Paul Whiteman playing Paul Whiteman himself; also a pianist called Oscar Levant played by Oscar Levant. George was played by an actor I have since learned was Robert Alda, father of Alan Alda. He had a lady friend played by an actress called Alexis Smith. That was the yucky part of the film. I don’t remember much else until it came to the end. George was due to play the Rhapsody in Blue at a concert and had not turned up. A note was given to Oscar Levant who took George’s place at the piano. Paul Whiteman started to conduct and the clarinet started up with a wail like a cat. Somehow Alexis Smith who was sitting in the audience seemed to know by telepathy that George was dead. The camera zoomed in on her face, which got larger and larger until it filled the whole black and white square screen. The tears rolled down her magnified face but then women always cried in films. Men didn’t. It was all so silly but there in the darkness of the Rex or the Ritz or whatever, although she did not know it, I cried with Alexis Smith. I cried for George Gershwin.