GEORGE GERSHWIN — AMERICAN NATURAL

gershwinschoenberg USE AS KEY ART

 

Shortly after George Gersh­win died, at the age of thirty-eight, his fel­low com­poser, fellow-painter, and some­time ten­nis part­ner, Arnold Schoen­berg, wrote: “Many musi­cians do not con­sider George Gersh­win a seri­ous com­poser. But they should under­stand that, seri­ous or not, this is a man who lives in music and expresses every­thing, seri­ous or not, sound or super­fi­cial, by means of music, because it is his native lan­guage…. An artist is to me like an apple tree. When the time comes, whether it wants to or not, it bursts into bloom and starts to pro­duce apples. And an apple tree nei­ther knows nor asks about the value experts of the mar­ket will attribute to its prod­uct, so a real com­poser does not ask whether his prod­ucts will please the experts of seri­ous arts. He only feels he has to say some­thing and says it.”

Though Schoenberg’s own music could hardly be more dif­fer­ent from Gershwin’s, Schoenberg’s assess­ment of Gersh­win as a com­poser is right on tar­get. The debate over Gershwin’s place in music, espe­cially in Amer­i­can music, began dur­ing his life­time. As the world cel­e­brates the cen­ten­nial of his birth, on Sep­tem­ber 26, 1898 in Brook­lyn, New York, the con­tro­versy continues.

Was Gersh­win “just” a pop com­poser who man­aged a few larger pieces — most notably Rhap­sody in Blue and An Amer­i­can in Paris—and an opera, Porgy and Bess, which is more talked about and excerpted than per­formed com­plete? Or was he also a “seri­ous” com­poser who would have pro­duced the works he spoke of shortly before his death — a sym­phony, a string quar­tet, another opera? Gershwin’s strongest par­ti­san today, as dur­ing his life­time, main­tain he is the Amer­i­can com­poser, an artist whose works some­how reflect Amer­i­can itself in their energy and opti­mism, through their syn­co­pated rhythms and bluesy harmonies.

Vir­gil Thomson

Oth­ers agree with com­poser and critic Vir­gil Thom­son, who could be a good deal nas­tier than he was in his 1935 review of Porgy and Bess: “I do not wish to indi­cate that it is in any way rep­re­hen­si­ble of [Gersh­win] not to be a seri­ous com­poser. I only want to define some­thing that we have all been won­der­ing about for some time. It was cer­tain he was a gifted com­poser, a charm­ing com­poser, an excit­ing and sym­pa­thetic com­poser…. I think, how­ever, it is clear by now that Gersh­win hasn’t learned his busi­ness. At least he hasn’t learned the busi­ness of being a seri­ous com­poser, which one has long gath­ered to be the busi­ness he wanted to learn…. I do resent Gershwin’s short­com­ings. I don’t mind his being a light com­poser, and I don’t mind his try­ing to be a seri­ous one. But I do mind his falling between two stools. I mind any major fault be com­mits, because he is to me an excit­ing and sym­pa­thetic composer.”

Gershwin’s Russian-Jewish immi­grant fam­ily was not musi­cal, though his father enjoyed the opera and boy­hood friends later spoke of lis­ten­ing to Gilbert and Sul­li­van records at the Gersh­win home. When the fam­ily finally acquired a piano, it was more to keep up with rel­a­tives than to encour­age any musi­cal tal­ent in the chil­dren. Gersh­win was about twelve at the time. The instru­ment had been intended for his older brother, Ira — who would go on to write lyrics for some of Gershwin’s great­est songs. In 1938 Ira recalled how the piano was hoisted up by a block and tackle from Sec­ond Avenue into his par­ents’ apart­ment. “No sooner had the upright been lifted through the win­dow to the ‘front-room’ floor than George sat down and played a pop­u­lar song of the day.”

The feat stunned the fam­ily. They had no idea that George knew or cared any­thing about music, much less that he had been exper­i­ment­ing with a player piano at a friend’s house. In later years, the com­poser talked of hear­ing Rubinstein’s Melody in F played by a pianola in a penny arcade on 125th Street when he was about six, and he recalled. “The pecu­liar jumps in the music held me rooted.”

A few years later Gersh­win heard a school­mate play Dvořák’s Humoresque on the vio­lin at a school assem­bly. “It was a flash­ing rev­e­la­tion,” he recalled. He waited in the rain for more than an hour to meet the vio­lin­ist, then walked to the young man’s house to talk with him. Yet the Gersh­win fam­ily seemed to know noth­ing about these impor­tant events in their son’s life. To them, George was the wild one, the boy who was the cham­pion roller-skater, who came home with black eyes and a bloody nose, and who was often in trou­ble at school (from which he never graduated.)

Gersh­win in 1930

Yet after his demon­stra­tion on the new piano, the par­ents decided to give George lessons. He went through a suc­ces­sion of teach­ers before finally dis­cov­er­ing Charles Ham­b­itzer, who not only taught George piano but intro­duced him to the works of Chopin, Liszt, and even Debussy, a rather remark­able thing to do in 1913. Ham­b­itzer wrote to his sis­ter, “I have a pupil who will make his mark in music if any­body will. The boy is a genius, with­out a doubt; he’s just crazy about music…. He wants to go in for this mod­ern stuff, jazz and what not. But I’m not going to let him for a while.”

Under Hambitzer’s encour­age­ment, George began attend­ing con­certs reg­u­larly. “I lis­tened so earnestly,” he said later, “that I became sat­u­rated with the music. Then I went home and lis­tened in mem­ory. I sat at the piano and repeated the motifs.”

From almost the very begin­ning, then, sev­eral char­ac­ter­is­tics of Gersh­win the musi­cian became appar­ent, and they would be true for the rest of his life. He had an insa­tiable appetite for music. His main inter­est was pop­u­lar music rather than clas­si­cal. And he learned about music pri­mar­ily from mak­ing it, or repro­duc­ing it from mem­ory after hear­ing some­one else make it, rather than by sus­tained “aca­d­e­mic” study.

Gersh­win cred­its Ham­b­itzer with mak­ing him “harmony-conscious,” and it was Ham­b­itzer who sent him to work with Edward Kilenyi, whose lessons con­sisted of “ana­lyz­ing and dis­cussing clas­si­cal mas­ter­pieces.” Gersh­win biog­ra­pher Charles Schwartz has described the young man’s har­mony exer­cises, now housed in the Library of Con­gress, as being “of the most ele­men­tary kind…. Gersh­win him­self admit­ted that his knowl­edge of har­mony, even later in life, was rather rudi­men­tary…. He had only a lim­ited knowl­edge of such the­o­ret­i­cal aspects of music as coun­ter­point and orchestration.”

What he did have — in a seem­ingly over­whelm­ing abun­dance — was the abil­ity to impro­vise at the piano for hours at a time, and out of that music-making flowed his com­po­si­tions, like the apples drop­ping from Schoenberg’s tree. In almost every case, his songs, whether for Broad­way or for Hol­ly­wood, first appeared as music, to which the words were added later, exactly the oppo­site of how a com­poser writes an opera (or most songs, for that mat­ter), in which the music is based on the words pro­vided by the poet or lyri­cist or libret­tist. “Com­pos­ing at the piano is not a good prac­tice,” Gersh­win wrote in 1930. “But I started that way and it has become a habit. The best method is one which will not per­mit any­thing to hold you down in any way, for it is always eas­ier to think in a straight line with­out the dis­trac­tion of sound. The mind should be allowed to run loose, unham­pered by the piano which may be used now and then to stim­u­late thought and set an idea to flame.”

It is one thing to impro­vise a four-minute song, sans words, at the piano. But writ­ing a sym­phony, string quar­tet, or con­certo requires sus­tained, deft devel­op­ment of the mate­r­ial in a way that writ­ing a short song does not — no mat­ter how bril­liant. Rhap­sody in Blue, Amer­i­can in Paris, and the Sec­ond Rhap­sody for Orches­tra with Piano all last under twenty min­utes. Gershwin’s Con­certo in F is about thirty min­utes. But even the fifteen-minute Rhap­sody in Blue, at the same time it reveals cer­tain weak­nesses, seduces its audi­ence thoroughly.

Leonard Bernsetin

The Rhap­sody is not a com­po­si­tion at all,” Leonard Bern­stein wrote. “It’s a string of sep­a­rate para­graphs stuck together — with a thin paste of flour and water….[It’s] not a real com­po­si­tion in the sense that what­ever hap­pens in it must seem inevitable, or even pretty inevitable. You can cut parts of it out with­out affect­ing the whole in any way except to make it shorter. It is episodic, loosely strung together by rather arti­fi­cial tran­si­tions, mod­u­la­tory devices, and second-hand caden­zas. But what’s impor­tant is not what’s wrong with Rhap­sody, but what’s right with it. And what’s right is that each of those inef­fi­ciently con­nected episodes is in itself melod­i­cally inspired, har­mon­i­cally truth­ful, rhyth­mi­cally authentic.”

It is exactly this “melod­i­cally inspired, har­mon­i­cally truth­ful, rhyth­mi­cally authen­tic” qual­ity that makes Gershwin’s songs so pow­er­ful. If we look at his songs as a whole, from his first hit, “Swa­nee” (writ­ten in 1919, sup­pos­edly in ten min­utes), though (taken at ran­dom) “Fas­ci­natin’ Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “S’Wonderful,” “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “Embrace­able You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “Shall We Dance,” “Slap That Bass,” “That Can’t Take That Away From me,” “A Foggy Day,” and “Love Walked In,” what we see (if we can pull away from the sheer plea­sure and the emo­tional power of each song long enough to look at it some­what objec­tively — not an easy feat) is an aston­ish­ing growth, the mount­ing abil­ity to do more with less, and the abil­ity to write songs that are seem­ingly inde­struc­tible, no mat­ter how they are inter­preted. These songs have a chameleon-like qual­ity. They can be sung by clas­si­cal singers in lieder recitals, by cabaret singers in night­clubs, impro­vised on by jazz musi­cians in thou­sands of dif­fer­ent styles, played by high-school march­ing bands, or (in one recent incar­na­tion) stretched almost to the break­ing point by a screechy organ on the sound­track of an in-line skat­ing instruc­tional video. No mat­ter how manip­u­lated or changed the songs are, they always retain their essence.

When one thinks of Gershwin’s Broad­way and Hol­ly­wood con­tem­po­raries — com­posers such as Cole Porter, Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern, and Irv­ing Berlin — it is almost impos­si­ble to imag­ine them writ­ing an opera or a con­certo. This is not to slight those com­posers, but to point out our greater expec­ta­tions of Gersh­win, expec­ta­tions Gersh­win him­self had. To bol­ster his musi­cal tech­nique, Gersh­win stud­ied with a remark­able num­ber of teach­ers through­out his life. More often than not, the lessons lasted only a short timer. Why? The Gersh­win biog­ra­pher Charles Schwartz posits one rea­son. Accord­ing to him, Arthur Bodanzky, for many years the con­duc­tor of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera’s Ger­man wing, decided after giv­ing Gersh­win a few lessons that the com­poser “did not have the capac­ity for the for­mal study of music.” The assess­ment seems less harsh if we think of Gersh­win as the kind of nat­ural, spon­ta­neous genius Schoen­berg described — the kind of artist who “bursts into bloom” like an apple tree.

It was Gersh­win him­self, for exam­ple, who after only three lessons ter­mi­nated his stud­ies with Rubin Gold­mark (who taught Aaron Cop­land briefly and headed the com­po­si­tion depart­ment at the Juil­liard School of Music). The end came about one day when Gersh­win real­ized he had not done his required har­mony exer­cises, so he showed Gold­mark his Lul­laby, a sin­gle move­ment for string quar­tet he had writ­ten sev­eral years before. Accord­ing to the story Gersh­win him­self told, the teacher exam­ined the quar­tet and said, “It’s plain to be seen that you have already learned a great deal of har­mony from me!” Exit Gershwin.

Gersh­win and Paulette Goddard

Work with other teach­ers was often inter­rupted by the demands of the composer’s pro­fes­sional — and per­sonal — life. Still, through­out his life Gersh­win remained inter­ested in improv­ing his knowl­edge of musi­cal the­ory, coun­ter­point, and orches­tra­tion. He talked about study­ing with com­posers Ernest Bloch, Edgard Varèse, and Arnold Schoen­berg, though none of them took him on as a stu­dent. When Gersh­win asked Mau­rice Ravel about tak­ing some lessons, the French com­poser declined with a ques­tion. “Why should you be a second-rate Ravel, when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?”

How thor­oughly Gersh­win knew clas­si­cal music is a mat­ter of con­jec­ture. He attended the US pre­mière of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck while he was writ­ing Porgy, though there is no record of Gershwin’s reac­tion to Berg’s opera. Typ­i­cal of what we know of Gershwin’s reac­tion to con­cert music is a remark he made the day after attend­ing per­for­mances of quar­tets by Schoen­berg and Beethoven. Walk­ing out onto the ten­nis courts with Oscar Lev­ant and Arnold Schoen­berg, Gersh­win said, “I’d like to write a quar­tet some day. But it will be some­thing sim­ple, like Mozart.” Irri­tated, Schoen­berg replied, “I’m not a sim­ple man — and, any­way, Mozart was con­sid­ered far from sim­ple in his day.” Gershwin’s com­ment may strike us as naïve, but it can also be seen another way: as the enthu­si­as­tic aspi­ra­tion of some­one who, in Schoen­berg own words, “lives in music and expresses everything…by means of music.”

Do you think that now I am capa­ble of grand opera?” Gersh­win asked Jerome Kern before writ­ing Porgy. “Because, you know, all I’ve got is a lot of tal­ent and plenty of chutzpah.”

Porgy was, by far, the biggest project Gersh­win tack­led. Per­formed com­plete, it has more than three hours of music. “If I am suc­cess­ful, it will resem­ble a com­bi­na­tion of Car­men and Meis­tersinger,” the com­poser told a reporter. The results, I think, are sim­i­lar to what a bril­liant short-story writer might pro­duce in his first lengthy novel. But it should be remem­bered that Verdi, Wag­ner, Puc­cini, and Richard Strauss only hit their stride as opera com­posers with their third operas. Even if we count Blue Mon­day (a twenty-minute one-act opera by Gersh­win that received one per­for­mance in New York as part of George White’s Scan­dals of 1922), Gersh­win did not live long enough to write that mag­i­cal third work. Yet in Porgy he did achieve some mirac­u­lous things. The arias he wrote seem part of the Amer­i­can idiom. He called Porgy and Bess a “folk opera,” and if you did not know that the music was specif­i­cally writ­ten for a twentieth-century opera, you might think than num­bers such as “Sum­mer­time,” or “I Got Plenty o’ Nut­tin’,” “A Woman is a Some­time Thing,” or “It Ain’t Nec­es­sar­ily So,” were direct tran­scrip­tions of songs sung in the streets and the fields.

In 1937, shortly before he was diag­nosed with a brain tumor and died sev­eral days later, on July 11, Gersh­win told his sis­ter Frances, “I don’t feel I’ve scratched the sur­face. I don’t think of money any more. I just want to work on Amer­i­can music: sym­phonies, cham­ber music, opera. This is what I really want to do. I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface.”

If only he had lived another thirty-eighty years.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by permission.

In the photo at the top of the page, Gersh­win is work­ing on his por­trait of Arnold Schoen­berg.