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.
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.)
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.
“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.
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.