GEORGE GERSHWIN — AMERICAN NATURAL

 

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.