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Book Review

The Gershwin Style

The Gershwin Style by Schneider

New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin

Schneider, Wayne, ed
Oxford University Press, 1999. 290 pp
ISBN 0195090209
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I know of few well-known composers who arouse so much patronization and downright contempt among the classical tribe as George Gershwin. I have no idea why. Virgil Thomson refused to take him seriously, modifying his earlier sharp disdain as time went on with a mellower view of Gershwin as a Perfect Fool, a musical spaniel one can pat on the head. Aaron Copland's few references (I can recall no more than two) always regard Gershwin as an example for "serious" American composers to avoid. Leonard Bernstein, while taking the relatively liberal approach of acknowledging Gershwin's genius as a melodist, affords him no respect whatever as a composer of large concert works. On the other hand, most popular studies (until recently, all Gershwin studies have been popular, rather than academic), while more accurate than the Robert Alda biopic, Rhapsody in Blue, nevertheless follow essentially the same tack: a rags-to-riches, naive, happy-go-lucky genius turns everything he touches to musical gold and dies young. We get very little insight into either the man or the composer. From even the anecdotes I've come across (Oscar Levant, Ira Gershwin, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and others), I suspect Gershwin was far grittier, wittier, and cannier than the Shepherd Boy Whose Head the Gods Have Kissed. Gershwin's own writings – even though for daily or, at best, monthly journalism – demonstrate that aesthetically he knew very well not only what he himself was about, but modern music in general (he was a fan of Stravinsky, Ravel, Schoenberg, and Berg).

Charles Schwartz's (no relation) recent Gershwin: His Life and Music reacts so strongly against the traditional hagiographic approach, you'd have thought Gershwin had robbed the poor box and beat up a nun. Schwartz had little good to say and seemed to use the book as an occasion to beat Gershwin with any stick he could find, including (providing no solid evidence) resuscitating the old charge that Gershwin had fathered and ignored an illegitimate son. It's a good thing the dead can't sue. Joan Peyser's The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin keeps up, for those who remember her similar study of Leonard Bernstein, her tradition of musical ignorance, enthusiasm for psychobabble, lame research skills, and laughably incompetent prose. She also brings up the charge of the illegitimate son and also fails to provide a firm basis for it. Schwartz differs from Peyser in that, first, he actually demonstrates he knows something about music as well as how to construct an argument and, second, he can actually write.

The lack of primary material has hampered scholarship. On the other hand, until recently, scholars haven't bothered to seek it out, creating a circle of lacks. Surprising for a composer of Gershwin's popularity, very few listeners have heard what Gershwin really wrote. We have all sorts of arrangements of "A Foggy Day," but who's listened to (or seen) the composer's manuscript? I learn from Steven E. Gilbert's "Nice Work: Thoughts and Observations on Gershwin's Late Songs" that Gershwin had an unusually large right-hand reach and wrote his piano parts to his songs accordingly. The official Warner Bros. publication (I think owners of the copyrights) of the songs eliminates inner voices to accommodate the capabilities of merely human pianists. The Concerto in F, An American in Paris, Cuban Overture, and the other concert works past Rhapsody in Blue (the last of the big pieces Gershwin didn't orchestrate himself) routinely appear in versions silently "amended" by other hands. Gershwin has almost never been allowed to fail on his own. He's had help. Fortunately, his own scores reside in the Library of Congress, so unless the place burns down the possibility remains of establishing a verum corpus of his work, just as scholars did for Bruckner. The battle for Bruckner was won based on such work.

Some of this has already begun. Warners has released facsimile composer autographs of An American in Paris, Cuban Overture, Rhapsody in Blue, the Preludes, and the Concerto. Terrific books – Steven E. Gilbert's Music of Gershwin, Deena Rosenberg's Fascinating Rhythm: The Collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin, Hollis Alpert's Life and Times of Porgy and Bess, and even Philip Furia's Ira Gershwin: The Art of the Lyricist (also his Poets of Tin Pan Alley) – brilliantly focus on the material, largely without personal crotchets, for or against. This new collection of essays joins that company.

The book divides into an introduction and three major sections with a coda. Charles Hamm's "Towards a New Reading of Gershwin" outlines the problems mentioned above blocking a just appreciation of the composer as well as others and makes a great case that this most popular of composers remains unknown. A section on score analyses follows. This, for me, is the most valuable section of the book, but it does depend on the ability to read music and knowledge of music theory. It's possible for the reader with neither of these advantages to nevertheless pan gold, but I suspect it might be rough going. Still, this is the only section that requires such skills. Essays by editor Wayne Schneider on Gershwin's Broadway overtures, Steven E. Gilbert on the late songs (to some extent, remaking points in The Music of Gershwin, but the points are worth re-making), and Larry Starr's demonstration that Gershwin's concert music is indeed composed (as opposed to a bunch of songs strung together in a medley with transitional filler – essentially Leonard Bernstein's devastatingly influential charge) are especially valuable. Wayne D. Shirley talks of the problems in establishing a definitive score to Porgy and Bess, Gershwin's last masterpiece. I don't claim unusual prescience, but I came to the same conclusions as these writers forty years ago. Gershwin's blazingly original composing imagination seems to me as if it should be obvious at hearing. I do want to know why the serious writers of the classical community took so long to catch up.

The book's second section concentrates on the reception of the music and on Gershwin's place in American musical culture. Charlotte Greenspan studies the hokey film Rhapsody in Blue both as a tract for the times (America's home front in World War II) and as the recorder of valuable performances (including the early Scandals sketch, Blue Monday, sometimes known as 135th Street). Susan Richardson talks about the meshing of Gershwin's career with the early explosion of the pop-music industry – sheet music, radio, piano rolls, films, and recordings. The most problematic essay of the book for me, C. André Barbera's "George Gershwin and Jazz," ends up stating the obvious (and Gershwin's own position): that the composer didn't write jazz. However, there's a bit of strange hand-wringing over the white man's appropriation and exploitation of the black man's music, as if Gershwin owed somebody royalties. It makes no more sense to worry about this kind of appropriation than it does to accuse Charlie Parker of ripping off the white European system of harmony and polyphony, in my opinion. Many in the white-dominated pop-music industry have indeed ripped off black artists (and some black music moguls have done the same, incidentally) and do owe them, but we should distinguish between money and the materials of art. The latter is common property – there for anyone with the talent to use them. Beyond this bump in the road, however, Barbera goes on to analyze Gershwin's songs to find reasons why so many jazz musicians like to play with them.

The third section, "Performance Practices," talks exclusively about Gershwin's piano rolls, with an essay by Artis Wodehouse and a catalogue ("rollography," oy!) by Michael Montgomery. I would have hoped for an historical overview of Gershwin performing styles for both the vocal pieces and the concert works. What influence did, say, Toscanini have on future approaches to the concert music? For good or ill? This is for me the only lack in the book.

The book wraps up with pioneer Gershwinian Edward Jablonski's look at Ira's career after George's death. Ira's an immensely entertaining figure (as well as a lyric genius), and Jablonski does him justice.

In all, a valuable must-read for Gershwin fans, a wake-up call to certain parts of the academic community, and an engaging way for readers with lively curiosity to spend their time.

Copyright © 2004, Steve Schwartz.