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Book Review

George Gershwin

The George Gershwin Reader by Wyatt/Johnson

The George Gershwin Reader

Robert Wyatt and John Andrew Johnson, ed
Oxford University Press. 2004. 354 pp
ISBN-10: 0195130197
ISBN-13: 978-0195130195
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Summary for the Busy Executive: One-stop shopping for Gershwiniana.

Dr. Johnson once remarked that it took 100 years to arrive at a just appreciation of a writer. For one thing, by that time, all the writer's enemies would have dropped dead. George Gershwin died a mere 70 years ago, and while something like a scholarly consensus has begun to form, the most idiotic prattle still clings to discussions of his work.

Wyatt and Johnson have gathered in one place some very influential essays on Gershwin and his work. We have contemporary reminiscences and assessments from friends, family, and enemies as well as letters and articles from Gershwin himself. I've read most of it before, but it's nice to see so much gathered in one place. There are significant omissions. For instance, we haven't Virgil Thomson's initial blast of Porgy and Bess, although several others refer to it, nor Duke Ellington's, although we get a later, mellower excerpt from Ellington's Music is My Mistress.

I confess this time around that the reminiscences and Gershwin's personal letters interested me more than the aesthetic discussions of Gershwin's work. For me, Gershwin has always been a classic, a great composer by any definition I can give. He is certainly the modern American composer who has penetrated deeper into our subconscious than any other – our Verdi. No other American opera comes close to the impact of Porgy and Bess. Few American concert works have attained the cultural significance of Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, or An American in Paris. I happen to love the symphonies of Walter Piston and David Diamond, but I can't remember the last time I saw them on a concert program. The portrait of the man Gershwin, on the other hand, fills out a little. Instead of the brash young man whom the gods have kissed, we get something more thoughtful. The two memoires that impressed me the most come from Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the original Porgy and Bess. Duncan sees very little destructive ego (indeed, his stories about ego go mostly against himself), while Anne Brown discerns a fundamental melancholy. Both show a man with a deep vein of courtesy (although this didn't stop Gershwin from trying to bed Anne Brown), treading through the national minefield of racism with a sure step and a pure heart, learning about the people before him practically instantaneously. What's clear about Gershwin is that his friends were his friends for life, and they missed him terribly when he died.

Many of the essays on aesthetics, both for and against Gershwin, make me gnash my teeth all over again. Until very recently, one tended to get Gershwin the Musical Naïf or Gershwin as Apollo. The first view tends to mask an underlying resentment: how could pieces so loose and so lacking in elements of technique be any good, especially when MY work is so much more learned? Believe it or not, the same things were said by Elizabethan university-trained dramatists about their contemporary, Shakespeare ("little Latin and less Greek" etc.). A prescriptive aesthetic view underlies these criticisms, and few seem ready to question or capable of questioning its universality. Another way to say it is, they concentrate so much on what is wrong with Gershwin that they fail to ask what's right, and they tend to attribute his success to the degenerate, ignorant audience. Alec Wilder stands out as a notable exception to this. Of the major American songwriters – Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, and Arlen – he rates Gershwin the lowest, but he has isolated the source of his dissatisfaction. He prefers stepwise melody and as few repeated notes as possible. Yet, he praises Gershwin songs – like "A Foggy Day" – that break these rules. It's the song that counts, not the rules.

Some of the negative judgment on Gershwin comes awfully close to libel. One remarks the charge that Gershwin didn't orchestrate his concert works – this, despite the testimony of everybody put forward as Gershwin's orchestrator, including Will Vodery, William Daly, Robert Russell Bennett, and Kay Swift. There has long been ample evidence among the manuscripts in the Library of Congress that, after Rhapsody in Blue, he orchestrated every damn bar. Nevertheless, Charles Schwartz, a composer himself influenced by jazz and author of a Gershwin study that seems largely motivated by animus, repeats the charge (on a hilarious lack of evidence) that Schillinger (Gershwin's most famous teacher) orchestrated Porgy and Bess. Another musician claimed that Robert Russell Bennett orchestrated Porgy. Bennett did orchestrate some arias for a concert after Gershwin's death and, of course, composed the so-called "Symphonic Picture," but he was nowhere near the composition of the opera. In a weird sense, these critics are correct, since we seldom hear what Gershwin actually wrote. Some of his scores have been "corrected" (again, after his death) by one Robert McBride, a capable orchestrator but not a very interesting one, and this is what orchestras generally play. It took Michael Tilson Thomas's 1990 Gershwin album to give us the Second Rhapsody in Gershwin's own instrumentation. It showed that the McBride version was no improvement. I always wonder about the people to whom the ability to orchestrate matters so much that it becomes the test of whether one can compose. Tell that to Chopin.

Many of the raves of Gershwin's output equally disappoint, since so few of them are backed up by argument and evidence. It was like that in Gershwin's lifetime and amounted to little more than pure gush. We get that in Isaac Goldberg's "study" of the composer, the first major one while Gershwin was still alive. Writing a prose purpler than a bottle of Welch's, Goldberg is embarrassing to read.

For the general reader who doesn't want to rummage through a ton of other books, this is a handy, well-chosen collection. You get a sense of what writing on Gershwin has been about since the Twenties and of the major controversies that still surround him. Strange that a composer so straightforward, so "innocent," should continue to mystify so many.

Copyright © 2008 by Steve Schwartz