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Book Review

George Gershwin

George Gershwin: His Life and Work

His Life and Work

Howard Pollack
Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. 884 pp
ISBN 0520248643
ISBN-13: 978-0520248649
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Authoritative, for the time being.

George Gershwin has just begun to come into something like an historically and aesthetically just appreciation of his work. For one thing, most of us haven't really heard what he wrote. Rather, we've had to endure decades of silent and not-so-silent editing by conductors, performers, arrangers, and even Gershwin's own publishers. For another, some of our most influential musical figures (and popularizers) have gotten him wrong. Virgil Thomson, B. H. Haggin, and Leonard Bernstein condescended to him as a naïf, without a clue to musical architecture, decent orchestration, or genuine, adult drama. That view seems, at long last, a bit quaint. Alec Wilder in his study of American popular song rated Gershwin the lowest in the illustrious company of Arlen, Berlin, Rodgers, and Kern and trashed such classics as "Love Walked In," "Lady, be Good," and the hits of Porgy and Bess. Even at the time, this struck me as, to put it nicely, idiosyncratic.

Most Gershwin studies – and it feels like a stretch to call some of them that – until quite recently have fallen into one of two camps: Gershwin as Savior-Genius and Gershwin as a musical Sammy Glick, a pusher and shover without the real goods. The first group very often had little knowledge of or even connection to music. Most of them belonged to the world of the Broadway theater. The most musically-literate of them, like Oscar Levant, tended not to focus on the scores, but on their memories of Gershwin (in Levant's case, at least, not always reliable). Even here, we've needed someone to do the hard work of digging into papers and checking different accounts against one another. The second group may have had a classical-music background but always seemed motivated by personal animus or by rather hidebound views of what Real Music is. Some couldn't accept a classical composer with such crossover appeal. Apparently, they forgot about Mozart and Verdi. Some didn't understand how Gershwin, like Tchaikovsky, transformed his pop songwriting skills to the creation of symphonic cells. On the other side of the aisle, jazz critics condemned the concert pieces a priori, by pointing out the obvious – that they weren't jazz, never considering what then they might be. Joan Peyser, with God-awful, ultimately useless books to her credit about Boulez and Bernstein which mainly tried to stir scandal and dealt with music hardly at all, went through her standard shtick in her Gershwin book. For example, she put forward the old claim of Gershwin's "illegitimate son," Alan, without much examination. Coming across as someone who had caught Gershwin robbing the poor box and beating up a nun, Charles Schwartz (no relation), a composer also influenced by jazz, beat Gershwin with just about any club he could find, including the dubious one of repeating Peyser. His evidence was based on testimony of a person long dead, who at one point recanted, and on the fact that Alan Gershwin looked like George. Unfortunately, my Uncle Bob at one point in his life, though bald as a light bulb, also looked like Gershwin, although he for some reason never claimed to be Gershwin's love child. Unlike either of these two, Pollack actually takes a reasoned and reasonable look at the evidence. He points out that DNA would, of course, settle things or at least tip credence one way or the other, but that Alan refused to provide a sample.

As in his masterful book on Copland (Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man, probably definitive), Pollack puts together a convincing life of the composer, judiciously weighing faults, mistakes, excesses, and virtues without pushing an obvious agenda. He also engages the music (and has some penetrating insights) on pretty much its own terms, as well as (unusual in a Gershwin study) ties it firmly to the classical tradition. I've been a Gershwin fanatic since about the age of twelve, when a school buddy played for me Bernstein's slam-bang LP of Rhapsody in Blue (with cuts, Pollack informs me). I've read just about everything. Even with my dislike of duplicating works in my collection, I have several versions of every Gershwin concert piece, and I don't regret a one of them. With no modesty whatsoever, I believe it extremely difficult for an author to tell me something I didn't know about either Gershwin or his music. Pollack does just that many times throughout the course of his book. It makes me almost as excited about Gershwin's music as when I had encountered it for the first time.

But wait! There's more! Nestled in examinations of the music are surveys of major recordings of Gershwin's music, including engrossing discussions of rhythm changes (ie, jazz tunes based on Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm") and, among other things, recordings of Porgy and Bess, including jazz versions. The chapters on the shows trace Gershwin's development as a musical dramatist and humorist, with an attention to detail I haven't previously encountered. Consequently, a portrait of Gershwin as a composer who knew exactly what he was about emerges with great clarity. Porgy and Bess didn't pop up from nowhere, and many of the perceived weaknesses of the score come from folks who hadn't paid much attention or who mistook weaknesses of a particular production.

Lots of endnotes, a solid bibliography, a helpful index (for a change), and in all a masterful synthesis of one of the most popular and perplexing composers of the Modern age. As John O'Hara once wrote (one of my all-time favorite quotes), "George died on July 11, 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to."

Copyright © 2007 by Steve Schwartz.