Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music

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GERSHWIN, George

(b Jacob Gershwine, 26 September 1898, NYC; d 11 July 1937) US pianist, composer, songwriter; one of the greatest of all. (The family's name at various times was Gershovitz, Gershvin etc.) Influenced by ragtime and jazz and a superb pianist with a great melodic gift, his early death from a brain tumour was probably the biggest single loss to American music. He was one of the first songwriters to enjoy going to Harlem to hear the best black musicians; there is often a bluesy feeling to his tunes, and it is said that a Gershwin tune can be recognized within a few bars, perhaps the mark of a true composer imposing himself on his material. He had no apparent interest in music as a child until the family acquired a piano when he was twelve; he started playing immediately, having learned some fundamentals by watching player pianos and fooling around at a friend's house. His first hit was 'Swanee' '19 with lyrics by Irving Caesar (b 4 July 1895; d 17 December 1996; also wrote with others including Vincent Youmans); a flop at first, it was included in the show Sinbad with Al Jolson, and neither of them ever had a bigger hit in their lifetimes: it sold a million in sheet music and two million records by various artists.

George wrote songs for George White's Scandals in 1920-24, collaborating with his brother Ira (see below); their first complete musical together was Lady Be Good '24, including besides the title song 'Fascinatin' Rhythm' and initially 'The Man I Love' (dropped from three shows, it still became a standard). Other works included Tip-Toes '25 ('That Certain Feeling'), Oh Kay '26 ('Someone To Watch Over Me'), Funny Face '27 ('S'Wonderful'), Rosalie '28 (with Sigmund Romberg; Gershwin songs included 'How Long Has This Been Going On?'), Show Girl '29 ('Liza'), Girl Crazy '30 ('Bidin' My Time', 'But Not For Me', 'Embraceable You', 'I Got Rhythm'), Strike Up The Band '30 ('I've Got A Crush On You'). Films included A Damsel In Distress '37 ('A Foggy Day', 'Nice Work If You Can Get It'), Shall We Dance? '37 (title song, 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', 'Let's Call The Whole Thing Off'), Goldwyn Follies '38 ('Love Walked In', 'Love Is Here To Stay'). Girl Crazy was filmed '32, '43 with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, and '66 as the lamentable When The Boys Meet The Girls, with Connie Francis, Harve Presnell, and Herman's Hermits doing 'Bidin' My Time'. (The very good singing actor Presnell, b 14 September 1943, Modesto CA; d 30 June 2009, Santa Monica, never had the success he deserved because the great days of film musicals were gone.)

A new kind of revivalism began, going back to the sources, decades after Gershwin's death; Girl Crazy was recorded '84 on Elektra Nonesuch, using Gershwin's original manuscripts, conducted by John Mauceri, with Lorna Luft (Garland's daughter), David Carroll and Judy Blazer: modern revivals on records and on stage glory in the shows as the great originals they were. (Eighty boxes of original manuscripts and orchestrations by Gershwin and many of the other greatest composers of American shows were discovered in a warehouse in New Jersey in 1982; for that story, go here.)

Gershwin's more ambitious works began with Rhapsody In Blue '24, commissioned by Paul Whiteman, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé. Grofé did several versions of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, including one for 'jazz band' and another for symphony orchestra, the one we heard for decades, which does not do justice to the piece: a recording by Hugo Winterhalter with Byron Janis at the piano touched it up in the early '50s and tried to make it swing, but the revelation came later when Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a jazz band accompanying Gershwin's solo piano roll. The quicker tempi made the piece brighter, surely what Gershwin intended, and more recently Simon Rattle's CD The Jazz Album '87 is better yet (Peter Donohoe, piano), while Maurice Peress has reconstructed the entire Whiteman concert of 1924 (on MusicMasters), reinstating the reed section and the banjo of the original. A second Gershwin Rhapsody is still rarely heard in Gershwin's original version. But Rhapsody In Blue was a sensation from the beginning and has always been extremely popular; Gershwin had got some tips from Victor Herbert, the piano part was not entirely written out and no doubt had some improvisatory qualities at the first performance, and it was said to be Whiteman's clarinettist Ross Gorman who conceived the idea of playing the opening phrase as a long glissando. Gershwin's Concerto In F for piano and orchestra '25 was commissioned by Walter Damrosch, fully orchestrated by Gershwin; good tunes included a bluesy flugelhorn solo in the slow movement. The tone poem An American In Paris '28 was used as a ballet for Gene Kelly in the Oscar-winning film of same name '51. Gershwin also wrote preludes for piano, a Cuban Rhapsody, variations on 'I Got Rhythm' etc. Alicia Zizzo (recordings on Carlton Classics) is one of the scholars/pianists who have been editing and playing newly discovered music. Studying Gershwin's handwritten original score of Rhapsody In Blue, she discovered that the publisher (Harms) had lopped 24 measures from it on the grounds that it was too hard to play, shortening the piece by several minutes and making it less dramatic: the new original version was first played '97 by the Boston Pops (pianist Jeffrey Biegel).

[Ryan Paul Bañagal's fascinating book Arranging Gershwin (2014) tells the story of the genesis of Rhapsody in Blue, which had been written in a tearing hurry for Whiteman's 1924 concert and endlessly tinkered with by Grofé, becoming an American icon despite all the different arrangements and recordings. Among other things, we learn that the 13-year-old Leonard Bernstein arranged the piece for piano and percussion, played by his friends at a summer camp.]

As early as 1918 the American 'musical comedy' had been evolving out of the European operetta, becoming something new; and Otto Kahn, then chairman of the Metropolitan Opera, had mooted the idea of an American opera to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Gershwin. Berlin knew he was unqualified and Kern hinted that Gershwin might be the one; when the young composer was ready, his masterpiece was Porgy And Bess, based on a novel by DuBose Heyward (also adapted as a play by Dorothy Heyward, who changed the ending). With libretto by DuBose and lyrics by Ira, the songs included 'I Love You, Porgy', 'Summertime', 'I Got Plenty O' Nothin', 'Bess, You Is My Woman Now', 'It Ain't Necessarily So'. But when the time came the Metropolitan wasn't interested; and there are no American venues for comic or folk opera as there are in Europe; in the USA there were shows with guys and dolls or grand opera, and nothing in between. Porgy And Bess flopped '35-6 because Broadway didn't know what to make of it. (Rouben Mamoulian had directed the play and the opera; he said, 'You give someone something delicious to eat and they complain because they have no name for it.') Revised and revived '42 it ran longer than any revival in U.S. musical theatre until then. A black American company toured the world with it '52-6, including the USSR; it was the first American opera ever seen at La Scala in Milan; it was filmed '59 with Sammy Davis Jr, Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, etc. Then the original version with complete score (recitatives instead of spoken interludes) in a concert performance '75 (conducted by Lorin Maazel), a '76 staging at Houston, Texas (conducted by John DeMain) were both issued on record: Edward Greenfield wrote in Gramophone that it ranked with Berg's Wozzeck and Britten's Peter Grimes as a 20th-century operatic portrait of human nature. The Glyndebourne Festival production '86 in UK was extravagantly praised by critics, later filmed and recorded complete with Cynthia Haymon and Willard White, Damon Evans as Sportin' Life, conducted by Simon Rattle. (The Life And Times Of Porgy And Bess '91 by Hollis Alpert told the saga.) At last we could begin to understand what we had lost with Gershwin's early death; he did not quite fuse popular and 'classical' idioms, but he was not yet 39 years old.

Gershwin has been described as a songwriter with good tunes who had no skill at structure, then later critics complained that his compositions lacked good tunes. At the same time as Porgy And Bess has been recognised for what it is, the greatest American opera, Gershwin scholarship began to pick up: George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait by Walter Rimler (2009) gave him credit for knowing a great deal about music from the start, and knowing what he was doing all along.