Rhythmic and melodious, Gershwin’s music fuses popular elements from the American melting-pot: the flattened notes and syncopations of African-American blues and ragtime; Hispanic rhythms; the aching cadences of Hebrew chant. More classical ingredients range from the harmonies of Chopin, Liszt and Debussy to the sprightly patter of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Little of this frothy broth appeared in Gershwin’s first hit song ‘Swanee’ (1919), but the ordinary tune and simple lyrics went with a swing, especially when sung by Al Jolson. Five years later came the leap into the audacious with Rhapsody in Blue, composed for bandleader Paul Whiteman’s ‘Experiment in Modern Music’ concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall. Popular jazz collided with Lisztian rhetoric and a melody worthy of Tchaikovsky.
Most of the music world delighted in the odd mix, and wanted more. Gershwin obliged, and spent what remained of his life straddling the popular and classical divide with an ease no other American of his generation could match; Irving Berlin characterised him as ‘the only song-writer I know who became a composer’. At his death Gershwin was widely mourned, and he’s continued to be indispensable.
Yet Gershwin’s output has numerous hidden corners. In some ways he’s been taken for granted, not least by academia.
In 2006 music scholar Howard Pollack delivered George Gershwin: His Life and Work, 884 pages of objective research. But a hole remains in the lack of any critical edition of the scores. Rhapsody in Blue alone exists in multiple versions, each with its own anomalies or cuts. The recorded legacy is equally tangled, and many key recordings remain out of print, among them Houston City Opera’s 1976 Porgy and Bess (the most generally satisfying).
Corporate blindness and shaky finances have no doubt played a part. But might there perhaps be lingering high-brow suspicion of the chameleon Gershwin?
Peering down at his concert works in 1929, the American commentator Paul Rosenfeld found ‘second-hand ideas and ecstasies’, ‘brutal calculated effects’, and no structural solidity.
Britain’s Wilfrid Mellers made similar, if more gentle, remarks some 30 years later.
In the Rhapsody and its successors, linking material can indeed be weak, but the relationship between melodies and context is subtler than critics have suggested. And even when our heads might agree with their comments, our hearts don’t. We keep on listening, keep finding sustenance, keep humming the tunes.
At the back of this gibing lies the notion of Gershwin as a force of nature, someone who created magic from the sounds of New York but lacked the schooling to expand the magic further. This is distorting. His passions in classical music ranged widely, from Bach to Alban Berg.
Musical training may have been piecemeal, but he sought out tutors throughout his life. His piano teacher Charles Hambitzer was an early influence; Gershwin said he made him ‘harmony conscious’. In the 1930s, Joseph Schillinger helped lighten his orchestrations; he also, more controversially, proposed mathematical formulae as a means of controlling material. Gershwin requested help from 20th-century gods such as Ravel, Stravinsky, Nadia Boulanger and Schoenberg (a tennis partner in Los Angeles). Henry Cowell and Wallingford Riegger, American experimentalists, also agreed; most others declined, not wishing to damage his natural gifts.
Debussy’s presence hovers round the harmonies of the placid Lullaby of 1919 for string quartet. The gestures of Italian verismo opera influence the 20-minute Blue Monday, doomed to one performance on Broadway in George White’s Scandals of 1922, though an important step toward Porgy and Bess. Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Chopin make their mark on Rhapsody in Blue, though not on its famous opening gambit, with the solo clarinet twiddling its notes then slithering and accelerating into the first theme.
Much of the Rhapsody’s colour range derives from its original orchestration by Ferde Grofé for Whiteman’s band. But the blue mood is embedded in Gershwin’s notes. The writer Carl Van Vechten told him he’d written ‘the foremost serious effort by an American composer’. An exaggeration then; an exaggeration now. Yet its passing fissures and banalities seem of no avail. Other American symphonic jazz from the 1920s belongs in a museum; only Rhapsody in Blue lives.
Despite the work’s success, Gershwin’s daily round continued unchanged. Always practical, he tailored his stage musicals to different star performers. The Broadway shows Lady Be Good! (1924) and Funny Face (1927) hung on the delightful pegs of Fred and Adele Astaire, crisply elegant dancers and singers.
His concert profile advanced alongside. In the Concerto in F for piano and orchestra (1925), the work’s abstract character emphasises its structural problems. But there’s still the lovely middle movement, a smoky, nocturnal beauty, featuring one of his most irresistible melodies.
Sections in the orchestral tone poem An American in Paris (1928) are more suavely knitted. Gershwin's complex personality seems ever reflected in his music’s brash energy, its innocent narcissism and braggadocio, also its lonely dark shadows.
His deepest longing was to create a full-length opera.
In 1926 after reading DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy he knew he had found his material. It took until 1934 for Gershwin to begin serious work on the story about Bess and the cripple Porgy, buffeted by fate in the black ghetto of Charleston’s Catfish Row. By then his dramatic skills had been strengthened through Strike Up the Band (1927), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and its darker sequel Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933): satirical musicals featuring big ensemble scenes, on the Gilbert and Sullivan model. Porgy and Bess, a work of much deeper emotions, added the easy flow of song, chorus and recitative found in Puccini. Further infusions came from African-American spirituals, and the modernities of Berg.
From its premiere in 1935, the opera had hurdles to overcome. Before opening night Gershwin consented to substantial cuts, only restored in full in 1976. Over time, changes in sensitivities and the social fabric have made the libretto’s broad characterisations susceptible to charges of racial stereotyping. But the big songs, topped by ‘Summertime’, remain unassailable, and Gershwin’s exuberantly dramatic effects often take one’s breath away.