|About this Recording
8.559107 - GERSHWIN: American in Paris (An) / Porgy and Bess
Unquestionably one of the greatest melodists of the twentieth century, the American composer, pianist and conductor George Gershwin first made his name as the most prodigiously talented of an exceptional generation of composers writing for Broadway in the 1920s and 1930s. Though he would doubtless be remembered for his incomparable songs alone, Gershwin went on to write a number of concert works which have since become established in the repertory, including Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris and his most outstanding work, the opera Porgy and Bess. In the apt judgement of Merle Armstrong in his 1938 biography, Gershwin’s music articulated ‘the excitement, the nervousness and the movement of America’. George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York, on 26 th September 1898, the second of four children born to Moishe (Morris) Gershovitz and Rose Bruskin, both of whom had emigrated from Russia to the United States in the early 1890s. In 1910 the Gershwins bought an upright piano, originally intended for their eldest child Ira, although it was George who quickly displayed an unusual aptitude for the instrument. He studied with Charles Hambitzer, who introduced him to the classical piano repertoire including Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Ravel. Gershwin was later to study intermittently with a number of other teachers, including Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell and Joseph Schillinger.
In 1914, aged fifteen, Gershwin dropped out of high school to become a demonstration pianist and song-plugger for the music publishers Remick & Co. on Tin Pan Alley. Having had his first song published in 1916, he left Remick’s in March 1917 and found work as a rehearsal pianist for Miss 1917, a Broadway show by Jerome Kern and Victor Herbert. At the same time he was brought to the attention of Max Dreyfus, the head of Harms publishing company, and was subsequently engaged as a staff composer. In 1919 Gershwin wrote his first complete score for Broadway, La La Lucille, his first worldwide hit, Swanee, made famous by the singer Al Jolson who recorded it in 1920, and from 1920 to 1924 contributed the music for five of George White’s Scandals. Over a fourteen-year period following La La Lucille Gershwin musicals including Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931) and Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933) would grace the New York stage.
Gershwin’s entry into the world of concert music came in 1924 at the invitation of the bandleader and so-called ‘King of Jazz’, Paul Whiteman. Rhapsody in Blue for jazz band and piano, orchestrated by Ferde Grofé and first performed in New York’s Aeolian Hall on 12 th February 1924, was followed by the Piano Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928), the Second Rhapsody (1931), the Cuban Overture (1932) and the opera Porgy and Bess (1934-35). Tragically, other projected works including a string quartet, a symphony, a ballet score, an additional opera, and songs for a Kaufman-Hart musical never came to fruition. On 11 th July 1937 George Gershwin died at the age of 38 from a brain tumour.
The first work here included, the ten-minute orchestral suite Gershwin in Hollywood, is actually an arrangement by Robert Russell Bennett of some of Gershwin’s most popular songs including ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’, ‘A Foggy Day’, ‘Love Walked In’, ‘Nice Work If You Can Get It’ and ‘Love Is Here To Stay’.
Gershwin began work on An American in Paris in the spring of 1928 and its première by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra under Walter Damrosch took place later that year on 13 th December in Carnegie Hall (three years earlier in the same venue Damrosch had conducted the first performance of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F). In this hugely popular one-movement symphonic poem, whose colourful orchestration includes four saxophones and several taxi horns, the composer intended ‘to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere’. The melancholic blues theme announced by the solo trumpet, suggesting a sudden bout of homesickness on the part of the protagonist, is one of the finest Gershwin wrote.
Following the première in Boston’s Symphony Hall of his Second Rhapsody, conducted by Serge Koussevitsky on 29 th January 1932, Gershwin and several friends took a two-week holiday in Havana. The composer, fascinated by the small Cuban dance orchestras with their novel rhythms and unusual percussion instruments such as guiros, maracas, claves and bongos, was inspired to write the Cuban Overture. He orchestrated the work between 1 st and 9 th August 1932, completing it just a week before the first All-Gershwin Concert at the Lewisohn Stadium in New York, an open-air concert attended by some 18,000 people which was, according to the composer, ‘the most exciting night I have ever had’. Cast in Gershwin’s characteristic fast-slow-fast form, he wrote that he had ‘endeavoured to combine the Cuban rhythms with my original thematic material. The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of Cuban dance’.
Gershwin’s magnum opus, the three-act opera Porgy and Bess, was written to a libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Based on Heyward’s novel Porgy about life among the black inhabitants of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, the opera was started in late February 1934 and the seven hundred page full score was completed in September 1935. Heyward memorably described the idiosyncratic working methods of the Gershwin brothers, who ‘would get at the piano, pound, wrangle, swear, burst into weird snatches of song, and eventually emerge with a polished lyric’. It numbers amongst its classic songs ‘Summertime’, ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ and ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’. The orchestral suite heard on this recording, the Symphonic Picture from Porgy and Bess arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, has become the standard version since its première in 1943, this despite the fact that Gershwin made his own arrangement in 1936. Evidently long forgotten about by the time Bennett made his arrangement, Gershwin’s suite was retitled Catfish Row by Ira when it was rediscovered in 1958. The opera, a commercial and critical failure at the time, is now recognised as one of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century American music.
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