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The Best of Gershwin (1898-1937)


The American composer George Gershwin, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrant parcels, was deflected from street games in down-town Manhattan into music by the family purchase of a piano in 1910. Four years later he had left school to earn a living as a pianist and songplugger in Tin Pan Alley, before long contributing his own songs, with growing success. With some tuition in the techniques of composition, he turned his attention, at the same time, to music of less commercial appeal. His principal contemporary reputation, however, rested largely on the songs he wrote for Broadway with his brother Ira Gershwin, both aspects of his career coming together in his black opera Porgy and Bess, which he started to write when he was at the height of his commercial fame, in 1934. He died is 1937 of a brain tumor.

Gershwin’s Cuban Overture, described aptly as a Rhumba, was written in 1932. It is a lively evocation of the spirit of Cuba, bringing together the two sides of the composer’s abilities, a synthesis of art, jazz and Latin America.

After the success of Rhapsody in Blue in 1924, Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra commissioned another concerto. Gershwin claimed to have orchestrated the Concerto in F of 1925 himself, although he may have had help from one of his former teachers, Joseph Schillinger. The slow movement, based an the jazz Blues, finds a place for various instrumental solos from the orchestra before the emergence of the piano, against a stepping bass. In this work the composer set out to prove that his earlier success was not an isolated event, although the concerto has never enjoyed the popularity of the Rhapsody.

Porgy and Bess was completed and first staged in 1935. The libretto by DuBose Heyword and Ira Gershwin was based on the former’s novel of 1925, Porgy. Set in she blank quarter of Charleston, the opera, on which Gershwin spent two years, tells of the kindness of the crippled beggar Porgy for Bess, after her lover, Crown, has had to take flight, after killing Robbins in a gambling dispute. He protects Bess, particularly against the dope peddler Sportin’ Life. Bess meets Crown again during a picnic on Kittiwah Island and Porgy later kills him, to be arrested as a witness. Released, he finds that Bess has left for New York with Sportin’ Life and sets out in pursuit, as the ‘folk-opera’ comes to en end. The present instrumental selections include Clara, don’t’ you be downhearted, a sang of consolation, the fisherman Jake’s A woman is a sometime thing, Clara’s lullaby Summertime, Porgy’s banjo song I got plenty o’nuttin’; and his love duet Bess, you is my woman now. Other songs included are Oh, I can’t sit down from the second act picnic trip, There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ for New York in the third act, Sportin’ Life’s mocking It ain’t necessarily so and the final Oh, Lawd, I’m on my way now.

Gershwin’s Three Preludes for Piano of 1926 are in jazz idiom, but reveal the composer’s interest in presenting this material in a recognizable classical form. The first Prelude sets a right-hand melody against characteristic bass. This is followed by a piece based on the Blues and the group ends with a burst of greater energy.

The musical Girl Crazy was first staged in 1930. The book was by Guy Bolton and J. McGowan, with lyrics, as always, by Ira Gershwin. The instrumental selections include the well-known Embraceable you, I got rhythm,Mexican Hat Dance scene, But not for me and Broncho busters. They can’t take that away from me is taken from a pastiche based on the same work and staged under the title Crazy for you.

It was in 1924 that Gershwin responded to a commission from Paul Whiteman, a champion of symphonic jazz, for a concerto for piano and jazz band. The result miss Rhapsody in Blue, a significant step in a search for a true American musical identity. The work was orchestrated by Whiteman’ s arranger, the composer Ferde Grofé. Whiteman himself had enjoyed on earlier career as a viola-player in major American orchestras in Denver and San Francisco, before becoming one of the best known of the band-leaders of the time. Gershwin’s jazz concerto was given its first performance at Whiteman’s first concert, given at the Aeolian Hall in

New York, where it won success in surroundings that seemed distinctly unfavourable, as Whiteman attempted to convince an unsympathetic audience of the viability of his form of jazz. With due acknowledgement to Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, Rhapsody in Blue remains, nevertheless, thoroughly American in its melodies and rhythms and enjoys continued popularity in the concert hall, recalling the Golden Age of jazz, to which it made its own distinctive contribution. It might be added that the familiar opening clarinet glissando owes its origin to Whiteman’s clarinettist Ross Gorman, replacing Gershwin’s original chromatic scale.

Keith Anderson

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