Gershwin Again, with Nuances

Joseph Horowitz’s article on Gershwin in today’s Times reiterates the usual historical positions on him. One one side are the musicians (Copland and Thomson are quoted) who considered Gershwin’s music lowbrow and never took it seriously. On the other side are those who find in longevity irrefutable evidence of artistic success, and therefore consider Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris among the great classics of American music. As usual, allow me to distance myself from both sides.

I have always taken Gershwin completely seriously as a composer. As a matter of fact, when I was a 11-year-old fan of Mozart and Schubert and Grieg and Rachmaninoff, it disturbed me that there were, seemingly, no composers from America. Then I discovered Gershwin, and it was like a window opened into a wonderful world I had thought I could only look at from outside. I remember in grade school being so intently absorbed in a biography of Gershwin that it took a teacher yelling my name most of a minute to get my attention. I played the solo piano version of Rhapsody in Blue at 12, and ingested it as ravenously as though it had been a succulent cheese and I a starving man.

As my taste matured, however, I came to feel that Rhapsody in Blue – Gershwin’s first major work, after all – and An American in Paris were kind of inept in their piecemeal pastiche technique, a new tune every few measures, attempts to write classical music by someone who hadn’t figured it out yet. I graduated to the Concerto in F, the piece with which I think Gershwin hit his stride, and I also came to love the Cuban Overture and even the little-played Second Rhapsody. And of course Porgy and Bess is one of my favorite operas (and to those who claim it isn’t “really” an opera, I would ask, what are the meanings of “isn’t,” “really,” and “opera” in that sentence, and what do you get out of making such an empty argument?). So today I find Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris kind of painful to listen to – but otherwise I remain a tremendous Gershwin fan. And, as with the bulk of my opinions, I never find this position echoed anywhere in the repetitive media discourse about the subject.