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How George Gershwin filmed Arnold Schoenberg at work and at play

Few composers have filmed one another, fewer still have paid for another’s recordings. George Gershwin did both for Arnold Schoenberg.

This rare film was shot by Gershwin in 1937. That summer he died of a brain tumour, aged 38. The film ends with a radio tribute by Schoenberg, recorded on July 12, the day after his friend’s tragic death. Below, exclusively for Slipped Disc, the recording expert Allan Evans explains how two so different composers could come to love and respect one another.


Gershwin and the far shores of modern music

by Allan Evans


fried ravel

A glance at the personages seen colliding at a New York birthday party on 7 March 1928 finds a singer Eva Gauthier, the sexy hostess, Oskar Fried, a monocled Berlin conductor and covert Bolshevik who was in to conduct Stravinsky and Ravel the following week with the New York Symphony, along with the birthday celebrant himelf seated at the piano, Ravel, who also arrived to conduct his own works before Fried, and at far right a beaming young Gershwin whose expression betrays delight in meeting his idol. One assumes that at some point Gershwin took over to play for all: he later asked Ravel for lessons.

Gershwin was savvy with new music. His first encounter with Schoenberg’s music came through Pierrot Lunaire, and after he acquired a score of the Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19. Later that year he heard the Kolisch Quartet play Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet in Paris. When Schoenberg sought exile from Germany in the United States, Gershwin sponsored a scholarship fund to aid students intent on studying with the newly arrived composer. Settling in California, Schoenberg had a tennis partner in Gershwin, who also took time out to paint and created the older master’s portrait while arranging for none other than Edward Weston to capture Schoenberg in photos.
Gershwin also generously funded studio time in Hollywood’s best sound lots to enable the Kolisch to record the four string quartets under their composer’s supervision. This was an unlikely project at the time as such music remained practically unknown and neglected in concerts and by the record industry. Schoenberg checked his scores as the Kolisch played their entire repertoire from memory.
Categorized as composer working in lesser, popular genres that could not attain a higher level, Gershwin kept abreast with emerging luminaries. Soon after meeting Ravel he came to Vienna where he played for and impressed Alban Berg, bringing back to New York a copy of Berg’s Lyric Suite, a work he treasured, and in time, bought its premiere recording by the Galimir Quartet.
Armed with a home movie camera, Gershwin captured Schoenberg in action at his Los Angeles home and after his sudden premature death, Schoenberg recorded a tribute to his young admiring colleague.
One may speculate how Gershwin would have absorbed such influences and pursuits, had he lived longer, but admirers such as Toch, Schoenberg, and Berg insisted that he follow the destiny of his unique gifts. During their meeting in New York, Gershwin modestly begged Ravel for composition lessons. Refusing him on the grounds that he would become a second-rate Ravel rather than remain a first-rate Gershwin, Ravel then queried what Gershwin’s annual income amounted to and when told, remarked “then I sthould study with you!’ Ravel’s piano concertos attest to how he later explored Gershwin, on his own.
©Allan Evans 2013
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  1. Very many thanks for this. I knew that Gershwin had funded the world première recording of Schönberg’s then recently completed fourth quartet but I had no idea that he’d funded recordings of all four!

  2. Peter Metrinko says:

    Excellent reportage — thank you for this and the insights it generated.

  3. Forgive me for delving into a related topic. The Kolisch Quartet Schoenberg recordings are remarkable documents, and are still deservedly available. One of my teachers was Eugene Lehner, who was the violist of the Kolisch Quartet before he joined the Boston Symphony. Mr. Lehner could be quite a raconteur on occasion, and he would sometimes tell stories of Schoenberg, Bartok, Dohnanyi and other great musicians he had known. Mr. Lehner told us about the quartet’s always playing from memory, and of the Schoenberg recordings being made that way. However, he didn’t think much of the quartet’s recordings, as he considered them to contain too many mistakes.

    It’s appropriate that we take a moment to remember the Kolisch Quartet for their tremendous contribution to modern music. Let’s not forget that in addition to their pioneering Schoenberg performances and recordings are (among many others) premieres of most of the Bartok quartets and Frank Bridge’s great 3rd String Quartet.

  4. Who is standing to Gershwin’s right?

    • The gentleman to the right of Gershwin is the conductor Manoah Leide-Tedesco

    • From left: Oskar Fried, conductor; Eva Gauthier, singer; Ravel at piano; Manoah Leide-Tedesco, composer-conductor; and composer George Gershwin

  5. Allan Evans does a nice job of highlighting the reasons Gershwin and Schoenberg had quite a bit in common. But his description also, sadly, reminds me of the prejudice Gershwin encountered during his short life from certain sections of the musical establishment because of a misguided desire to categorize music, then as now. As Gershwin once said: “From any sound critical standpoint, labels mean nothing at all. Good music is good music, even if you call it ‘oysters’”. Reading the description “categorized as a composer working in lesser, popular genres working in lesser, popular genres that could not attain a higher level” (which is in itself a problematic description linking two disparate elements, ‘lesser’ and ‘popular’) I presume Mr Evans is referring to how people viewed Gershwin at the time, and not I hope, how he is viewed today; by the time of this meeting with Ravel Gershwin had already written, amongst other works, a beautiful piano concerto and was, at the time, currently working on his tone poem An American in Paris. If Gershwin was perceived by some of the ‘serious musical press’ as “working in lesser, popular genres” certainly those close to him (including Ravel) wouldn’t have seen it that way.

    As for what took place at the March 7 1928 party at which Gershwin and Ravel are photographed, Gershwin did indeed play the piano for Ravel, and quite extensively. We know this from Ravel’s own account, as he was “dumbfounded”, as recounted by Eva Gauthier: “The thing that astonished Ravel was the facility with which George scaled the most formidable technical difficulties and his genius for weaving complicated rhythms and his great gift for melody”. During Ravel’s 1928 USA trip he also attended Gershwin’s show Funny Face in New York and Gershwin escorted Ravel around some of the Harlem jazz clubs where he introduced Ravel to many of the distinguished jazz musicians who were good friends of Gershwin – basically Gershwin introduced Ravel to American jazz on this trip!

    And absolutely, Gershwin had an insatiable appetite for new music, but he also had strong views of his own on how music should be written and made it clear to Schoenberg on one occasion that he would not be following Schoenberg’s path (to Schoenberg’s slight irritation at the time!). Though Gershwin was fascinated by complex musical structure, by the mathematical in music, by the effect of multiple overtones on complex harmony, his music always had a strong tonal centre and had he lived I believe he would have been a much needed counterbalance to the Schoenbergian ideal that became such a dominant force in contemporary classical music during the 20th century.

    Finally, if I may, I’d like to put to rest that old chestnut that Ravel, in response to Gershwin’s request for lessons, asked Gershwin how much he made. It’s like the myth of the falling bookcase killing Alkan, it refuses to die! The conversation was actually supposedly between Gershwin and Stravinsky, but Stravinsky also strongly denied the conversation took place. It is almost certainly apocryphal.

  6. Many thanks for this!

  7. John Parfrey says:

    Wonderful piece, Norman. Kolisch was on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin for many years until he was forced to retire at the (then) mandatory age of 70! Wisconsin’s loss was Yale’s gain where he became a distinguished faculty member until his death some years later. I remember one night in Old Music Hall, he and I were sitting on chairs near the parking lot exit, both waiting for rides. I asked him about Oscar Levant, who I knew he had known during those years in California. All he’d say was “He was a crazy man!” How I wish I had thought of more substantive questions to ask him during our wait! I believe he had a Strad and a Guarnarius. In his last semester, the school had a series of Schonberg concerts in his honor, one of which was a performance of Pierrot Lunaire with RK playing the violin part and among the rest of the faculty ensemble, old colleagues Stefan Auber and Benar Heifetz joining him. What a thrill that was!

  8. As always Allan, we learn at your feet from your depth of scholarship and knowledge. You are doing what so many of us wish they had the opportunity and time to do. It is a true treasure to have someone like you doing this important work! Bravo! (I also thank your assistant, Romolo!)

  9. Wonderful! Thank you.

  10. Thanks for a very enjoyable, informative article.

  11. Miquel Gaspa says:

    Thanks very much to give it to public knowledge.

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