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The Gershwin Moment (continued)

As readers of this blog are aware, I have for some time been proclaiming a “new Gershwin” – in, e.g., the New York Times and the Times Literary Supplement. In Classical Music in America (2005), he ranks with Ives as our most important concert composer (my view of Copland, in that book, irked some reviewers). My book-in-progress is a study of Gershwin and Rouben Mamoulian, the theatrical genius who directed Porgy and Bess. And my latest Gershwin rant takes the form of a review of Larry Starr’s superb new George Gershwin (Yale University Press), in the current Times Literary Supplement. Gershwin is no longer patronized as a “pops” composer, as an inspired dilettante. “The new Gershwin is versatile, protean, universal,” I write. Here’s the full review:
When George Gershwin died in 1937, Arnold Schoenberg eulogized him as a “great composer.” Jascha Heifetz felt the need to admonish his colleagues: “We should be ashamed that we didn’t appreciate this man more when he was here in our midst”; Heifetz ingeniously transcribed and unforgettably recorded half a dozen numbers from Porgy and Bess; he had hoped for a Gershwin violin concerto. Fritz Reiner had Robert Russell Bennett compose a Porgy and Bess symphonic synthesis — and left a 1945 recording of it, with the Pittsburgh Symphony, that remains an exemplar of virtuosic and affecting Gershwin conducting. Schoenberg, Heifetz, and Reiner were of course not American-born — and neither was Maurice Ravel, who when he told Nadia Boulanger he would not presume to teach Gershwin wrote one of the most moving tributes ever paid one composer by another. The significance of these vignettes is that no American-born classical musician contemporary with Gershwin ever had such nice things to say about him. Instead, the tone was set by the critic Paul Rosenfeld, whose causes included Aaron Copland and Roy Harris, and who in 1933 detected in Gershwin the Russian Jew “a weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence of the circumstance that he new world attracted the less stable types.” Here is Copland in 1937, when asked to compare his music with “Mr. Gershwin’s jazz”: “Gershwin is serious up to a point,” Copland replied. “My idea was to intensify it. Not what you get in the dance hall but to use it cubistically – to make it more exciting than ordinary jazz.” Virgil Thomson, reviewing the premiere of Porgy and Bess in 1935, found it “crooked folklore and halfway opera.” (Dmitri Shostakovich, encountering Porgy in Moscow in 1945, called it “magnificent” and compared Gershwin to Mussorgsky.) As recently as 1980, an American contributor to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians dismissed Gershwin in fewer than two pages; the tone of the entry was Copland’s or Thomson’s: “limited experience in developing musical material,” “serious works are structurally defective,” etc.
With the passing of modernism, a new musical topography is today upon us — and the notion that Gershwin is not a “real” composer is no longer credible. American music historians are flocking to Gershwin studies. David Schiff’s 100-page Rhapsody in Blue handbook (1992) set a new standard for acute Gershwin discourse. Howard Pollack’s 800-page Gershwin biography (2006) contributed a sprawling information compendium. In this fresh company, Larry Starr’s new Gershwin book constitutes a succinct manifesto for the “new Gershwin.” His comprehensive title notwithstanding, Starr’s essential topic (writing for Yale’s “Broadway Masters” series) is Gershwin the song composer. And his essential theme is that Gershwin’s songs are not only stirring by subtly sophisticated.
Starr’s analysis of “The Man I Love” is a tour de force, shrewd and heart-felt in equal measure. As he shows, the diatonic simplicity with which the verse begins, matched by Ira Gershwin’s seemingly banal lyrics (“When the mellow moon begins to beam”), evolves toward mature chromatics and sentiments: a calibrated prelude to the refrain (“Some day he’ll come along”). The result: “nothing less than the metamorphosis of childhood fantasy into adult . . . sexual longing.” Starr comparably stresses the organic relationship of songs to shows — an emphasis culminating in a chapter-long treatment of Of Thee I Sing as a species of integrated musical theater far preceding the Rodgers & Hammerstein landmarks. Starr reminds us that this longest-running book musical of the 1930s, recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for drama, begins with an overture dispensing with the “traditional curtain-raising musical gesture leading quickly into a memorable tune.” Instead, Gershwin supplies “aggressive fragmentary ideas.” This overture-analysis sets the stage for further analysis: the show’s “short, straightforward, easily remembered musical motifs,” some of which are deliberate clichés, suit its characters, situations and language, even its “open-ended, unconventional formal structuring.”
The logical climax of Starr’s book is a final peroration on Gershwin and cultural fluidity. Gershwin contributed to “blurring, perhaps even collapsing, the distinction between American ‘art music’ and American ‘popular music,'” Starr writes. And he crucially adds:
“As a composer, he never seriously evinced a divided allegiance. For this reason it is ultimately erroneous to speak of a rapprochement between cultivated and vernacular in Gershwin’s art; his music tells us in the clearest possible way that, while the schism might be our perception, it is not his aesthetic reality . . . The efforts of [Leonard] Bernstein and others to bridge the gap — or the abyss — that separates ‘classical’ and ‘popular’ in American culture must command our admiration. Yet Gershwin set a singular benchmark in this area, and it is simply because he never believed in the validity of the schism to begin with. His oeuvre . . . proceeds from no fundamental position of illness or imbalance whatsoever. There is a terrific feeling of healthiness to Gershwin’s art — a healthiness in relation to aesthetic, cultural, racial and any number of other perplexing matters — that may strike us as naïve. But this is our problem.”
It was partly through “healthiness” — his personal immunity to chronic American insecurities of cultural status — that Gershwin blithely transcended the schisms of his day. Ira put it in a nutshell when he observed that “after writing the ‘Great American Opera’ George wrote some of the best hits he ever did in his life” for the Astaire-Rogers film Shall We Dance. For Gershwin, the road to the concert hall and opera house was no Stairway to Paradise; a model of sanity, he traversed level ground when moving serendipitously from Hollywood to Carnegie Hall and back.
If the old Gershwin was an inspired dilettante, the new Gershwin is versatile, protean, universal. Starr writes of Porgy and Bess: “It represented a truly radical stance to suggest that a small and highly individual community of impoverished black people in Charleston could serve to present humanity . . . writ large.” It also represented a recapitulation of Dvorak’s vision of “Negro melodies” fostering an inspirational and iconic American style, treating persons of color not as exotics but as a metaphor for humankind. Gershwin’s first, decisive sampling of classical music was the Dvorak G-flat major Humoresque, performed at Public School 25 by Maxie Rosenzweig. Dvorak’s New York pupil Rubin Goldmark later taught Gershwin (if perhaps not very much). With the new Gershwin in play, it is time to connect the dots.
If the old Gershwin was “unstable,” impure, in limbo, betwixt and between, the new Gershwin is wholesome, ecumenical. He was the American composer who embraced Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood, Broadway and Yiddish theater, Paris and Vienna (who else among his American contemporaries so esteemed Alban Berg?). He died, age 38, poised to transfigure a fractured and stratified twentieth century cultural landscape. The Gershwin book that takes not of that fact is the Gershwin book that needs writing today.


  1. Martin Spanbook says:

    New Grove Dictionary: is it possible that the page limit was the editorial staff’s rather than the writer’s?
    “No American born classical musician…..”: a sweeping statement which presumes knowledge of every verbal/written expression by the native composers of Gershwin’s time. A tall order, indeed.

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