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The Gershwin Moment

Some months ago I received an email from an exemplar of inquisitive musicianship: the pianist Kirill Gerstein, whom I had never met. (We mutually know a peerless Hungarian musical pedagogue: Ferenc Rados.)

Gerstein had recorded a Gershwin album and wanted to know if I were interested in writing a note for it.

I was more than interested. Not only do I believe in George Gershwin; I believe we are embarking on a Gershwin Moment.

That is: modernism has departed, and so (sooner or later) will the Standard Narrative for American classical music that we learned from Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Leonard Bernstein. The Standard Narrative penalized both Gershwin and Charles Ives as gifted dilettantes. Roy Harris was the “great white hope.” No one today would put Harris ahead of Gershwin or Ives.

Commensurate with the Gershwin Moment is the demise of the high/low bifurcation of American music, which after World War I insured that American classical music would stay white. Gerstein is a classical pianist with a jazz degree (from the Berklee College of Music). Like Gershwin, he doesn’t bifurcate. In fact, his new recorded performances of Rhapsody in Blue and the Concerto in F abound with flourishes of clairvoyant improvisation.

Here’s a teaser. And here (below) is my album note:


Historically, the concert music of George Gershwin has more impressed foreign-born than American-born classical musicians. And outsiders to the American experience, generally, have appreciated aspects of American music more taken for granted at home. The classic instance is Antonin Dvořák, who resided in New York City and Iowa between 1892 to 1895. The most famous and controversial of all his recorded utterances, reported in the New York Herald, prophesied that “the future music of this country must be founded upon what are called the Negro melodies.” The spirituals of the American South had struck Dvořák as an epiphany, “music that suits itself to any mood or purpose.” If Brahms had quoted Hungarian dance tunes, if Dvořák himself drew instruction from Bohemian song and dance, American composers could fashion “a great and noble school of music” by mining the African-American motherlode.

So steeped in plantation song is the plaintive Largo of Dvořák’s New World Symphony that it was turned into a beloved synthetic spiritual: “Goin’ Home.” Much less famous is the American Suite Dvořák composed a year later, in 1894; comprising a series of New World snapshots, it marks a further, ingenious appropriation of minstrel and plantation song. This was also the year of the G-flat Humoresque – music so “American” most Americans assume an American wrote it. Another Dvořák Humoresque, in F major, begins with a bluesy tune Gershwin might have composed three decades later. Serendipitously, it was the G-flat Humoresque, wafting down from Maxie Rosenzweig’s Brooklyn flat, that first inspired Gershwin to become a composer.

The immediate influence of Dvořák’s prophecy was great. It was a former Dvořák student, William Arms Fisher, who turned the Largo into “Goin’ Home.” Dvořák’s New York amanuensis, Harry Burleigh, transformed “Deep River” into a grave concert song sung the world over by Marian Anderson and Paul Robe son. Via the machinations of Burleigh and Fisher, the once celebrated black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor also signed onto Dvořák’s project.

But Dvořák’s New World aspirations did not resonate with the American modernists who came next. They favored a shiny new aesthetic purged of the past. Dvořák had written of “Negro melodies”: “they are pathetic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will.” Aaron Copland disagreed; “From the composer’s viewpoint,” he wrote, jazz had “only two expressions: the well-known ‘blues’ mood, and the wild, abandoned, almost hysterical and grotesque mood so dear to the youth of all ages.” “Any serious composer,” he added, would quickly become aware of these “severe limitations.” Of “Mr. Gershwin’s jazz,” Copland said: “Gershwin is serious up to a point. My idea was to intensify [jazz] . . . to use it cubistically – to make it more exciting than ordinary jazz.”

And so, during his short lifetime, George Gershwin — heir to Dvořák’s prophecy — was a shunned outsider to American classical music. The influential American music narratives written by Copland and Virgil Thomson simply omitted him. America’s leading journalistic apostle of musical modernism, Paul Rosenfeld, rebuked him as a dilettante. Who today would endorse Rosenfeld’s insistence that Copland’s jazz-influenced Piano Concerto of 1927 was an improvement on Gershwin’s “hash derivative,” that Gershwin disclosed “a weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence that the new world attracted the less stable types”?

The Gershwin threat, and the jazz threat of which it was a part, were symptoms of a youthful musical high culture borrowed from Europe – and hence obsessed with pedigree. With the singular exception of the New York Philharmonic, American orchestras for decades segregated the Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, and An American in Paris as “pops” fare. The Boston Symphony first gave these works on subscription in 1997, 2005, and 2005, respectively. The Chicago Symphony waited until 2000 for all three. The Metropolitan Opera first gave Porgy and Bess in 1985.

It was of course in the realm of popular music that Dvořák’s prophecy came true. More than in Europe, American music after World War I was bifurcated between classical and popular – a bifurcation that was also, to a degree remarkable and disturbing, a split between white and black. The Oklahoma-born Roy Harris was even called a “white hope” in the unfulfilled interwar quest for the Great American Symphony. In retrospect, what American music needed was not another Copland or Harris, but a mighty interloper to rescue American classical music from itself. But George Gershwin died at the age of 38 in 1937.

Olin Downes summarized in The New York Times: “His value may have been exaggerated… He never passed a certain point as a ‘serious’ composer.” As ever, America’s European-born conductors, composers, and instrumentalists thought differently. Otto Klemperer led his own, dirge-like transcription of Gershwin’s Second Prelude at the Hollywood Bowl Gershwin Memorial Concert. Arnold Schönberg eulogized Gershwin as “a great composer.” Jascha Heifetz, who had hoped for a Gershwin Violin Concerto, said: “We should be ashamed that we did not appreciate this man more when he was in our midst.” Other Europeans speaking up for Gershwin included Maurice Ravel and Dmitri Shostakovich – composers of great reputation with nothing to lose.

As a student at the Special Music School for gifted children in Voronezh, Russia, Kirill Gerstein was from a very early age infatuated with jazz, which he knew from his parents’ extensive record collection. At fourteen, he met Gary Burton in St. Petersburg, leading to a scholarship to study jazz piano at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “A famous American piano pedagogue said to me, ‘Berklee??? And what would you be studying there?’ When I meekly answered ‘Jazz,’ he looked away and said, ‘I have no further questions.’” Gerstein adds: “At that time, Berklee was mainly non-classical. But in fact, some of the best classical analysis courses I’ve ever had were at Berklee. And now they’ve merged with the Boston Conservatory. They offer a comprehensive unified curriculum – from classical to jazz, Baroque to bluegrass, film music to hip-hop. Which bodes well for music education that’s stylistically fluid and unconstrained by artificial barriers.”

Berklee could only have fortified Gerstein’s mission to pursue a classical music career that would integrate his passion for spontaneous musical expression. When he performs the Schumann Piano Concerto, he does not improvise. But his reading bristles with spur-of-the-moment inspiration: a piquant voicing, a rhythmic eruption. Sonically, he works in shifting watercolors versus solidified oils. It is Gershwin’s Concerto in F, however, that becomes a full-scale playground for Gerstein’s dual schooling.

In fact, Gershwin’s legacy seems more protean than ever. No one any longer questions his pedigree. And he remains a singularly malleable and promiscuous stylist. With the exception of J. S. Bach, no other concert composer produced music susceptible to such a bewildering range of readings. Gershwin himself, overseeing the premiere of Porgy and Bess, made it very clear that John Bubbles could sing “It Ain’t Necessarily So” in his way; there was no “Gershwin way.”

The music on the present Gerstein disc is a further case in point. There does not even exist a remotely definitive edition of the Rhapsody in Blue – its instrumentation, its duration remain variable. There are two orchestrations, both by Ferde Grofé – one for the Paul Whiteman Band, the other for symphony orchestra (Gershwin afterward did his own orchestrating). Gershwin’s own two recordings, with different musical contents, are lean and driving. Oscar Levant, the pianist most closely associated with Gershwin, adopted meatier sonorities. Leonard Bernstein’s well-known reading proposed a Slavic expansiveness. It bears mentioning that Rhapsody in Blue was a 1930s sensation in Soviet Russia, and that its big tune strikingly resembles the “love theme” from Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet. The Concerto in F, historically, has been a specialty of French pianists.

All these artists, Gershwin included, played Gershwin by the book. Gerstein does not. He adds embellishments of many kinds. For the Concerto’s slow movement, he interpolates a cadenza. I asked him about all this. He said:

“The performances on the CD are culled from four consecutive concerts in St. Louis – and what I played was different every time. My intention is to strike a delicate balance – not too classical, not too jazzy. The jazzing up of Gershwin can easily be overdone. I think there is a fine proportion that’s implicit. As for the pieces themselves, I think they’re more masterly than is often perceived. In the Concerto in F, the orchestration is Stravinsky-like in its precision and transparency. This is often overlooked. And it’s even more the case for Rhapsody in Blue in the Whiteman band version that we’ve used – it’s chamber music. The more time you invest in rehearsal and refinement, the more impressive these masterpieces appear. I’ve played Rhapsody in Blue since maybe 2006. It took me some time to find my way – it’s such a volatile stylistic blend, second by second.

“There are moments where he’s alluding to jazz and interrupts to say: ’I know Rachmaninoff, I can do that. I can do Tchaikovsky, no problem.’ It’s a piece that’s naturally playful. The Concerto in F I first played in 2012. Since then, the improvised interpolations have expanded a bit. I’m not trying for ‘historical accuracy’ in interpretation. Here I’m simply responding to the stylistic threads.”

In sum: Gershwin was a premature harbinger of musical synergies we now take for granted. And American music is today verging on a Gershwin Moment long overdue. In thr world of American musicology, music historians are suddenly flocking to Gershwin in droves; a Gershwin critical edition was initiated in 2013 at the University of Michigan. In the world of American orchestras and opera companies, Gershwin is at long last a ubiquitous mainstream participant. A mere decade before Kirill Gerstein arrived in Boston, fledgling virtuosos were typically counselled not to acquire the Gershwin concerto lest it tarnish their image. No young pianist would today be so advised.

If the old Gershwin was an inspired dilettante, the new Gershwin is versatile, protean, universal. The old Gershwin was impure, in limbo, betwixt and between. The new Gershwin is wholesome, ecumenical. For Kirill Gerstein – a voracious learner — Gershwin is both a fulfillment and a beginning. What about those Dvořák Humoresques? Stay tuned.



  1. Always fascinating. Thanks Joe

  2. Kathleen Hulser says

    Love how your research is rewriting DNA of American music

  3. Marvelous performance, marvelous essay.

  4. Fine notes, make me want to hear Gerstein’s recording. The U.S. “modernists” rejection of Gershwin reflects an ugly bias against genuinely popular American culture that still exists today.

  5. In line with Gerstein’s approach, I can recommend the Bollani/Chailly recording from 2011 and, a favorite of mine, the Marcus Roberts recording from the mid-90’s. Both are marvelously anachronistic, with the Roberts recording, in particular, heading off in several sections into territory unknown in 1924.

    Concerning improvisation, imagine if pianists were permitted by polite society to similarly re-charge Mozart concerti, for example, which were famously left incomplete by the composer for completion by performers. These perfect little jewels could use a swift kick. I think we can stand a few more surprises in our cultural diet.

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