George Gershwin is undoubtedly one of America's most famous composers because of his originality and his ability to create new forms of music from existing genres. A gifted composer and songwriter, Gershwin adapted many new ideas that can be seen in such compositions as Rhapsody in Blue, Porgy and Bess, and An American in Paris. This paper will examine Gershwin's life and how his works challenged many of the conventional definitions in the musical community.
A child of Jewish emigrants, Gershwin grew up in the Lower East Side of New York. He was drawn to music as a young boy and began playing a piano his family bought and intended for his brother to play. He shocked his family when he played the piano by imitating the movement of the keys on a player piano. With practice, his talent exceeded that of his contemporaries. In fact, many that knew Gershwin said that his ideas came to him through the act of playing the piano. (Hyland 14)
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects about Gershwin's talent is that it was natural to him. He never attended a school of music and the extent of his musical heritage consisted of his father sometime playing records on the Victrola.
Despite this scant musical influence, Gershwin is credited for being the "link between the jazz camp and the intellectuals" (Hyland 67). Edward Oxford claims, "the sophisticated personification of America's Jazz Age was born on Sept. 26, 1898" (Oxford). Indeed, from humble beginnings, Gershwin was able to discover not only a love for music but also a talent that would bring him fame.
Gershwin was also surrounded by the elements of America's jazz age, which heavily influenced his style and manner. Contemporary jazz introduced a variety of unconventional jazz forms and experiments that combined jazz with the symphonic tradition. Gershwin is noted to be the leader of such original sounds including "symphonic jazz, scoring jazz and pseudo-jazz rhythms"(O'Brien 478) composed for a full symphony orchestra. His music was a breath of fresh air to an America that was poised between two wars.
Additionally, much of Gershwin's music lends itself to African-American jazz.
According to Michael Feinstein, a Gershwin scholar, Gershwin "loved to go to Harlem to listen to all these musicians play, and he hung out with the guys... He was a privileged white who was allowed to participate because of his talent" (Feinstein qtd. In Mason). In addition, Sheryl Faltow adds that Gershwin's music was influenced by traditional Jewish music, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley. (Flatow) One defining characteristic of Gershwin's music is the blue note, "which added a hint of sadness to even seemingly upbeat tunes" (Flatow).
Despite the popularity of his songs, Irving Berlin once stated that Gershwin is probably most remembered for being "the only songwriter I know who became a composer" (Berlin qtd. In Teachout). Undoubtedly, his songs are well crafted, melodic harmonies that remain timeless.
However, the composer-turned-songwriter was much more than that. When examining the works of Gershwin, we cannot overlook his ability to bring together different forms of music that have proven to be icons of American culture. Flatow describes Gershwin as America's "first and arguably foremost musical genius, a crossover artist long before the term existed" (Flatow). Perhaps the greatest example of this genius can be seen in Rhapsody in Blue for piano and orchestra.
In 1924, when he was just 25 years old, Gershwin earned notoriety for this composition. Interestingly, the piece was billed as an "An Experiment in Modern Music'" (Crawford). Rhapsody in Blue demonstrates the rhythmically charged element of the new form of music called jazz that "most concert musicians and critics considered beneath them" (Crawford). In fact, some composers called such musical diversions "intellectual and spiritual debauchery" (Davidson 921). However, the piece was popular among audiences and critics alike. In fact, it earned Gershwin a place in history as the man who "brought jazz into the concert hall" (Crawford). An interesting aspect about Rhapsody in Blue is that while most considered it a new departure for Gershwin, Crawford maintains that it "reaffirmed" (Crawford) the relationship and connection that Gershwin had with classical music.
Additionally, music scholar Robert Kimball asserts that Rhapsody in Blue was "an extraordinary event that bridged the gap between classical and popular music" (Kimball). This was certainly Gershwin's intent. Kimbell notes how it was Gershwin's desire to create a piece that was a "musical kaleidoscope of America -- of our vast melting pot...our blues, our metropolitan madness" (Kimball qtd. In Jerome). Over the years, Rhapsody in Blue has seen many different versions. It has been reworked to appear jazzier than the original. Other versions of the work present us with slower tempos and dramatic orchestra sections. Regardless of the many transformations it has experienced, Rhapsody in Blue still remains an excellent musical achievement for Gershwin.
Following Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin also experienced success with Lady, Be Good!, which starred Fred and Adele Astaire. The unique aspect of this composition lies in the fact that the songs were and integral part of the book. Gershwin and his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics, wanted the songs be an integral part of the book, so they created the songs and lyrics directly from the plot and characters of the story, which was "virtually unheard of" in their time. (Flatow) Again, we see how Gershwin was always up to musical another challenge.
Gershwin, however, would not focus all of his energies on the jazz compositions. After Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin devoted more of his time to concert music. In 1925, He composed the famous Concerto in F. For piano and orchestra.
Similarly, Gershwin's musical accomplishments can be seen in An American in Paris. Gershwin's goal was to "portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere" (Gershwin qtd. In Oxford). Commonly referred to as a "tone poem," Gershwin combines jazz, dance, and blues in An American in Paris. Gershwin called the piece "pure blues" (Hyland 126). Many critics admired Gershwin's harmony and rhythm in An American in Paris, noting that it demonstrates Gershwin's advancement as a talented musician.
In 1935, Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess, debuted on Broadway. Many critics consider this play to be a milestone in musical history. (Wilson 414) The audience considered the performance a success, but many critics disagreed with them. Simply put, many critics did not know what to think of Porgy and Bess. Again, we see how Gershwin combined elements of opera with theater. Tazewell Thompson, who directed the production, asserts that it is a:
folk opera, because it's about people living in a specific place, a black Southern ghetto... It's a religious experience, because of its numerous spirituals and its gospel feel. It's a Broadway musical, and it has a jazz score, and the blues sweeps throughout it. And yes, it is an opera, because it is sung from beginning to end' (Thompson qtd. In Gardner)
Additionally, Porgy and Bess is unique is because rather than using dialogue to drive the action of the play, it relies more on recitative. (Wilson 261). While many considered the opera racist for its time, today Porgy and Bess is regarded as one of America's greatest operas.
Crawford notes that Gershwin is "remembered more for songs like Fascinating Rhythm and I Got Rhythm. (Crawford). I Got Rhythm was introduced by Ethel Merman in the musical Girl Crazy. I Got Rhythm displays a pattern of circulation revealing that "once a popular song enters the public marketplace, there is no predicting how it will be used" (Crawford). For instance, I Got Rhythm was recorded by various singers, pianists, swing bands and jazz performers. Gershwin's unique style can also certainly be seen in such songs as Someone to Watch Over Me, Kiss Me Again, and Baby Face. Gershwin appealed to many ages with his music as well. For instance, the younger generation enjoyed such hits as Betty Coed, Collegiate, and Yes. We have No Bananas. Many of these tunes were often remixed to accommodate the dance crowd. Nevertheless, Gershwin's name and songs gained a roaring popularity during this time.
Crawford maintains that the melodies of Gershwin's works are "surely the chief reason for their appeal. They share with many of his popular songs a trait that helps to imprint them firmly on the listener's memory: the opening material is consistently restated before contrasting material is heard" (Crawford). This style is what elevated Gershwin from the lower ranks of musicians. Scholars did begin to appreciate the scope of Gershwin's talent as nothing short of genius.
It should also be noted that Gershwin often collaborated with his brother, Ira. Hyland contends that it was that very collaboration of the brothers that "enhanced the talents of both" (Hyland 82). Gershwin often wrote the music first, while Ira provided powerful lyrics to Gershwin's masterful tunes. In fact, Ira was "one of the most skilled craftsmen in modern popular…