Wednesday, 27 April 2011

In Rhapsody Over Gershwin

In my teenage years, I bought my first jazz LP. It was George Gershwin, with Rhapsody in Blue on the A side, and An American in Paris on the B side. I was captivated then, and I still am today. His repertoire of classical compositions; solo works for piano, and musical theatre productions is unbelievably outstanding. Some of his greatest and most well known show songs were the result of collaboration with his elder Brother Ira. George wrote the music and Ira the lyrics. To George, "True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today".

George Gershwin
Gershwin was born in Brooklyn, New York on the 26th September 1898, and named Jacob Gershowitz. His parents were Russian Jews from St Petersburg who emigrated to America in the early 1890's. The family name was changed to Gershvin, with George changing the spelling to Gershwin after he became a professional musician.

His musical interest started at the age of 10 when he heard his friend's violin recital. The family bought a piano for Ira, "but to his parent's surprise, and Ira's relief, it was George who played it". Leaving school at the age of 15 he found his first job as a performer on New York City's Tin Pan Alley. His first published song in 1916 (aged 17) was called, "When you want 'Em you can't get 'Em, When you've got 'Em, You don't want 'Em". A number of other pieces followed, as Gershwin honed his wonderful musical style.

Maurice Ravel
Gershwin was influenced by French composers of the early twentieth century, and in turn, Maurice Ravel was impressed with Gershwin's abilities, commenting, "Personally, I find jazz most interesting; the rhythms, the way the melodies are handled, the melodies themselves. I have heard of George Gershwin's works, and I find them intriguing". Some commentators have said that the orchestrations in Gershwin's symphonic works often seem similar to those of Ravel; likewise, Ravel's two piano concertos evince an influence of Gershwin. Perhaps Ravel experts might like to pass comment on this.

Gershwin did ask to study with Ravel, but it is said that when Ravel heard how much Gershwin was earning, he replied to the effect, "You should give me lessons". In addition to the French influence, Gershwin was intrigued by the works of Shostakovitch, Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. He asked Schoenberg for composition lessons, which Schoenberg refused, saying, "I would only make you a bad Schoenberg, and you're such a good Gershwin already". This quote is similar to one credited to Ravel when Gershwin visited France in 1928, "Why be a second-rate Ravel, when you are a first-rate Gershwin?". Whatever the truth, I think it shows the high regard in which Gershwin was held.

In early 1937 Gershwin started complaining of blinding headaches, and was subsequently diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. He died in hospital on the 11th July 1937 at the age of 38. He'd been writing music for only 23 years; his output was extraordinary, and who knows how much more was to come. John O'Hara, writing in the Broadstreet Review at the time of his death, spoke for many when he said, "George Gershwin died on the 11th July 1937, but I don't have to believe it if I don't want to".

If I was to be stuck on a desert island and could take a selection of Gershwin's music with me, what would I take? I've just spent the best part of two hours deciding on this one, and I still keep changing my mind. The choice is so wonderfully hard. However, here are my choices.

Of the larger pieces.
  1. Rhapsody in Blue - this was his first major classical work written in 1924. Composed for orchestra and piano, it was premiered by Paul Whiteman's concert band in New York. For me, this is still his most popular work, and my favourite.
  2. An American in Paris - he was in Paris in 1928 when he composed this piece, and it's first performance was at Carnegie Hall on the 13th December 1928. Strange as it seems now it received mixed reviews, but it quickly became part of the standard repertoire in Europe and America.
  3. Porgy and Bess - written in 1935, Gershwin called it a 'folk opera', and is now widely regarded as one of the most important operas of the twentieth century.
Of his show songs, I selected five, but it could have been so many more. All of these songs have George writing the music, and Ira the lyrics.
  1. Embraceable You - from the 1930's show, 'Girl Crazy'. My favourite version is by Nat King Cole.
  2. I Got Rhythm - again from 'Girl Crazy' in 1930. I cannot choose between the versions done by, Stephane Grappelli; Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker.
  3. The Man I Love - from the show, 'Lady be Good' in 1924. The outstanding versions for me are by Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand.
  4. Someone to Watch Over me - from the 1926 show, 'Oh Kay!' What a selection of versions to choose from: Sarah Vaughn; Amy Whinehouse; Chet Baker, and an unbelievable piano version by Art Tatum.
  5. Summertime - from the 1935 folk opera, 'Porgy and Bess'. This I believe is my favourite song of all those written by the Gershwin's. It has a haunting melody, that still to this day never fails to raise the hairs on my neck, and it must be even more moving in the context of the opera story. So many versions have been done, some bad, some good, and some extraordinarily brilliant. In the latter camp, and to avoid repeating artists mentioned already, I adore the instrumental version by Larry Adler (Harmonica) and Itzhak Perlman (Violin). In addition, the piece is beautifully sung by Renee Fleming and another by Patricia Kass.
No doubt you will have your own opinions and choices, and that's what makes it so much fun. No matter which of Gershwin's music you choose, we will end up with something to enjoy.

I don't know who said this, but it seems a fitting end to the blog. "What set Gershwin apart was his ability to manipulate forms of music into his own unique voice. He took the jazz he discovered on Tin Pan Alley into the mainstream by splicing its rhythms and tonality with that of the most popular songs of his era".

I recommend this link to the official website for George and Ira Gershwin

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