Theatre Blog: “Café Variations” – The Music of Gershwin
As a child, George Gershwin would constantly get in trouble; he was well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. It was sheer luck that saved him when his mother decided the family needed a piano for Ira to start music lessons. However, as soon as the piano was pulled up through the window into their living room, it became obvious that it was George, not Ira, who had found his calling.
Gershwin was the musical genius of the Jazz Age, with wide-ranging skills, equally at ease composing show tunes and symphonies, a man responsible for some of the most haunting, romantic and timeless songs in the American songbook, often credited for inventing the Hollywood and Broadway music of its early years. Like Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and a few others, Gershwin balanced between so-called “high” and “low” brow art. Today, more than a century after his birth, Gershwin is still one of the most revered American composers. His songs are constantly reinvented, re-imagined and re-recorded by artists from all walks of life and across music genres, from Elton John to Sting and Cher. George Martin, a record producer, once noted philosophically that, “Many groups of today will say that they wouldn’t have existed without the Beatles. Well, the Beatles couldn’t have existed without the Gershwins.”
Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the Smithsonian Institution, once said that Gershwin “provided the voice for what he saw and heard around him every day. It’s this vitality, this raw energy.” Scott Wheeler, award-winning composer and co-director of the Emerson College BFA program in Musical Theatre notes that “Gershwin is one of those natural talents who make all other composers despair. Like Mozart, it all seems completely effortless, full of surprises without ever being forced. Also like Mozart, he was a magpie, combining musical techniques from various sources with immense originality and charm.” Gershwin’s music was eclectic, drawing on numerous traditions from across the globe. Michael Tilson-Thomas, conductor at the San Francisco Symphony points out that Gershwin “took the Jewish tradition, the African-American tradition and the symphonic tradition, and he made a language out of that which was accessible and understandable to all kinds of people.”
Gershwin listened to the sound of the city and captured that sense of the moment in his songs. As Tilson-Thomas notes, Gershwin “expressed what it was to be alive at that moment as an American… to let people know what it feels like to stand right here on this street.” Stephen Terrel, the Head of Musical Theatre at Emerson College notes that Gershwin’s music is complex, with melody and rhythm playing off of each other. Terrell says: “What always thrills me most about Gershwin is his sense of rhythm. Even more than with melody, he used rhythm to define character, create conflict, express emotion, and even reveal the beating heart of a city. And if you want to dance…why look anywhere else?”
Gershwin became successful almost overnight, in 1924, with a jazz concerto written especially for band leader Paul Whiteman. Debuting as No. 23 on a program and titled “Experiment in Modern Music,” it was what later came to be known as “Rhapsody in Blue.” Many years later, Gershwin said that he got the idea for the “Rhapsody” while on a train to Boston (another local connection). To quote his own words: “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ly bang that is often so stimulating to a composer…I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise. And then I suddenly heard — and even saw on paper — the complete construction of the rhapsody from beginning to end…I hear it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America — of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness.” Carol J. Oja in her article on “Gershwin and American Modernists of the 1920’s” notes that “Rhapsody’s” “premiere ranked among a handful of the most important musical events of the entire decade. [W]hen ‘a lank and dark young man’ of ‘extraordinary talent’ —as New York Times critic Olin Downes described Gershwin at ‘Rhapsody in Blue’s’ premiere—appeared on the stage of Aeolian Hall, he was hailed by some as the long-awaited American composer who could hold his own against a European titans. During its first year alone, ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ was performed eighty-four times by Whiteman. Gershwin recorded it that June with Whiteman’s orchestra, and sales of the disc totaled some one million copies.” With the song, Gershwin became an instant success, with hordes of adoring fans, especially women, following his every move. At 26, he became one of the youngest persons to grace the cover of Time magazine.
Although most of Gershwin’s songs are full of vivacious joy and infectious energy, there is an underpinning sense of sadness and longing that runs deep through his melodies. Some credit it to Gershwin’s Jewish-Russian roots and family history. George’s collaboration with his brother Ira seemed a natural fit, though reportedly the two of them couldn’t be more different. Ray White, curator of the Library of Congress Gershwin exhibit that took place during the centennial of Gershwin’s birth, notes that “George was a party animal, sophisticated and glamorous and a clotheshorse and out there playing the piano, and Ira was stay-at-home-and-read. George seems to have worked fast, in a sort of frenzy, while Ira was more contemplative or careful.”
George Gershwin died at the age of 38 of brain tumor. We can only wonder what would be the course of American music if he were to live to old age…