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George Gershwin (1898 - 1937)


An American In Paris

In 1928, the 30 year old George Gershwin embarked on an extended visit to Europe . After staying a few weeks in London he went to Paris , where he stayed for several months. As well as attending premieres and performances of his own music, he met Ravel, Milhaud, Poulenc, Prokofiev, Stravinsky and other composers of the day. Later he moved on to Vienna where he met Alban Berg, and a meeting is recorded at which Berg's highly atonal Lyric Suite was played for Gershwin, who responded by playing some of his songs for Berg. A greater contrast of styles is hard to imagine, but they both admired each other's music – as Berg said, “Music is music!”.

Gershwin returned to the USA at the end of the summer with the first draft of An American in Paris . The revisions and orchestration were complete by November, and the first performance was given by the New York Philharmonic under Walter Damrosch on 13 th December 1928.

The music is programmatic, and describes the adventures of an American walking the streets of Paris , seeing the sights and hearing the sounds of that city. It is based on a series of themes, some of which are transitory, while others are developed in a symphonic manner. In style it is American to the core, and clearly reflects the style of the 1920s. A detailed description would be dry and dull, and the first programme notes carried a witty and flippant description of the wanderings of the American tourist in Paris (but alas too long for inclusion here!). However, you might listen out for the taxi horns near the beginning, for the Music Hall theme on the trombone, for the solo violin which leads into the blues section, for the Charleston on two trumpets, and then the final robust and joyful version of the blues theme.

Cuban Overture

The Cuban Overture was originally entitled Rumba, and was written following a holiday Gershwin took in Havana, on Cuba, early in 1932. It was first performed in New York in August 1932, as part of an all Gershwin programme, which also included the Piano Concerto in F and An American in Paris. He changed the title later the same year to reflect the work's considerable complexity.

The overture is rich and intricate, from the bitter-sweet motif at the start, soon followed by three tunes developed in counterpoint (i.e. simultaneously), through the beautiful middle section, to the exciting return of the rumba rhythm at the end. But it is dominated by the Caribbean rhythms and Latin American percussion section that earn it its title, and its popularity.

Overture "Girl Crazy"

George Gershwin (christened Jacob Gershovitz) was the second of four children born to Russian immigrants who had met and married in New York. His life was short but fruitful, and his impact on other composers considerable - Poulenc and Ravel acknowledged his influence on their music, and Schoenberg wrote a fulsome appreciation of his art. He died at the age of 38, of a brain tumour. His career in composition started at the bottom - as a 16 year old song-plugger for a music publisher, earning $15 a week. By the age of 20 he had written his first musical, La, La, Lucille, which ran for over 100 performances in 1919. During the 1920s, he wrote many musicals, often in conjunction with his brother, Ira, as lyricist. Girl Crazy, which was written in 1930, featured Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman on the stage, and Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller in the orchestra. The show was a tremendous success, and included many fine tunes, the most famous being 1 Got Rhythm. All feature in this sparkling overture.

Piano Concerto in F
I. Allegro
II. Adagio - Andante Con Moto
III. Allegro Agitato

George Gershwin was the first composer who genuinely straddled the worlds of "classical" and "jazz". To him music was music, and he gave as much attention to his songs and shows as he did to his more formal concert works. One reason is that he was a natural, instinctive musician rather than a trained one. He came to music in his teens: at the age of 11 he was the troublesome kid of an immigrant Jewish family with an aptitude for getting into scrapes on the streets of New York. Then his parents bought a piano, supposedly for his more studious older brother. George was fascinated, elbowed his brother aside, and started to play tunes he heard around the town. In a mere four years he became a brilliant player, left school, and got a job playing piano for a New York music publisher.

After writing songs and shows, George's big break came with "Rhapsody in Blue". This was premiered in 1924 when George was 26, and was the highlight of a worthy but rather dull experimental "Classical Jazz" concert given by the Paul Whiteman band. In the audience was Walter Damrosch, conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra. Damrosch was sufficiently impressed to persuade the orchestra management to commission a "proper" concerto from Gershwin.

That George accepted the commission was very brave. Rhapsody in Blue, though written by Gershwin, had been entirely orchestrated by Whiteman's arranger, Ferde Grofe. For the concerto, Gershwin was going to have to do all the orchestration himself. He wrote the music of the concerto in the summer of 1925, and orchestrated it in the autumn. He then had the sense to hire an orchestra for a private run-through, so he could check out his orchestration - but made surprisingly few alterations in the light of this. Originally he planned to call the work New York Concerto, but replaced it with the factual title Concerto in F, and as such it was first performed in New York's prestigious Carnegie Hall on 3rd December 1925.

Where Rhapsody in Blue was very loosely structured, the concerto is much tighter, and the melodic ideas come thick and fast. The orchestral introduction presents three different ideas in less than 30 seconds: a percussion motif on timpani, four bars of Charleston rhythm, and a skipping tune on the bassoon. After the orchestra has played with these for a little, the solo piano enters with the real main tune of the movement (indeed of the whole concerto). This is worked up to a climax by the orchestra, then the Charleston takes over and gradually subsides to a beautiful slower melody on strings and cor anglais. This is given more fully, then the Charleston is coupled with a speeded up version of the slow melody. Gradually the various ideas come together, including the opening timpani motif, leading to a huge restatement of the first tune. From here to the close is a riot of tunes all of which fit together like a jubilant jigsaw.

The slow movement starts as a blues number, with a prominent trumpet melody, but the piano soon pushes it along more briskly. A violin solo slows it down again, and the piano muses dreamily, until the orchestra ushers in a big romantic Hollywood-style melody. The piano plays with it, accompanied by a cello quartet, and then works up to a passionate climax - after which the movement fades peacefully.

The finale is another riot of fun, and ties the whole concerto together by incorporating both the main tune from the first movement and the Hollywood tune from the slow movement - see if you can spot them. Indeed the big climax towards the end is not the theme of the finale at all, but the main theme from the first movement. Even the timpani motif from the very beginning of the concerto reappears on the last page, emphasising the originality and unity of this landmark in 20th century American music.

Rhapsody in Blue

Rhapsody in Blue first appeared in 1924, at a concert for experimental modern music put together by the band leader Paul Whiteman. He had asked George Gershwin to compose a "jazz concerto" for the concert a few months before it was due. Gershwin was unconvinced - he had never written a full score, only tunes which other people then arranged for orchestra. So Whiteman offered the services of his arranger, Ferde Grofe, to help with the orchestration. Gershwin agreed, wrote a few tunes down, and then put the drafts to one side while he worked on other music. Five weeks before the concert, a friend pointed out a paragraph in a newspaper advertising the concert, which mentioned George's "jazz concerto" - and Gershwin had to start writing rapidly! Grofe had the orchestration finished by 4th February, just in time for the concert on 12th February 1924.

Gershwin played the piano solo part - he had not written it all down, and made up some of it on the night. It was the last piece in the concert and took the audience by storm. Everyone who was anyone was there, even serious composers like Rachmaninov and Stravinsky. And everyone loved it (except for Stravinsky, who was rude about it, but he was rude about most other composers' work). The rest, as they say, is history.

Overture "Strike up the Band!"

George Gershwin was a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in 1898. Initially he worked in ragtime, jazz and other popular idioms, though always wanted to be a concert pianist. This wish was hampered by his not being very good at reading music! He wrote many songs and shows, often in conjunction with his brother Ira as lyricist. Gradually he moved across the popular / serious music divide, and his later music includes a piano concerto and a fine opera - Porgy and Bess. Several serious composers such as Ravel and Schonberg thought very highly of his work. He died in 1937.

"Strike up the Band" is a musical he wrote in 1927, with words by his brother Ira.

Variations on "I Got Rhythm"

In early 1934 Gershwin planned a month long tour of the USA , playing concerts in a different city every night. The marketing tag for the tour was the 10 th anniversary of Rhapsody in Blue, and George decided he needed a new work to form a companion piece to the Rhapsody . To relax before the tour he spent time with a friend at Palm Beach , and there he began to write a set of variations for piano and orchestra on the tune I Got Rhythm . He completed it in January 1934, in time for performances on the tour. It has never gained the popularity with the public accorded to Rhapsody in Blue, probably because it is less “in your face”, though in many ways it is a better piece of music.

"I Got Rhythm” was always one of Gershwin's favourites among his songs. He wrote it along with his brother Ira (George wrote the music, Ira wrote the lyrics) for a show in 1930 called “ Girl Crazy ”, which also included the song “ Embraceable You ”. The show was a huge hit, with a cast that included the young Ginger Rogers and Ethel Merman, and a phenomenal band in the pit that included Glenn Miller, Jack Teagarden and Benny Goodman.

The variations start with a four-note phrase on the clarinet, based on the opening bars of the song. This is repeated by the piano, then by the full orchestra. The piano plays the complete chorus of the song, and then the orchestra launches into a brilliant series of variations. They demonstrate how far Gershwin had come since his early orchestral pieces like Rhapsody in Blue – these variations are very inventive, skilfully put together and great fun. The first is very energetic, the second gentle and sad. There is a Chinese variation which is totally crazy – it even has the violins playing squeaky noises on the wrong side of the bridge. The last two variations are full of energetic jazz drive.

Promenade: "Walking the Dog"
from Shall We Dance?

George Gershwin was a native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn in 1898. Initially he worked in ragtime, jazz and other popular idioms, though always wanted to be a concert pianist. This wish was hampered by his not being very good at reading music. He wrote many songs and shows, often in conjunction with his brother Ira as lyricist. Gradually he moved across the popular / serious music divide, and his later music includes a piano concerto and a fine opera Porgy and Bess. Several serious composers such as Ravel and Schonberg thought very highly of his work. He died in 1937.

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