His Life and Work
Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. 884 pp.
ISBN 13: 978-0520248649
Summary for the Busy Executive: Authoritative, for the time being.
George Gershwin has just begun to come into something like an
historically and aesthetically just appreciation of his work. For one
thing, most of us haven't really heard what he wrote. Rather, we've had
to endure decades of silent and not-so-silent editing by conductors,
performers, arrangers, and even Gershwin's own publishers. For another,
some of our most influential musical figures (and popularizers) have
gotten him wrong. Virgil Thomson, B.H. Haggin, and Leonard Bernstein
condescended to him as a nayf, without a clue to musical architecture,
decent orchestration, or genuine, adult drama. That view seems, at long
last, a bit quaint. Alec Wilder in his study of American popular song
rated Gershwin the lowest in the illustrious company of Arlen, Berlin,
Rodgers, and Kern and trashed such classics as "Love Walked In," "Lady,
be Good," and the hits of Porgy and Bess. Even at the time, this struck
me as, to put it nicely, idiosyncratic.
Most Gershwin studies - and it feels like a stretch to call some of them
that - until quite recently have fallen into one of two camps: Gershwin
as Savior-Genius and Gershwin as a musical Sammy Glick, a pusher and
shover without the real goods. The first group very often had little
knowledge of or even connection to music. Most of them belonged to the
world of the Broadway theater. The most musically-literate of them,
like Oscar Levant, tended to focus not on the scores, but on their
memories of Gershwin (in Levant's case, at least, not always reliable).
Even here, we've needed someone to do the hard work of digging into
papers and checking different accounts against one another. The second
group may have had a classical-music background but always seemed motivated
by personal animus or by rather hidebound views of what Real Music is.
Some couldn't accept a classical composer with such crossover appeal.
Apparently, they forgot about Mozart and Verdi. Some didn't understand
how Gershwin, like Tchaikovsky, transformed his pop songwriting skills
to the creation of symphonic cells. On the other side of the aisle,
jazz critics condemned the concert pieces a priori, by pointing out the
obvious - that they weren't jazz, never considering what then they might
be. Joan Peyser, with God-awful, ultimately useless books to her credit
about Boulez and Bernstein which mainly tried to stir scandal and dealt
with music hardly at all, went through her standard shtick in her Gershwin
book. For example, she put forward the old claim of Gershwin's "illegitimate
son," Alan, without much examination. Coming across as someone who had
caught Gershwin robbing the poor box and beating up a nun, Charles
Schwartz (no relation), a composer also influenced by jazz, beat Gershwin
with just about any club he could find, including the dubious one of
repeating Peyser. His evidence was based on testimony of a person long
dead, who at one point recanted, and on the fact that Alan Gershwin
looked like George. Unfortunately, my Uncle Bob at one point in his
life, though bald as a light bulb, also looked like Gershwin, although
he for some reason never claimed to be Gershwin's love child. Unlike
either of these two, Pollack actually takes a reasoned and reasonable
look at the evidence. He points out that DNA would, of course, settle
things or at least tip credence one way or the other, but that Alan
refused to provide a sample.
As in his masterful book on Copland (Aaron Copland: The Life and Work
of an Uncommon Man, probably definitive), Pollack puts together a
convincing life of the composer, judiciously weighing faults, mistakes,
excesses, and virtues without pushing an obvious agenda. He also engages
the music (and has some penetrating insights) on pretty much its own
terms, as well as (unusual in a Gershwin study) ties it firmly to the
classical tradition. I've been a Gershwin fanatic since about the age
of twelve, when a school buddy played for me Bernstein's slam-bang LP
of Rhapsody in Blue (with cuts, Pollack informs me). I've read just
about everything. Even with my dislike of duplicating works in my
collection, I have several versions of every Gershwin concert piece, and
I don't regret a one of them. With no modesty whatsoever, I believe it
extremely difficult for an author to tell me something I didn't know
about either Gershwin or his music. Pollack does just that many times
throughout the course of his book. It makes me almost as excited about
Gershwin's music as when I had encountered it for the first time.
But wait! There's more! Nestled in examinations of the music are
surveys of major recordings of Gershwin's music, including engrossing
discussions of rhythm changes (ie, jazz tunes based on Gershwin's "I Got
Rhythm") and, among other things, recordings of Porgy and Bess, including
jazz versions. The chapters on the shows trace Gershwin's development
as a musical dramatist and humorist, with an attention to detail I haven't
previously encountered. Consequently, a portrait of Gershwin as a
composer who knew exactly what he was about emerges with great clarity.
Porgy and Bess didn't pop up from nowhere, and many of the perceived
weaknesses of the score come from folks who hadn't paid much attention
or who mistook weaknesses of a particular production.
Lots of endnotes, a solid bibliography, a helpful index (for a change),
and in all a masterful synthesis of one of the most popular and perplexing
composers of the Modern age. As John O'Hara once wrote (one of my
all-time favorite quotes), "George died on July 11, 1937, but I don't
have to believe it if I don't want to."
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