The George Gershwin Reader
Robert Wyatt and John Andrew Johnson, ed.
Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 2004. 354 pp.
Summary for the Busy Executive: One-stop shopping for Gershwiniana.
Dr. Johnson once remarked that it took 100 years to arrive at a just
appreciation of a writer. For one thing, by that time, all the writer's
enemies would have dropped dead. George Gershwin died a mere 70 years
ago, and while something like a scholarly consensus has begun to form,
the most idiotic prattle still clings to discussions of his work.
Wyatt and Johnson have gathered in one place some very influential
essays on Gershwin and his work. We have contemporary reminiscences
and assessments from friends, family, and enemies as well as letters
and articles from Gershwin himself. I've read most of it before, but
it's nice to see so much gathered in one place. There are significant
omissions. For instance, we haven't Virgil Thomson's initial blast of
Porgy and Bess, although several others refer to it, nor Duke Ellington's,
although we get a later, mellower excerpt from Ellington's Music is My
I confess this time around that the reminiscences and Gershwin's
personal letters interested me more than the aesthetic discussions of
Gershwin's work. For me, Gershwin has always been a classic, a great
composer by any definition I can give. He is certainly the modern
American composer who has penetrated deeper into our subconscious than
any other - our Verdi. No other American opera comes close to the impact
of Porgy and Bess. Few American concert works have attained the cultural
significance of Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, or An American in
Paris. I happen to love the symphonies of Walter Piston and David
Diamond, but I can't remember the last time I saw them on a concert
program. The portrait of the man Gershwin, on the other hand, fills out
a little. Instead of the brash young man whom the gods have kissed, we
get something more thoughtful. The two memoires that impressed me the
most come from Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the original Porgy and Bess.
Duncan sees very little destructive ego (indeed, his stories about ego
go mostly against himself), while Anne Brown discerns a fundamental
melancholy. Both show a man with a deep vein of courtesy (although this
didn't stop Gershwin from trying to bed Anne Brown), treading through
the national minefield of racism with a sure step and a pure heart,
learning about the people before him practically instantaneously. What's
clear about Gershwin is that his friends were his friends for life, and
they missed him terribly when he died.
Many of the essays on aesthetics, both for and against Gershwin, make
me gnash my teeth all over again. Until very recently, one tended to
get Gershwin the Musical Nayf or Gershwin as Apollo. The first view
tends to mask an underlying resentment: how could pieces so loose and
so lacking in elements of technique be any good, especially when MY work
is so much more learned? Believe it or not, the same things were said
by Elizabethan university-trained dramatists about their contemporary,
Shakespeare ("little Latin and less Greek" etc.). A prescriptive aesthetic
view underlies these criticisms, and few seem ready to question or capable
of questioning its universality. Another way to say it is, they concentrate
so much on what is wrong with Gershwin that they fail to ask what's
right, and they tend to attribute his success to the degenerate, ignorant
audience. Alec Wilder stands out as a notable exception to this. Of
the major American songwriters - Kern, Berlin, Gershwin, and Arlen - he
rates Gershwin the lowest, but he has isolated the source of his
dissatisfaction. He prefers stepwise melody and as few repeated notes
as possible. Yet, he praises Gershwin songs - like "A Foggy Day" - that
break these rules. It's the song that counts, not the rules.
Some of the negative judgment on Gershwin comes awfully close to libel.
One remarks the charge that Gershwin didn't orchestrate his concert works
- this, despite the testimony of everybody put forward as Gershwin's
orchestrator, including Will Vodery, William Daly, Robert Russell Bennett,
and Kay Swift. There has long been ample evidence among the manuscripts
in the Library of Congress that, after Rhapsody in Blue, he orchestrated
every damn bar. Nevertheless, Charles Schwartz, a composer himself
influenced by jazz and author of a Gershwin study that seems largely
motivated by animus, repeats the charge (on a hilarious lack of evidence)
that Schillinger (Gershwin's most famous teacher) orchestrated Porgy and
Bess. Another musician claimed that Robert Russell Bennett orchestrated
Porgy. Bennett did orchestrate some arias for a concert after Gershwin's
death and, of course, composed the so-called "Symphonic Picture," but
he was nowhere near the composition of the opera. In a weird sense,
these critics are correct, since we seldom hear what Gershwin actually
wrote. Some of his scores have been "corrected" (again, after his death)
by one Robert McBride, a capable orchestrator but not a very interesting
one, and this is what orchestras generally play. It took Michael Tilson
Thomas's 1990 Gershwin album to give us the Second Rhapsody in Gershwin's
own instrumentation. It showed that the McBride version was no improvement.
I always wonder about the people to whom the ability to orchestrate
matters so much that it becomes the test of whether one can compose.
Tell that to Chopin.
Many of the raves of Gershwin's output equally disappoint, since so few
of them are backed up by argument and evidence. It was like that in
Gershwin's lifetime and amounted to little more than pure gush. We get
that in Isaac Goldberg's "study" of the composer, the first major one
while Gershwin was still alive. Writing a prose purpler than a bottle
of Welch's, Goldberg is embarrassing to read.
For the general reader who doesn't want to rummage through a ton of other
books, this is a handy, well-chosen collection. You get a sense of what
writing on Gershwin has been about since the Twenties and of the major
controversies that still surround him. Strange that a composer so
straightforward, so "innocent," should continue to mystify so many.
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