Misunderstanding Gershwin

The composer mixed popular and classical idioms like no one before or since, and performers are still baffled

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

WHENEVER George Gershwin met a famous composer, so the stories go, he would ask for lessons. He is said to have requested them from Varèse, Schoenberg, Bloch, and Toch, among others, but the two legendary responses are attributed to Ravel and Stravinsky. The dapper Frenchman declined, saying, "Why should you be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?" The Russian, notorious for his one-liners, supposedly asked Gershwin how much money he made; when Gershwin told him, Stravinsky said, "Then I should take lessons with you." Stravinsky later insisted that the exchange never took place, and claimed that before he had even met Gershwin, he had heard the money story from Ravel. One Gershwin biographer, Charles Schwartz, tracked down the sources of these stories; after finding that they all led back to the Gershwin family, he speculated that the composer had floated them himself.

A hundred years after Gershwin's birth and sixty-one years after his death, it is difficult to say just who was patronizing whom in these little dances of fake humility and silk-glove rejection. Gershwin's request for lessons, usually made at some fancy party where he had dazzled everyone at the piano, may have seemed charming in an unpolished, American way, or annoyingly naive, or just insulting. Although Gershwin may have thought he was being polite, an unsympathetic ear might have heard him saying that he could buy any composer, no matter how famous. Stravinsky's alleged response made clear who was the master and who the Lower East Side parvenu. Ravel's, too, was vaguely condescending. Almost all the great European modernists, Ravel and Stravinsky included, had received rigorous musical training, which did not prevent them from writing highly personal and innovative music. To say, however elegantly, that Gershwin's identity might not survive such study was to assume that Gershwin was a freak of nature rather than a true artist.

Even today Gershwin's music exposes the gaps between European and American musical sensibilities and the ambivalence in our musical culture. Two years ago in Vienna I heard the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, which many American critics have hailed as the finest orchestra in this country, perform Wagner's Rienzi Overture, Bartók's Miraculous Mandarin, Strauss's Don Quixote, and, almost as an encore, Gershwin's An American in Paris -- a difficult program, chosen to show off the orchestra's technical prowess and stylistic range. The audience sat on its hands after the first three works, bursting into an ovation only after the Gershwin. In the papers the next day Viennese critics hauled out their usual clichés about American orchestras (too loud, too slick, too impersonal) and saved their praise for the Gershwin -- the only kind of music we Americans, apparently, can really play well.

We Americans, however, have yet to make up our minds about Gershwin. Even though he is the one twentieth-century American composer whose music is played all the time and everywhere, Gershwin is an isolated and inimitable figure -- the only popular composer of this century whose works have made a lasting dent in the granitic façade of the classical canon. But this achievement is either pushed aside as a kind of embarrassment or described in terms of mindless self-congratulation, with George -- the self-made millionaire, the Jewish mother's prize, the sex symbol, the man of the people -- playing out every cliché of the American Dream. Jazz historians barely mention the composer of "I Got Rhythm," whose harmonic progression supports nearly as much jazz improvisation as the blues; and most accounts of twentieth-century classical music treat Gershwin as a speck compared with giants like Stravinsky, Ravel, and, more recently, Ives. At the same time, though, Gershwin concerts invariably sell out; the all-Gershwin concert by the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas that opens the Carnegie Hall season this fall is the hottest ticket in New York. Gershwin's reputation in this country rises and falls with shifts in the balance of power and prestige between popular and classical music. When pop rules, as it does today, Gershwin is the father of us all. When pop palls, and it may yet again, he is a blot on the musical landscape.

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