Misunderstanding Gershwin

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

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.

Gershwin will remain unique not because he mixed classical and popular -- many other composers have done that -- but because of the way he combined the two. His classical pieces could have been written only by a composer whose primary form of expression was the thirty-two-bar popular song; his songs owe their distinctive character to his early study of and abiding love for the classics. All his classical pieces contain tunes that could have appeared in shows, but they also helped him to enrich the harmonic sophistication and expressive warmth of his popular tunes. These contradictory styles and forms distanced Gershwin from other songwriters and classical composers, and they continue to stump most critics of his music.

Gershwin died tragically young, and wrote a scant number of successful classical works -- Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, the three Preludes for Piano, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess -- and an equal number of less-successful pieces, among them Second Rhapsody and the early, crude operatic attempt Blue Monday Blues. It would be easy to call Gershwin a tunesmith with pretensions, but Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, and An American in Paris loom so large in the American consciousness -- Rhapsody is virtually a national anthem -- that they demand serious consideration. Yet even these still stand in an ad hoc relation to the classical repertory. Orchestras usually consign any Gershwin to pops concerts. Porgy and Bess, rather than entering the operatic repertory, has become a perpetually wandering opera company of its own, largely because the Gershwin estate stipulated that it be sung only by an all-black cast.

Perhaps the best way to understand Gershwin is to look at the many ways he has been misunderstood by critics, performers, and other composers. We might categorize these misreadings as those that view Gershwin as a noble savage, a natural but untrained talent; those that say he was great but not really a classical composer; and those that insist on performing him as if he were a classical composer. Wrong, all wrong.

Misunderstanding No. 1—Gershwin as primitive—worked for the composer in Europe, and he even promoted the stereotype. During his lifetime European composers were far more sympathetic to Gershwin than were his American contemporaries. Maurice Ravel and Kurt Weill paid him the highest compliment: large-scale imitation. Ravel quoted Rhapsody in Blue in his Piano Concerto in G, and Weill, who after Gershwin’s death collaborated with his brother, the lyricist Ira Gershwin, modeled his opera Street Scene on Porgy and Bess. Prokofiev and Berg also expressed admiration, and Schoenberg, who played tennis with Gershwin in Hollywood, defended him as a “man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language.” Other Europeans may have dismissed Gershwin (notoriously, the meanspirited Glazunov), but certain facts of European music allowed for a sincere acceptance of his talent. Music was surprisingly democratic in Europe—a career open to talent and not limited by class. Many European composers, such as Haydn, Dvořák, Mahler, and Schoenberg himself, came from humble origins, whereas in America the myth persisted that artists had to be young men of means and leisure. Also, the line between serious and popular music was often blurred in Europe. Brahms achieved fame and wealth with dressed-up café music—waltzes and Hungarian dances—and admired Johann Strauss. So, later, did Schoenberg, who orchestrated Strauss waltzes for a fundraiser for his Society for Private Performance, an austere venue for presenting new music. Americans, in contrast, idealized high art and feared any contamination by commerce.

This cultural background enabled European composers to appreciate an aspect of Gershwin’s genius that no conservatory could teach—the unique musical personality that instantly distinguishes so many of his melodies. But the composers tended to assume that this personality was an innate gift—a view too often confirmed by Gershwin’s misleading statements about his lack of technique. Few would have suspected that Gershwin was in fact a perpetual, if sporadic, student of classical music. His earliest songs demonstrate that he had already extracted some of the most important lessons classical music has to offer, from a minimum of formal study.

The facts of Gershwin’s musical education are simple, though like many other details of his biography they have been given a mythical spin. The Gershwin family acquired a piano in 1910, when George was eleven. As soon as the piano came through the apartment window, Ira later said, George “sat down and played a popular tune of the day”: he had already been playing piano at a friend’s house. Lessons with neighborhood teachers followed, but only when Gershwin was fourteen did he begin serious piano study, with Charles Hambitzer. Gershwin later wrote that Hambitzer had made him “harmony conscious” and had introduced him to the works of Chopin, Liszt, and Debussy. Hambitzer sent Gershwin to another teacher, Edward Kilenyi, to study harmony in the traditional fashion. Gershwin continued to study with Hambitzer, whom he considered his most important teacher, until Hambitzer died, in the flu epidemic of 1918.

These facts may give the impression that Gershwin pursued more conventional study than he actually did. Gershwin started work as a song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley in 1914, shortly after beginning lessons with Hambitzer, so he never devoted himself exclusively to classical piano. He became a superb performer of his own music (he played one of his works in public as early as 1914), as can be heard on many recordings, but he never performed works from the classical repertory in public; perhaps from the beginning Gershwin thought of himself more as a composer than a concert pianist. Relatively easy pieces such as Chopin’s mazurkas and preludes, Liszt’s Liebestraum, and Debussy’s Arabesques might not have turned Gershwin into a virtuoso pianist, but they did serve as models for the harmonic sophistication that would be his major contribution to the popular idiom.

Gershwin may have taken some of his most distinctive musical touches from Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, one of the first pieces of real music that piano students encounter. Chopin’s melody emphasizes numerous repetitions of the same pitch—four times on B, then four times on A, then down to G-sharp. Each time a note is repeated, the harmony under it changes; while the melody reiterates pitches, the bass line slithers downward chromatically, making the melodic notes sound ever more intense. Alec Wilder, in his classic study American Popular Song, was perhaps the first writer to call attention to the importance of repeated notes in Gershwin’s melodies, but he never linked these notes to the subtle motion of the bass, which changes their harmonic inflection. Listen to the Chopin and then to “Someone to Watch Over Me”; Gershwin’s song is virtually a paraphrase of the prelude.

Chopin was a particularly useful model for a Tin Pan Alley composer, because the combination of simple melody and complex bass line suited the rules that popular composers were obliged to follow. A melody had to be as simple as possible. It had to lie within the range of an octave, and it should be diatonic (playable on the white keys of a piano) or, even better, pentatonic (playable on just the black keys). Although a melody had to be crafted so that anyone could sing it, the bass line was written to be played, not sung, and so could be more devious in construction. Gershwin was not the only composer to exploit the contrast of simple melody and complex bass line. Richard Rodgers’s “The Girl Friend” and Eubie Blake’s “Memories of You” use this device in almost identical ways, but Gershwin explored it so often that it became an essential part of his musical identity. Just think of “’S Wonderful,” or “That Certain Feeling,” or the bridge (“Old Man Trouble, I don’t mind him”) of “I Got Rhythm.”

The lesson Gershwin grasped from Chopin was one that the conservatory might have taught him from Bach. Bach’s chorales follow principles very similar to those of pop tunes. The top voice sings a simple diatonic melody, while the bass and inner voices create harmonic interest. Gershwin’s understanding of this strategy makes his tunes very different in character from those of Irving Berlin, who truly was the naif that some of Gershwin’s critics took Gershwin for. Berlin would compose a melody (and write its lyrics), and leave the harmony to others. Gershwin conceived melody and harmony together. The difference does not make Gershwin a better song composer than Berlin, but it may explain why so many of his songs have become jazz standards. Jazz musicians throw away the melody when they improvise. The strong harmonic structures of Gershwin’s music imply a melody even when the actual melody is not being played.

Gershwin made the most of his early studies. Since its premiere critics have dismissed Rhapsody in Blue, written when Gershwin was twenty-five, as a hodgepodge of tunes. But in fact the impression of formlessness is the work’s charm, and it derives from a compositional device found in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony—a monumental work rarely mentioned in the same sentence as Rhapsody but one that Gershwin surely knew well. Beethoven wanted to expand the scale of symphonic form, and for the Eroica he came up with what I call the “shaggy-dog story” device. The opening theme of the Eroica begins memorably but soon trails off, as if the composer had been distracted. Every time the theme returns, the beginning—call it the head—is the same, but the tail is different, and somehow always incomplete. Only at the end of the first movement does Beethoven give the theme a well-rounded form—his way of keeping the listener hanging through a movement that is twice as long as most earlier symphonic movements.

In Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin used the same device, perhaps a bit more crudely than Beethoven but to the same effect. Gershwin’s themes, unlike Beethoven’s, are not short phrases but extended pop tunes, mostly of the familiar thirty-two-bar AABA variety. To keep the work from sounding like a medley and to keep the listener engaged, Gershwin lopped off the final phrase of each tune, so that each became, literally, an endless melody. (Try singing the most famous tune of Rhapsody through from beginning to end and you’ll see that it always reaches a musical turnaround, not a conclusion.) Unlike Beethoven, however, Gershwin never gave us the completed version of his tunes; Rhapsody ends with the sound of ever-greater expectation, an open-ended question. It is an ending that Gershwin would have been asked to correct had he gone to a conservatory.

Misunderstanding No. 2, which views Gershwin as talented but lacking the credentials of a classical composer, is primarily American. This image, unlike the one of naive genius, damaged Gershwin’s reputation, and the evidence suggests that he took it personally. He was keenly aware that he had not undergone the traditional study of Palestrina, for counterpoint; Bach, for harmony and counterpoint; and Beethoven, for form; or the technical studies of ear-training, score-reading, fugue, and orchestration. His musical education, such as it was, had stopped just at the point where Aaron Copland’s formative study in Paris with the great teacher Nadia Boulanger began.

Gershwin’s feelings of inadequacy may have been heightened by his dismissal by the many American composers who studied with Boulanger. Less secure in their cultural position than their European colleagues, Paris-trained American composers such as Copland and Virgil Thomson may have felt threatened when Gershwin’s concert works were taken seriously by critics while theirs were treated as monstrosities. They relegated Gershwin to a lesser realm, even though his works often shared programs with theirs. Thomson admitted the success of Rhapsody in Blue, but noted that “rhapsodies … are not a very difficult formula, if one can think up enough tunes.” Copland, whose modernistically jazzy Piano Concerto of 1927 was dismissed as a “harrowing horror” by one Boston critic and never achieved the success of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, later drew a clear line between himself and Gershwin.

Gershwin came from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway musicals, while my only connection with the theater was through [Harold] Clurman—and that meant serious drama… we must have been aware of each other, but until the Hollywood years in the thirties, we moved in very different circles. On one occasion, when we were finally face to face at some party, with the opportunity for conversation, we found nothing to say to each other!

The most lethal anti-Gershwin brief filed by the Copland forces came in Leonard Bernstein’s article “A Nice Gershwin Tune,” published in The Atlantic in 1955, in which Bernstein says in conversation, “I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky… but if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter.”

Gershwin was doing things differently from Copland, but they were both solving the problem of how to bring the sounds of jazz into the concert hall. Copland certainly did not abandon the American vernacular, as Gershwin’s most recent biographer, Joan Peyser, has claimed, but he did treat American elements in a way that was sanctioned by European traditions that go back to Haydn. Ravel, writing about the “Blues” movement of his own 1925 Violin Sonata, gave a clear articulation of this approach.

Popular forms are but the materials of construction, and the work of art appears only on mature conception where no detail has been left to chance. Moreover, minute stylization in the manipulation of these materials is essential.

In Europe the high and the frivolous did not compete; high art refined popular materials, transforming the raw into the cooked.

In Gershwin’s music the classical element is minutely stylized, not the popular. The piano concerto, for instance, begins with a percussion fanfare that has little to do with the rest of the work but is a saucy send-up of classical pretensions, as is the elaborate faux fugue that surfaces (and vanishes) in the final movement. Although Gershwin’s stylization of the classics was most often based on Liszt and Tchaikovsky, he kept abreast of contemporary developments, and turned them to his own purposes. In An American in Paris he showed that even without studying with Boulanger he could imitate the insouciance of Les Six—the group of young composers who were all the rage in Paris—and make use of polytonal harmonies out of Stravinsky, while writing tunes that were memorable and completely Gershwinesque. And in “Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’” he conspicuously deployed Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method in one variation. Gershwin’s use of these classical devices was not inept and half-baked, as his critics claimed; these sly, knowing trivializations opened a dialogue between classical and popular elements in which the popular side—those gorgeous tunes—would dominate.

Misunderstanding No. 3 is on display at most Gershwin concerts, and I don’t mean that to insult the good people who play Gershwin’s music. To my ears, just about every classical performance of Gershwin sounds wrong—vapid, mannered, ponderous, self-consciously spiffy. Gershwin’s upside-down combination of elements has befuddled performers as well as other composers. He lives on today mainly in his songs—which, fortunately, are almost never performed in the style of singing heard on Broadway in the 1920s. Popular singers, jazz musicians, and arrangers have given the songs ever-new phrasings, inflections, orchestrations, and harmonies, so that they sound fresh.

The classical works, meanwhile, are mired in their texts, and can sound very stale indeed. Classical musicians are respectful of the score to a fault, and will commit all sorts of sins against musical common sense in the name of textual authenticity. Never mind that Rhapsody in Blue was scored (not by Gershwin but by Ferde Grofé) to show off the distinctive talents of a “jazz” band that is dead and gone. Classical musicians feel obliged to replicate the sound of the original—an exercise in channeling, not interpretation. Yes, the Chicago Symphony can do an amazingly good imitation of Paul Whiteman’s band, but why bother? Textomania in the name of authenticity has also led performers and editors to restore passages that Gershwin himself cut. The latest edition of Rhapsody in Blue, for instance, is hailed by its editor, Alicia Zizzo, as the “real” Rhapsody for its eighty-odd bars of padding that Gershwin never saw fit to publish or record. Grotesquely inflated versions of Porgy and Bess use virtually every scrap Gershwin composed to create an unfocused mess that George and Ira, who spent their whole lives in the theater, would never have tolerated.

Rhapsody in Blue presents the problem of performance more comprehensively than any other Gershwin work. Performers think that they must make it sound jazzy, but it was written before most of the music we think of as jazz had appeared. The Paul Whiteman band could not swing in February of 1924, but neither could the Fletcher Henderson band. The orchestral parts of the work do reflect the jazz style of Whiteman’s ensemble, but the solo piano part is a mixture of elements from Zez Confrey, Jimmy Durante, and salon classics; it has little to do with James P. Johnson’s stride piano, let alone the “trumpet” style of Earl Hines. Of course, there are several wonderful recordings by Gershwin that can serve as stylistic models, but these are greatly cut and therefore scandalously “inauthentic.” My favorite renditions of Rhapsody—the jazz interpretations of Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington—dispense with the piano altogether, and with most of the printed score, too.

Perhaps the reason we go on misunderstanding Gershwin is that in his seemingly naive way he still challenges our common wisdom about music. We know that Beethoven is serious and the Spice Girls are trivial. We know that Louis Armstrong played jazz and Paul Whiteman did not. We know that classical musical performances should honor the printed text and match the conditions of a work’s premiere as closely as possible (even though some of us who compose also know that a work’s premiere is usually the worst performance it will ever get). But this knowledge only drives us into a nostalgic search for the museum verities of the past. Gershwin, a man without a past, created music that comes to life—and demolishes the distinction between serious and trivial—when performers forget about its period trappings and make it sound contemporary. Pop and jazz artists do so without even thinking, but most “echt” twentieth-century music subjects performers to the tyranny of the composer’s minute commands. Performers should profit from the freedom that Gershwin scores allow. Old-time modern music now sounds very “period” indeed. Perhaps Stravinsky was right: instead of continuing to give Gershwin posthumous lessons in how to be a composer, we should let him teach us.

David Schiff is a composer and a professor of music at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon.

Illustration by Wojciech Wolynski

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1998; Misunderstanding Gershwin; Volume 282, No. 4; pages 100 - 105.