July marks an anniversary of an event that I, along with John O’Hara, don’t wish to acknowledge. In 1937 he wrote: “They tell me George Gershwin is dead, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
Well, I don’t want to believe it either, but I also don’t want to let the seventy-fifth anniversary of that uncountable loss go unmarked. So this month’s Theater Shelf columns will all be devoted to items of and about America’s unique gift to the music and theater world, born Jacob Morris Gershvin in Brooklyn, New York in 1898, but known to the world as George Gershwin.
We begin the month with a relatively slender (only 350 pages) paperback volume that is perfect for those who want to learn just who this George Gershwin was, what he accomplished in his all too brief 38 years and the legacy he left.
It is another of the valuable “Readers” series of Oxford University Press. I wrote about their Irving Berlin Reader back in May. This time, it is of course, the George Gershwin Reader, edited by Robert Wyatt and John Andrew Johnson who have compiled articles, interviews, letters and sketches by and about their subject with an eye toward revealing both the man and his music.
They begin with “Portraits of the Artists” – seven views penned by his brother Ira, his sister Frances, his long-time friend and presumed lover Kay Swift, his musical side-kick Oscar Levant and others. These concentrate on the man himself.
Then they turn to the evolution of his career, starting with nine pieces covering his early years (1919 to 1924) and then another eleven items covering his explosion of activity between the opening in December of1924 of his seventh Broadway show but his first big hit, Lady, Be Good! and 1930 when, as the editors put it “The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression and Gershwin was comfortably on his way toward immortality.”
There are sections on his later works, one concentrating specifically on Porgy and Bess, another on his Hollywood years and others on his final days, his death and the tributes and later assessments of his accomplishments viewed through the lens of passing time.
Among the revelations inside these covers is the eloquence and careful thought that went into Gershwin’s own writing – of prose not music. In addition to the newsy letters to family and friends which are reprinted here, giving us a view into his private life, are articles he wrote on music that are a delight both for the lessons they present and the language he used to make his case in support of the role of jazz in American music.
Said Gershwin “We are living in an age of staccato, not legato.”
In answer to a university president’s injunction to the graduating class of a School of Music to “beware the dreadful jazz … cultivate good music, hold fast to that which has been proved by time” Gershwin asked “what would the learned Prexy say if a musician of note should rise before the commencement class in his Scientific School and declaim: ‘Boys and girls, beware the modern in science. Shun evolution and investigations of recent years. Give your time to Lucretius and the established classics of the golden age of King Tut. There is no such thing as progress. All that is good is old. All that is new is bad.'”
Talk about reductio absurdum!
I was also struck by his ability to turn a neat phrase. Writing about how the flood of popular music as the age of the phonograph and radio stimulated an outpouring of Tin Pan Alley tunes, he said there had never been “such a plethora of composers – professional, amateur, and alleged.”
There’s no surprise in the acerbic humor found in the articles by Oscar Levant, probably the premiere performer of Gershwin’s classical piano pieces other than the composer himself. Of course, he’s a legendary wit, but it is a kick running into some of his bon mots such as the question he once put to Gershwin: “Tell me, George, if you had to do it all over, would you fall in love with yourself again?” Not all of Levant is flippant, however. His devotion to his friend is clear from his writing which includes the observation on Gershwin’s enthusiasm for life: he “woke up excited, eager to see what the new day would bring.”
Other memorable comments abound. Isaac Goldberg wrote about Gershwin’s early musical education which was minimal (he studied with notables as an adult but that was after he’d already achieved success.) As Goldberg wrote, Gershwin was “the product less of tuition than of intuition.”
There are reprints of reviews of the premieres of some of his major works including “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Concerto in F” and shows such as Strike Up The Band, some of which are insightful as well as fascinating. Robert Benchley’s comments on the later “devastating satire” of war and war-makers, maintained that such a satire would only be allowed “during those intervals when nobody happens, for the moment, to be wanting to make a war.”
The editors don’t limit themselves to puff pieces or plaudits, presenting a cross section of opinion. Olin Downes, writing about An American in Paris, finds that “it is still considerably easier … for (Gershwin) to invent ideas than to develop them.”
The 46 page, seven article section on Porgy and Bess is of particular interest today as the latest Broadway revival just won the Tony Award for the Best Revival of a Musical after stimulating much controversy over the liberties it took with the original work. (More on this next week when Theater Shelf will be devoted to the new recording of that revival on the PS Classics label.) The section includes some of the correspondence between Gershwin and DuBose Heyward who wrote the original novel of “Porgy,” co-wrote the play and then collaborated on the opera with Gershwin and his brother Ira. Also included are two reviews of the Broadway premiere of the folk opera from the New York Times who sent both their drama critic, Brooks Atkinson, and their music critic, Olin Downes, to cover the event plus lengthy interviews of both its Porgy, Todd Duncan, and its Bess, Anne Brown.
As if that weren’t enough, the sampling of obituaries and tributes coming after his death from a brain tumor accompany a detailed report on the last days from George A. Pallay, the friend of the Gershwin family who actually attended the final operation. Reading through its rather clinical account simply reinforces my resistance to believing that the composer who was such a force of nature could have been silenced at such a young age, depriving him of the pleasure of his success for decades to come and us of the untold musical treasures which would have come from the brain that tumor shut down.