George Gershwin: Musical Prophet or Parochial Bully?

On You Tube there is a short clip of George Gershwin on his tennis court at 1019 North Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills sometime in either 1936 or 1937. For months prior to his death in July of 1937, friends and doctors attributed the composer’s persistent complaints about smelling burning rubber and sporadic outbursts of odd behavior to stress. Although he looks fit and vigorous on the court, you can detect his anguish.

In the clip, Gershwin stands next to another player who watches as the composer performs for the camera. It’s unclear whether his regular partner Arnold Schoenberg was on the other side of the net. Gershwin hits a series of staged overheads and groundstrokes with good mechanics but with a rushed motion like the tumbling downhill effect from one of his piano roll recordings.

That Schoenberg was Gershwin’s tennis partner is almost too good to be true: 12 tones versus 32 bars. Verleknacht versus “Do it Again.” If their tennis competition had become a musical, it could have been called something like “High Up and Low Down,” or “You Can Have Vienna.” In pictures, they are a comical duo, a youthful Gershwin towering over the diminutive serialist. Although in 1937 he eulogized Gershwin as a “great composer” with a powerful, innate connection to composition, earlier in his career Schoenberg did not brook popular-inflected classical music as the real thing. Indeed in 1914 he was publicly dismissive about his contemporaries Stravinsky, Ravel, and Bizet, not exactly a contingent of lightweights. But just as he pivoted from Judaism to Christianity and back again, Schoenberg must have reassessed popular and melodic music later in life.

Banging out tunes for Remnicks on the Ladies Mile in Manhattan, Gershwin cut off the “e” from his surname, no doubt attuned to the alliterative potential of the name with “swine.” While he exhibited prodigious talent, he was not a prototypical prodigy, and his musical awakening did not begin until he was a preteen. Within popular music there was a divide between the street and arcade music of his youth and the Broadway establishment. In contrast to the passel of expatriate European classical composers in the first half of the 20th century, many who settled in Los Angeles, Gershwin, as an American, had artistic license to bore into the maw of American vernacular forms. In his concert compositions, he played musical alchemist, plucking nuggets from virtually every American subculture. That much of his music was — and remains — wildly successful, is due to two things: talent and his desire to tweak musical forms with what he would have called proletarian gestures.

If he was not the first composer to think it, Gershwin was perhaps the most eager early force trying to cleave American music from the European iceberg. But the awkward way he dealt with the concept of “modern American” music and how he was going to reinvent it never went beyond the stage of critiquing his contemporaries who were not dialed in to the precise admixture of Europe and America as Gershwin was himself. Quotes from his 1929 essay “Fifty Years of American Music” for Henry Cowell range between the chthonic and the ethereal:

American music means to me something specific, something very tangible. It is something indigenous, something autochthonous, something deeply rooted in our soil.

In our music we must be able to catch a glimpse of our skyscrapers, to feel that overwhelming burst of energy which is bottled in our life…[1]

Merrily bludgeoning metaphors, Gershwin’s reference to soil and skyscraper describe the two creative forces, European classical tradition and American popular music, that informed his composing. But the genial hubris that his contemporaries found charming and off-putting depending on their mood and the context, impelled Gershwin to champion his own approach, and to diminish the accomplishments of many of his contemporaries.

Two contemporaries who were stylistically close to Gershwin — William Grant Still and George Anthiel — were not referenced in the essay. Still’s omission from the admiration list is notable because of Gershwin’s close association with black musicians, along with the fact that Still pursued the same objectives as Gershwin with respect to integrating jazz into classical forms. Like Gershwin, Still’s musical life was a mash-up of stylistic references and personalities. Although his wife Verna Arvey was of Russian-Jewish ancestry, Still was never comfortable with white composers co-opting black music, noting, “White imitations of negro music will always be superficial.” [2]Still preferred to interpolate the Blues, as opposed to jazz, into symphonic form. In his Afro-American Symphony, he noted, “I wanted to prove conclusively that the Negro idiom is an important part of the world’s musical culture. That’s why I wanted to take a musical theme in the Blues idiom and develop into the highest musical form-the symphony.” [3]

Still, who came through the ranks of Negro spirituals, progressing to jazz and classical music, naturally had a more nuanced and textured view of the broad sweep of the Negro musical landscape. Gershwin’s facility with melody and his talent as a Broadway accompianist propelled him into a powerful position at a young age, while Still found it far harder to gain popular acceptance. A particular sore point for Still may have been hearing a motif from the third movement of his Afro-American Symphony echoed in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” [4] Still, who died in 1978, became increasingly bitter over time, and in the 1950s began to politicize his battle with many established composers and musicians, the majority of them white and Jewish. Some of these composers had marginalized Still earlier in his career, the composer Marc Blitzein calling the Afro-American Symphony “servile,” and Aaron Copland noting that although Still possessed a certain charm, his music leaned towards “the sweetly saccharine, often based on the slushier side of jazz.”

In 1952 Still struck out at his detractors in his essay “Fifty Years of Progress in Music,” (an echo of the title of Gershwin’s early essay, something that perhaps Still would have found discomfiting had it been the other way around,) noting that “It is a fact that there is a powerful clique of white composers who exclude all others, white as well as colored…having refused to follow leftist doctrines, certain colored and white composers have been opposed by this clique for many years — among other things, the door to adequate recordings of our music has been closed to us.” In 1953, Still went even further, branding Copland, Blitztein, Serge Koussevitzky, Kurt Weill, Larry Adler, Morton Gould, Oscar Hammerstein, and Ira Gershwin as communists in a speech in San Jose.

Anthiel, a polymath who also developed communications code and tried to bio hack the underpinnings of female attraction, completed his Jazz Symphony in 1925 just about a year later than Gershwin’s first Rhapsody. Anthiel boasted about how his piece was going to “put Gershwin in the Shade.” Either Gershwin felt Anthiel breathing on him too hard, or was so indifferent towards his work that he did not feel the need to reference him as part of the new American canon. In 1926 in Paris, the two traded salon performances; Gershwin playing his Concerto in F, and Anthiel some of his Ballet, whose scoring included propellers and a siren. In eulogizing Gershwin, Anthiel reappraised his original dislike of the Rhapsody in Blue, and wrote that the piece was filled with “breathtaking Americana.” [5]

In his 1934 radio program “Music by Gershwin,” the composer spun tunes and talked about music. Listening to recordings of these shows, Gershwin sometimes comes across as a bashful “aw shucks it’s great to be here” kind of guy, other times like a condescending theory professor. For all his meretricious parsing of “American” music, it is difficult to identify any composers or critics who became Gershwin acolytes. He had dozens of friends in show business and classical music. But going through the list: Arlen, Youmens, Ruby, Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Duke, Levant and others, no one was a strict devotee in the sense of wanting to perpetuate Gershwin’s strict yet simplistic musical ideals.

A sampling of classical pieces written about the time (1924) that Rhapsody in Blue had its Damrosch Park debut suggests that America had not yet settled on its musical future, but that it was hell bent on trying. It was an era when Brahmsian romanticism (Foote, Beach, MacDowell) knocked heads with polyrhythmic, jazz-inflected concert pieces (Gershwin, Carpenter, Anthiel, Still) and Second Wave modernism (Ives, Cowell, Cage.) Pieces composed around the time Rhapsody in Blue debuted include Ives’ Three Quarter Tone Pieces for Two Pianos (1924), Foote’s Shadows for Voices and Piano (1921), Virgil Thomson’s Agnus Dei (1924), Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra (1924), Carpenter’s Skyscrapers (1924), and Anthiel’s Ballet mécanique (1923–1925.) The proto-jazz of the Rhapsody fell, for some observers, into yet a new bucket: jazz born in the upper provinces of Manhattan and tinged with cantorial chants.

In 1920 Gershwin wrote “Operettas that represent the life and spirit of this country are decidedly my aim. After that may come opera, but I want all my work to have the one element of appealing to the great majority of our people.” As entertainment first, operettas were free to pander to popular taste. Despite the fact that Prokofiev once called Gershwin the “operetta god of America,” [6]it’s hard to say if he even wrote an operetta, although he freely acknowledged composing debts to Victor Herbert and Gilbert and Sullivan. In composing the Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin, if not pioneering in the academic sense like his friend Schoenberg or acquaintance Ives, was positively clairvoyant in terms of what would thrill the concert-going public.

Bully or Savant

According to Ira, George was a high-energy fellow, a sportsman who enjoyed boxing, skiing, and golf, and of course tennis. The brothers were frequent hosts for parties where George held court at the piano, spinning tunes so relentlessly that when he asked a friend if he thought his music would still be played in a hundred years, the friend answered yes indeed, as long as he was still at the piano. His desire to stay rooted to the bench at parties was a result of the interplay of introvert and extrovert that many friends like Oscar Levant observed. Gershwin was personally modest and professionally imperious, and was known to cultivate relationships with black musicians, including Fats Waller.

Drawing from ragtime, stride, southern “Gullah,” classical, jazz, songwriting peers, street noise, and cantorial chants, Gershwin pushed forward an agenda comprised of “Real American Music” untainted by bourgeoisie European and Indian (sic) music. Noting that the “pale and fragile tenderness of Indian music can no more express the fret and chaos of our modern American life than can the music of Brahms and Schubert,” he goes on to praise a group of four composers — Copland, Leo Ornstein, Ernest Bloch, and Louis Gruenberg — for their facility with harmony, melody and the felicitous integration of jazz into their work. Yet for Gershwin’s august standards of music purity, even these chosen four were smudged with European orthodoxy: Brahms and Strauss infecting Ornstein and Bloch, Stravinsky and Schoenberg sullying Copland. Revealing the hubris that friends like Levant and rivals like Porter were prone to pounce on, Gershwin anoints himself and Irving Berlin as the only extant purists. “Fortunately neither Irving Berlin nor I were taught by European masters — and so we were free men whereas all others were slaves.”

Gershwin’s people, at least the musical people, ultimately became anyone and everyone, but he was a musical fault line, making folks jittery on both sides of the classical/popular divide. Like his contemporary Groucho Marx, whose guise Gershwin adopted for a party on at least one occasion, the composer was reluctant to join the popular music club that would have him, at least on a permanent basis. The clutch and pull of the old guard was always too strong for him to fully submit to popular music. Legitimacy for composers, especially minority composers, was conveyed by the academy. Gershwin’s success on Broadway effectively financed his pursuit of formal classical training. Boulanger, Ravel, Prokofiev, and others were amused by a rich and talented composer of show tunes working the other side of the hall. Within Broadway and its tetchy crew of composers and lyricists, there were plenty of grudges. Jerome Kern and Gershwin sniped through the years, and Kurt Weill, after Gershwin unwittingly alluded to Weill’s wife Lotte Lenya as a “squitchadickeh” soprano, began to describe Gershwin as a “nebbish” and “stupid.”

It is unfair to suggest that Gershwin was a frivolous composer. Indeed as a teen, he sensed that he needed training in composition, theory, harmony, and counterpoint. Beginning with lessons from the Hungarian Edward Kilenyi, he moved on to theory classes at Columbia when he was 19, and continued studying with Rossitter Cole, Ruben Goldmark (Juilliard’s inaugural head of theory and composition,) Charles Hambitzer, Wanda Landowska, Henry Cowell, and several others. He also sought out composers like Ravel, Stravinsky, and Ives as tutors, more often than not unsuccessfully. Ravel famously alluded to not wanting to turn Gershwin into a “second-rate Ravel.” But European formalism was just part of the vetting process; in order for his ‘serious’ crossover compositions to be accepted by the establishment, he believed that he needed a pedigree.

Deplaning with his brother Ira in Los Angeles in 1936, Gershwin looked every bit the successful rake in a custom tweed suit and white fur fedora, a sheaf of scores tucked neatly by his side. composer of an ambitious opera that stirred the public imagination the previous year. Nothing in Gershwin’s musical America reached the fever that his contemporary Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused in 1913, with concertgoers trading punches and brandishing their canes in response to music and choreography that proved too impenetrable and threatening for some. But American music had its share of carping and acrimony. Thompson and others held steadfast to classical ideals (as long as they were not aligned with Brahmsian Romanticism) and did not want the classical firmament tainted by a pop composer (even a widely admired one) like Gershwin. Other classical gatekeepers like Copland and Cowell, who held Gershwin in high esteem, were naturally inclined to favor the austerity and discipline of peers like John Cage and Morton Feldman who were ideologically closer to Schoenberg and Berg. Anthiel’s 1937 eulogy noted that Gershwin supplication to serious classical composers was a source of frustration for him throughout his life

Viewed strictly in the confines of Manhattan Island, where Gershwin spent the bulk of his creative life, it could be argued that he did fulfill his self-styled vision of becoming a classical maverick, weaving harmonic and rhythmic elements from gospel, blues, ragtime, and burgeoning (and soon to be fragmented) jazz into his concert pieces. But was he as inventive as he thought he was, or just a successful composer who worked accessible and memorable melodies into classical forms?

In a letter to Anne Brown (the African American singer who created the role of “Bess”) recounting a bout of “shouting” at a negro meeting, Gershwin describes being approached by an old man. The composer claimed the man told him “I ain’t never seen a poor ‘ol little white boy take off and fly like you. You could be my own son.” This came after a five-week cultural immersion in the “Gullah” region of South Carolina in preparation for writing the score to Porgy and Bess. His collaborator DuBose Heyward remarked that for Gershwin, “Immersion in black Southern life seemed more like a homecoming than an exploration.” Describing the Gullah region, Gershwin and Heyward had to balance sympathy and verisimilitude. That the finished product pricked the sensibilities of the progressive African American community should not have been a surprise to either man. Both Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte turned down Samuel Goldwyn’s offers for the lead role in the 1950 film version. It was not until the 1980s that Porgy was incorporated into the Metropolitan Opera’s repertoire.

In mining African American artistic strongholds like Harlem and the South Carolina coast, Gershwin raised the eyebrows of even white admirers like Carl Van Vechten, who suggested that Gershwin had inflected his cultural exploration with a hegemonic vision. Van Vechten labeled Rhapsody in Blue “the finest piece that has come out of America.” Nevertheless, in his essay “On Gershwin,” Van Vechten detected authoritarian tendencies expressed by a “master-slave” dynamic in which Gershwin employed European formalism (“superego”) to subordinate the primitive black body (presumably the “Id.) Caught between the appeal of a modern American classical music inflected with nationalistic (jazz) idioms, and the impulse to leave black music unvarnished, Van Vechten he seemed unable to resolve the case of Gershwin.

If you were to have polled the hundreds of composers — popular and classical — with whom Gershwin came into contact during his 37 years, the summary report would probably be that as a songwriter Gershwin was a great composer, and as a composer, Gershwin was a great songwriter. But what they would have all agreed about is that they would have wanted him to have had another 50 years to refine his theories and to write music.

[1] Pollack, George Gershwin His Life and Work, p.149

[2] Polack p. 149

[3] William Grant Still, untitled speech, delivered February 2, 1968, at Honors Luncheon, Association of the Presentation and Preservation of the Arts

[4] Elliot Forrest, ‘Did Gershwin Get His Rhythm From African-American Composer William Grant Still? June 9, 2016 WQXR Blog

[5] Pollack, p.155

[6] Pollack, p.142