Richard Nisley

Gershwin's Double-Life
Music - Classical Released - Jan 08, 2013

The scene: a black Baptist church in Folly Beach, a small island community near Charleston, South Carolina, pulsating with wild-sounding music.      

This was gospel music at its most primitive, with roots extending back to Africa; highly charged, emotional music, punctuated with shouts and clapping of hands.  In the midst of the congregation, singing and shouting with the best of them, was a Jewish kid from Brooklyn: George Gershwin.

What was Gershwin doing in a black Baptist church in the Deep South?  Research, of course.  He was writing an opera based on the novel “Porgy” by a Southern black novelist named DuBose Heyward.  Heyward invited the New Yorker to come down to Folly Beach in order to get a feel for the way of life and the type of music that pervaded the community.

Having returned to New York, Gershwin insisted on authenticity.  He asked DuBose to write the libretto and the words to most of the songs, and refused all suggestions for performers to be white opera singers in black face.  For choral director, he chose African-American musician Eva Jessye.

When the opera premiered in 1935, “Porgy and Bess” featured an all-black cast of classically trained African-American singers--a daring choice at the time.  Audience response was lukewarm, and for the most part, critics didn’t get what Gershwin was after.  Was it opera or was it a broadway show?  A number of songs -- “Summertime”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin” -- lived on as pop hits, but the opera did not.

It wasn’t until recent times that “Porgy and Bess” found an audience and received recognition as a true opera--as perhaps the great American Opera--thanks to the triumph of the Houston Grand Opera’s production in 1976.  That started a revival that continues to this day.

Thanks to the “Porgy and Bess” revival, a number of black opera singers got their break and now perform regularly in French, German and Italian operas, in places like London, Vienna, and Milan.  Even Civil Rights advocates who once condemned Gershwin’s opera for stereotyping African Americans now take pride in it.

Gershwin’s success as a songwriter began early.  His mother and father were poor Russian immigrants from the Ukraine who pooled their money to buy a piano for the oldest of their four children, Ira.

A bookish type, Ira had no interest in playing piano, but his flamboyant younger brother did.  Largely self-taught, George quit school at 15, went to work as a song plugger for Tin Pan Alley, and dreamed of becoming a concert pianist.  At 19, he wrote “Swanee” which became a nation-wide hit for a singer famous for wearing a black face--Al Jolson.  Now George dreamed of writing great American pop standards like his idol, Irving Berlin. 

With brother Ira as lyricist, George Gershwin began turning out songs at a prodigious rate, many of them for Broadway musicals.  Nothing hit.

What turned the tide was not another pop song but a Lisztian rhapsody for piano and orchestra.  It was commissioned by Paul Whiteman for “An Experiment in Modern Music,” a concert he gave with his band at Aelian Hall, New York, on February 12, 1924.  Gershwin integrated jazz and ragtime with European-style music and produced “Rhapsody in Blue.” It took the public by storm.

The success of “Rhapsody in Blue” bolstered Gershwin’s confidence.  Next was “Lady Be Good!” George and Ira’s first hit Broadway musical.  It was followed by “Oh, Kay!”, “Strike Up the Band”, “Funny Face”, “Girl Crazy” and that featured Gershwin’s jazz-influenced rhythms and Ira’s playful yet heartfelt lyrics.

Gershwin was now leading a double-life as a writer of pop songs and a composer of classical music, with such masterworks as “Piano Concerto in F”, “Second Rhapsody” and “Cuban Overture.” In 1928 he went to Paris in search of more thorough training in composition and met Maurice Ravel.  Ravel said there was nothing he could teach him, that the American composer’s technique was exactly appropriate to what he had it in him to do.  If anything, Ravel learned from Gershwin, as Ravel’s two jazzy piano concertos attest.

Gershwin got the training he was after and produced his most sophisticated orchestral music to date: “An American in Paris.”  The New York Philharmonic Orchestra premiered the work December 12, 1928.

After a stint in Hollywood writing movie scores, Gershwin began work on “Porgy and Bess.”  Upon completion, he talked of writing another concerto, a symphony and a string quartet.

Gershwin received his sole Academy Award nomination, for Best Original Song at the 1937 Oscars, for “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” written with his brother Ira for the 1937 film “Shall We Dance.”  The nomination was posthumous.  Gershwin died from a brain tumor two months after the film's release.  He was 38.

In 2005,  “The Guardian” determined using "estimates of earnings accrued in a composer's lifetime" that George Gershwin was the wealthiest composer of all time.
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