Sing us a Song
Nature has given us two ears but only one mouth.
– Benjamin Disraeli
CHAPTER AIM: Showtunes & Motifs
9.15-12.25 Final third
Our attachment to Melody comes from way back, from our earliest conscious moments really. Think of those songs and nursery rhymes we hear and learn from our parents.
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Baa Baa Black Sheep. That association with childishness may be a reason melody is looked down upon. Artists who are good at penning melodies are often regarded as superficial, even infantile. Think Paul McCartney, or Andrew Lloyd-Weber.
You can find a similar snobism in the world of classical music. Some of classical music’s greatest melodists, like Tchaikovsky or Verdi, are sometimes denigrated as being lightweight. Even Mendelssohn, and Mozart occasionally get the same treatment.
Gershwin has been accused of lacking substance, as a serious composer. Or more seriously, of not being a composer at all, but rather a musicals and jazz man who penned a couple of classical pieces.
He was certainly a supreme melodist, who wrote some of the most popular tunes of his day. But he also loved classical music, and composed this piano concerto as well as a full opera (Porgy & Bess).
So. Classical or Pop, which is Gershwin? Can we learn anything by the melodies he uses in this piece?
Show us a Tune
9.15-12.25 Final third
Gershwin could certainly write a great showtune, as the last third of this movement demonstrates.
His background was primarily musicals, written for the New York stage, mostly in the 20s. These were cheeky satirical shows which combined jokes and ordinary speech, songs and big numbers. It was a new genre at the turn of the 20th century, and it had to fight for attention with the more prestigious operettas in and around Broadway. Those much more ‘distinguished’ shows incidentally are largely forgotten today, unlike Gershwin’s music.
Most of Gershwin’s most famous tunes (The Man I Love, Somebody to Watch Over Me, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off etc) come from these 20’s Broadway shows. And he wasn’t working in a vacuum.
Gershwin composed during a golden age of American song-writing that blossomed after the birth of the American musical. Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern were amongst those who composed hundreds of songs, many of which are still widely known and loved today. White Christmas, There’s no Business like Show Business, I Get a Kick out of You, Who wants to be a Millionaire, Smoke Gets in your Eyes…it’s a very long list.
Gershwin brought that Broadway knowledge to the climax of this movement. It’s showmanship, yes, and how welcome to hear it in the concert hall.
In More Detail
This climax to the movement is really proclaimed by a long melody I’m going to call a showtune. Why? Because it could be a showtune. Let’s follow this conclusion as this showtune is atriculated four times…
9.15-12.25 Final third
- 0.00 1st appearence with the strings of our ‘showtune’ melody
- 0.21 Strings play the showtune again, with the piano backing with chords
- 0.31 Now the music digresses, with piano and orchestra interchanging the showtune theme
- 0.51 A solo flute takes over (we will come back to this section later)
- 1.39 Here comes the piano with the 3rd appearance of our showtune.
- 2.04 The melody leads the piano into an extended digression with the orchestra
- 2.46 The Orchestra plays our showtune a 4th and final time, with gusto
Gershwin instinctively follows the showman’s route: whatever you do, wow them at the end. And he uses a memorable tune to do it.
Only, it’s not quite that simple. Gershwin has been subtle. For a start, we’ve already met the melody, even if we haven’t realised.
It comes in the clarinets, during the fast middle section of the movement we looked at last chapter:
4.16-4.24 Early showtune with clarinets
To make that clearer, I’ve edited the two clips side-by-side. First the melody in the faster clip in the woodwind, and then its later appearance as the ‘showtune’:
And that’s not the only time we’ve heard it. Here it is during the piano solo just before our big conclusion:
8.20-8.33 Showtune, early appearance
You might imagine that if you want more complex music, you need more complex melodies. With classical music it’s actually the reverse. Often melodies can be broken up into smaller units, units we call motifs, and then reassembled. Into much bigger structures.
9.15-12.25 Final third
A tune is a wonderful thing, but it can quickly sound repetitious. That’s the reason a song almost always lasts 2-4 minutes. That is true for a Beethoven or Schubert Song (or Leid) as one by Gershwin, or Justin Beiber.
If you’re sustaining a long piece, you need more structure, more building material than you can use from a simple tune. Shorter melodic bricks give you simple units you can use across the movement, sometimes in different ways. We call these shorter melodic units motifs.
Think Beethoven’s 5th, where the composer uses that famous four-note rhythmic units to build a far larger edifice of sound:
Beethoven’s Fifth excerpt
The very first notes of our Gershwin piece provide a perfect example. A two note theme, swinging up and down in the horn.
0.00-0.15 Horn opening
You can follow that simple two-note motif as it takes a tour through the rest of the movement on solo instruments:
- 00.00 Horn
- 00.28 Trumpet
- 00.33 and again
- 01.48 Oboe, as a shorter phrase
- 02.07 and again
- 03.01 Trumpet
- 03.07 and again
- 07.06 Trumpet (and again 7.12)
- 08.41 Piano
- 12.38 Flute (and again 12.43)
Gershwin can take a motif, and integrate it across very different sections of music.
Take this simple three note melody we first hear in the trumpet’s introduction. It’s the first three notes, coming quickly between 0.01-0.02:
0.53-0.59 Three notes from trumpet
Can three notes that are the same even be called a melody?
Yes. It is important these are notes, with a pitch, and not just a noise. And it is important that the same note repeats three times. It gives the music anchored roots, great textural contrast when there is a swirl of other activity going on.
Listen to how those three notes are employed in the piano introduction:
3.57- 5.59 Piano Introduction
- 0.00 Piano (played with grace notes)
- 0.03 Again (with only the first note attached to a grace note)
- 0.05 Ditto and 0.09
- 0.18 Ditto, followed by 0.21 and 0.22
- 0.47 Now in the violins (and 0.56)
- 0.50 In a new faster form, in the violins
- 0.56 Again violins, followed (0.59) by the faster form, extending at 1.06.
- 1.20 Piano. Whilst violins and clarinets play the faster form at the same time.
And so on.
Gershwin is using tiny units of melody, motifs, to build his sound. Rather like using Lego bricks to make something large.
Take the short theme we looked at last chapter. The importance of the steps up and down mean it is every bit as much a melodic unit as a rhythmic one. Here it is again in isolation on the piano:
This theme has a cousin, a kind of inverted form, that goes like this:
Let’s look at the section leading up to our big showtune, the piano solo, to show how Gershwin plays with all of these musical building blocks:
7.55-9.34 Piano cadenza
- 0.00 The trumpet with our three note theme
- 0.02 the piano improvises on our ‘cousin’ unit
- 0.24 The piano (left hand) with our show tune
- 0.26 The piano (right hand) repeats our ‘cousin’ unit
- 0.30 Ditto (and 0.32 ditto)
- 0.38 The piano starts on our showtune, but this morphs…
- 0.44 back to our very first theme. Those two notes bouncing up and down.
- 0.56 Teasing that showtune melody
- 1.09 Again, teasing the showtune, just before the big entry…
It all sets up the end perfectly. where Gershwin can unleash his big tune with passionate simplicity. By using melodic material with small but related parts, he has prepared us to some extent with what is going to come. He’s constructed the launch pad for the big moment.
He signs off the movement with a big tune, but he’s actually built it with much smaller units of melody.
Next chapter, we’re going to look at the harmonic texture of this music, rich and fertile ground indeed.