Gershwin 5. The Modern Age (in bloom)

My People are Americans. My time is today.

-George Gershwin

CHAPTER AIM: Setting Gershwin’s piano concerto in its time and place


Gershwin Piano Concerto, 2nd movement  



Mass Migration

Ellis Island, 100 years apart

Gershwin’s parents were just two of the 30 million immigrants who arrived in America between 1870 and 1930. By many measures it was the greatest migration in human history.


Most of these migrants had come voluntarily to seek a brighter future, leaving behind the political and economic uncertainty of their homelands. 19th century Europe – as discussed already on this course – was a place of political division and social unrest.

But opportunities existed. America, towards the end of the 19th century, was a place of relative peace and prosperity. It was rapidly expanding into a World Power.

The next century – the twentieth century – would be America’s century.

And the central hub for that growth and expansion would be New York, the city George Gershwin’s parents decided to make their home.



The Melting Pot

Gershwin grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, amongst what had, by the early 20th century, become the largest Jewish community in the world. But New York also hosted large Irish and Italian communities, not to mention Poles, Chinese and many more. Together with a small but rapidly rising black community. Close to a half of the city’s inhabitants had been born in a different country to America. All of them concentrated together in what had by now become the largest ethnic melting pot in human history.


Lower East Side 1900s


Coming to America meant abandoning your homeland, but not your traditions. That blessed the young nation with a rich mix of cultural heritages, all living cheek by jowl. The USA quickly began to evolve new forms of immigrant culture.

At the same time, the America mind-set added a spirit of entrepreneurial endeavor to the mix. A can-do mind set:- the idea that any immigrant could achieve great things, so long as you were smart, competitive and worked hard.


It was a formula that quickly turned America into a cultural, as well as an economic, dynamo.

Just look at the music that poured out of America during the 20th century. Gospel, The Blues, Jazz, Broadway Musicals, Country & Western, Rock ‘n Roll, Soul, Disco, Hip-Hop…entire musical genres would fertilize in America’s rich cultural soil, before spreading seeds back out to the rest of the world.


Gershwin grew up in right at the heart of this cultural boom: New York. It’s a city and a time that you can hear etched into every bar of this music. As he himself wrote in 1926:

No one expected me to compose music. I just did. What I have done is what was in me; the combination of New York, where I was born, and the rising, exhilarating rhythm of it, with centuries of hereditary feeling back of me.



Tin Pan Alley


Tin Pan Alley

Gershwin (born 1898) was trained on the piano as a teenager in the classical style. He was early an admirer of European composers like Debussy and Dvorak, but he also loved the new sound of jazz that was taking his own country by storm. That lead him into his first serious employment.


From 1914, the 15 year-old Gershwin began earning his keep at the New York song-writing factory known as “Tin Pan Alley”, a cluster of businesses named after the sound of so many pianos clanking out so many tunes in so many different keys.

Gershwin was one of these ‘piano-pounders’, employers who played works to prospective customers interested in buying sheet music. Commercially recorded sound was still in its infancy for the music business, and sheet music remained the main source of revenue for the young industry.


It was a young industry, and Gershwin was just about the youngest piano-pounder in Tin-Pan Alley. And he was different. Complaints soon started to be emerge around his office about the young kid embellishing songs with his own improvisations.

It wasn’t long before the insatiably creative Gershwin was penning his own music, earning just one dollar for his first tune.


It was a competitive industry, but there was plenty of demand. America wanted music, and Tin Pan Alley worked tirelessly to satiate that desire. It was the American dream factory, operating in grinding action.

Gershwin worked long and hard, honing his skills as a song-writer during many many hours.




Swanee (Al Johnson) excerpt   


Next step up the musical ladder for any aspiring song-smith was writing music for the shows and reviews that competed for the public’s attention in and around Broadway. The Manhattan street had already become a global cultural centre by the early 20th century, a busy hive of creative activity.

Gershwin’s first music for vaudeville and revue was competing with shows by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and live performances by Noel Coward. There were also plenty of musical operettas, considered the high art of its day, not to mention the serious theatre of playrights like Robert Sherwood or Eugene O’Neill.

Gershwin was a tiny face in a huge crowd.


It was a song from a 1919 show – Swanee – that really launched his career. The show itself, Demi Tasse, had played on Broadway, but hadn’t been particularly successful. And so, strangely, it wasn’t the actual show that launched the song.

Gershwin was a popular party guest throughout his life. He loved nothing better than to sit at a piano, improvising away, entertaining his fellow guests. One of those happened to be the famous singer Al Johnson (of Jazz Singer fame). Johnson heard Gershwin playing Swanee, and loved it. He immediately put the song into his latest stage act.

Before long Johnson had recorded the song, and Gershwin had his first bona fide hit. By now, recorded music had grown in importance. One million copies of the sheet music and two million recordings sold in a year.

Gershwin, at the age of 21, had arrived. Now a face in the musical crowd.



Rhapsody in Broadway

Rhapsody in Blue 1927 excerpt (Gershwin on piano)   


Fast forward five years. February 1924 saw an extremely nervous 24-year old Gershwin, backstage of New York’s Aeolian Hall. He was waiting to premiere his latest composition, Rhapsody in Blue. Only this was not vaudeville, or Broadway.

11935813-remastered-1927-rhapsody-in-blue-sat-1-pm-on-cultradioagogocomThe concert was an attempt to put jazz style music in a classical context. An educational musical experiment. The papers had sent their serious critics, and luminaries of classical music like Stokowski, and Rachmaninoff were in the audience.

The Rhapsody was the climax of the concert, and Gershwin waited nervously to perform a piece he had only just completed during two intense weeks of blazing activity.



Gershwin’s colleagues in Tin Pan Alley had always been puzzled by the young boy’s numerous visits to classical concerts. Not to mention those continued lessons in musical theory and instrumentation he took whenever he could (lessons he continued to seek up to his death).

postercareofabbevilledotcomBut Gershwin had always loved classical music. He’d first really noticed music as an 11 year old, hearing Dvorak wafting from a nearby schoolyard window. As a young man Gershwin loved composers like Dvorak, Wagner, and particularly Debussy. He went to concerts whenever he could, devouring all kinds of different musical styles. He loved classical, he loved jazz, he loved music. His thirst for knowledge was unquenchable.


These apparently different sides of Gershwin’s musical personality – the classical and the popular – were fused in this 1924 ‘experiment’ The Rhapsody in Blue. He’d always enjoyed classical music, but this was his first foray into actually composing in the style.


And so Gershwin waited nervously in the wings. It wasn’t just the VIP audience that made Gershwin so nervous. Neither was this the nerves of a performer worried about hitting the right notes. His Rhapsody sought to bridge a gap between the Classical and Jazz worlds, and in doing was navigating uncharted waters. It’s important to remember what sounds to us now like a pleasant musical fusion, was far more radical to contemporary ears.

Improvised first, written later

Improvised first, written later


Rhapsody in Blue 1927 excerpt (Gershwin on piano)   

The music starts with a single clarinet, before introducing a single trumpet, before introducing the single piano. Individual voices singing out of a rhythmic maelstrom. Gershwin was attempting not just to fuse jazz and classical music together. This wasn’t an intellectual experiment for him.

He was describing his New York in music.


The audience loved the piece, the undoubted highlight of the show. But the critics generally frowned on Gershwin’s experiment, with only grudging praise from a few corners.

It was a sign of choppy waters ahead.



Piano Concerto

Gershwin Piano Concerto, excerpt  


Gershwin’s experimental foray in classical-jazz fusion continued the next year, 1925, with the his first (and only) piano concerto. It’s the slow movement from this piece that we’ve been enjoying on this course.

Unfortunately these two wonderful pieces, that both remain popular in the concert hall today, were a rare voice of compromise. Classical and Popular music became increasingly estranged partners across the first half of the 20th century. Critics in particular seemed unsure how to take Gershwin’s musical experiment.

Such apparent contradictions were satirised in one contemporary review of the piano concerto:

Yesterday, following the premiere of his Piano Concerto in F, George Gershwin was arrested, charged with willful corruption of a classical form.

It’s an excellent, witty article (worth checking out in full here) which continues:

The DA’s office said that Gershwin had knowingly insulted the classical audience’s sensitivities by serving up rehashed jazz, and it didn’t help that he had also bugged his Broadway and Tin Pan Alley buddies by selling out to the snobs.

Only last year, Gershwin evaded a similar charge on a technicality – Rhapsody in Blue was performed at a Jazz, rather than Classical, concert. The DA is confident that this time his case is pretty watertight – Gershwin has actually called his piece a ‘concerto’, scoring it himself for full symphony orchestra…Even Gershwin’s lawyer admits that the movements are just variations with no symphonic logic, but adds defensively, ‘Hey, they’re goddamned fine tunes, is all’. The DA agrees that, sure, the tunes are OK – for Broadway – but Charleston, Blues and Jazz have no place on American concert platforms.

The tone is humorous, but the review reveals a terrible fault-line that judders through The Arts over the 20th century. The ‘Popular’ and ‘Serious’ were rapidly cementing into two fronts in an increasingly bitter Culture War.


Art for The Few

Anton Webern Op 22 (excerpt)


The divide between High and Low art was most stark in the world of music. The birth and rapid growth of the recording industry was in the process of producing a cultural boom, leading to a massive out-pouring of popular music (or, as it came to be known, pop). The public loved it, and the public bought it.

Meanwhile Modern Classical Music by the early 20th century had undergone a radical departure into atonality. This new musical system (it might as equally be termed dismantlement) eradicated the cornerstone of the Western Classical Music harmonic system, constructed over the previous 1000 years: the tonal system.

Webern does horns

Webern does horns

According to the tenets of Serialism (as the new avant-garde music coming from 20’s Vienna would later became known) every single note of the twelve-note octave had to be played before one could be repeated.

The result is the destruction of the tonal system of music. Harmonic clusters of sound were broken up by the rule of the twelve-note system. A piece of Mozart features strong clusters of notes with associated and related harmonic features. But by playing every single note of the twelve-note octave before repeating one, such clusters are automatically dismantled. It was a kind of enforced democratization of harmony.

The result was music that sounds discordant, disconnected, and bare.



David Tudor performs 4’33

The situation would only become more radical, as the avant-garde took on the task of attacking all the old systems. Such experimentation reached an inevitable conclusion in 1952 with John Cage’s “4’33“, a piece of music where the pianist would sit in silence for the entire 4 minutes and 33 seconds of the piece.

It’s fair to say there wasn’t a rush for tickets.


High brow and Low brow now stood in opposition in a situation that would have seemed bizarre to most 19th century Europeans. People in the streets of Milan, rich or poor, whistled away the latest Verdi melody. That was the popular music of its day.

And yet, barely a generation later, two separate audiences now stared at each other across a divide with a fair amount of scorn on either side, but little understanding. It was hardly a healthy state of affairs.


Gershwin, with his Rhapsody and Piano Concerto, was attempting to heal a rift. It was an external rift, a cultural disjunct that had only widened over the years. But there was no internal rift in Gershwin; he loved classical and jazz music equally without discrimination.

And he wasn’t alone. Other voices could be heard floating over the Atlantic…



Vivre la Musique 

Ravel Piano Concerto No 2 (excerpt) 

Birthday of Ravel (piano), Gershwin far right

Birthday of Ravel (piano), Gershwin far right


When John Sturges made The Magnificent Seven in 1952, he was actually remaking a samurai film by the Japanese director Kurosawa. But Kurosawa’s own film was heavily influenced by the westerns coming out of Hollywood in the 30’s and 40’s. Cultural traffic is free and flows in all directions across national borders.


Gershwin was heavily influenced by European composers like Debussy and Ravel. But both these composers were in their turn influenced by the sounds of jazz drifting across the big pond.


Ravel, the French composer of Bolero fame, was in New York for his 53rd birthday. At the small private party that night, the 29-year old Gershwin delighted the older composer with an impromptu rendition of his Rhapsody in Blue. The American pestered Ravel (as he did so many others) with requests for lessons and instruction. Ravel refused, retorting:

Why be a second rate Ravel instead of a first rate Gershwin?

If that weren’t praise enough, Ravel later paid Gershwin the ultimate compliment of imitation, with his 1931 Piano Concerto you can hear playing now.

Great Art knows no national barriers, as Gershwin was perfectly placed to show.



Music for The People

Gershwin Piano Concerto, excerpt  


2769663913_4d6a9fb420_oGershwin was not bound by the traditions classical music, the way his European contemporaries were. He loved and studied those traditions, He felt he belonged to them.

But at the same time he was an American, blessed with pioneer optimism and a ‘whatever works’ professional ethic. He was alive to possibilities, rather than bound by tradition or cultural dogma.

And he was, of course, a hugely popular and successful artist. His music appealed directly to ordinary people through the popular idiom of musical theatre and jazz.


In many ways, Gershwin had reached the dream of musical independence for which Mozart and Beethoven had struggled all their lives. He was writing music that communicated directly to a paying public. And he was ever sensitive to that public’s feelings.

As he himself once said:

“I am one of those who honestly believes that the majority has much better taste and understanding … than it is credited with having. It is not the few knowing ones whose opinions make any work of art great; it is the judgment of the great mass that finally decides.”

20’s Broadway, if you can make it there…


But the American system brought its own strictures. Gershwin had no Bishops or Kings to appease, but his music still needed to appeal. Broadly. He always needed paying bums on seats.

This was an artist who had started his career banging out show-tunes for the public, sometimes working the piano in the sheet-music section of out-of-town department stores far away from New York City. Gershwin, like everyone operating in Broadway or Hollywood, was always deeply mindful of how that public felt. Success was graded by runs on Broadway or sales of music. Gershwin was inevitably guided by his public’s taste, as much as they were by him.

It was musical democracy of a very different sort to the enforced democracy of the twelve-note system espoused by the Serialists. It meant respecting a popular (and paying) audience, in a way that a composer like Wagner would have considered demeaning, even barbarian.


This would prove a most difficult circle to square. Keeping the popular and the serious in harmony would always be a struggle, even for the ever-optimistic Gershwin.



Porgy & Bess

I got No Shame (Porgy & Bess)  

American was an optimistic country, but that optimism was mauled by the stock market crash of 1928, and the great depression that followed. America turned increasingly Blue.

The Boston Premiere

The Boston Premiere

In the 1930’s, Gershwin composed Porgy & Bess, an attempt to write a musical-opera (as he himself termed it) in the style of Wagner’s Meistersingers and Bizet’s Carmen. That’s already two very different styles a European composer would find hard to juggle.

But Gershwin is American, and the cultural mixing-pot is fresh. “Got no shame, doin’ what I like to do” as the chorus of Porgy & Bess brassily sing out at the opening of Act II.


Porgy & Bess is set in the slum of catfish row.  The entire cast is black, save two white detectives. They speak, but never sing. The singers are black, and the story is of impoverished life in a slum. Black culture doesn’t just provide the musical vein Gershwin mines, it provide the entire story.

Ex-slave’s chorus


In many of the greatest operas of the 19th century, people sing for their freedom. The prisoners of Beethoven’s Fidelio, or Verdi’s Hebrew slave chorus from Nabucco.

Here we are in 1930’s New York, a place alive with freedom and possibility. And yet, under the torch of the Statue of Liberty, a people still live in subjugation.


Black music, with its origins in the slave spiritual through to Blues and Jazz, is absolutely central to Gershwin’s music. It’s a subject we’ll come to in our final Gershwin chapter ( Gershwin 7). It’s worth taking a step back to appreciate the cultural heritage in action. This is a Jewish American, the child of Russians, fusing Black Jazz with a European Classical heritage.

Only in America could such a mixture be realised. Only in Gershwin could it be realised so successfully.

Got no shame, doin’ what I like to do…


4164255872_7410187bbfPorgy and Bess is the story of gamblers, police, alcoholism, cocaine addiction and murder inside an impoverished black ghetto. Today, as any 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg demonstrates, there’s plenty of dollars to be made with such subject matter. But 30’s America was still decades from Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, let alone Hip-Hop or Barrack Obama.

America has always proclaimed itself as the Land of the Free. But for Gershwin’s American well-to-do audience, the iniquity of slavery may have been a little close for comfort.


Porgy & Bess was not a success, despite now being appreciated as a work of art. Uncomfortable feelings about race may have been part of the reason.

But the biggest problem lay in that tiny dash between ‘opera-musical‘…



The Land of the Free


Gershwin self-portrait 1932

Gershwin self-portrait 1932


Is Porgy & Bess an opera or a musical?

It’s a simple question that points to the culture war that was, by the 1930’s, in open conflict.

The Times sent representatives of both drama and music to the premier of Porgy & Bess. The drama critic objected to the use of operatic recitative (a device he seemed never to have heard before), while the music critic complained of the number of Broadway-style songs. Their reactions encapsulate the issue. This wan’t about listening to music. This was about definitions and boundaries.


At their premier, both the Rhapsody and Piano Concerto were enthusiastically received by their audiences. But their critical receptions were more mixed. The main issue seemed to be that critics were not sure the structure of Gershwin’s works satisfied classical precepts of structure.

In other words, they didn’t know whether to call it Classical Music or Jazz.


10 years later Porgy & Bess suffered from this same critical confusion. Was this a Musical? Or an Opera?

Gershwin, self-portrait

Gershwin, self-portrait


The division between popular and classical was one that never existed for Gershwin. He loved classical music and jazz, and expressed that love in his music.

And yet there was no comfortable space for such free musical expression during the first half of the 20th century.


People would constantly ask Gershwin if his next work was going to be for the concert hall or the box office. People on the popular side frowned at what they thought was pretentious experimentation. On the classical side, people wrinkled their noses at what they saw as populism and opportunism.

After his 1925 piano concerto, Gershwin’s output in the field diminished.

It was a divide that would  bedevil the composer, right up to his tragically early death.



The Experiment Ends

Gershwin Piano Concerto, 2nd movement  

Early in 1937, Gershwin began complaining of terrible headaches. A few months later he was dead from a brain tumor.

He was only 39.

At the end of his life, Gershwin was excited about a string quartet he had already composed in his head, and a symphony he wanted to write. It is such a terrible shame for music that we will never experience these. To our 21st century globally-cultural ears, Gershwin’s music sounds totally devoid of pretension or populism. It sounds beautiful, positive, and free.


Gershwin painting Schoenberg

Gershwin painting Schoenberg

Gershwin had always refused to recognise the division between high and low art. He always professed admiration for modernist composers, and had even befriended Arnold Schoenberg, the father of Serialism, after the Austrian had fled from the rise of Nazism to America in 1934.

The two shared tennis matches and painting sessions together in Hollywood. They liked and respected one another.

After Gershwin’s death, Schoenberg declared:

George Gershwin was one of those rare musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music to him was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel and music was the feeling he expressed.

Directness of this kind is given only to great men, and there is no doubt that he was a great composer.

What he achieved was not only to the benefit of national American music, but also a contribution to the whole world of music.