Institute for Studies In American Music
Inside This Issue:
Inside This Issue
Book review by
After compiling the 690 page
tome Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man (Henry Holt
& Company, 1999), Howard Pollack turned his attention to the man who
eclipsed Copland as
With more than a dozen Gershwin biographies and numerous books and articles devoted to his music already on the shelves, and in the wake of the tremendous publicity generated by the 1998 centenary of the composer’s birth, one might ask if yet another Gershwin treatise is really necessary. The answer is yes, and the justification is two-fold. First, unlike the informative but largely anecdotal biographies by Charles Schwartz (1973), Edward Jablonski (1987), and Joan Pyser (1993), Pollack’s account of the Gershwin story draws on a trove of archival and manuscript material and volumes of serious secondary scholarship that have become available over the past two decades. Secondly, unlike previous authors who folded Gershwin’s biography and creative output together into a single chronological narrative, Pollack has chosen to break them out, devoting slightly over a quarter of the volume to Gershwin’s life, and the remaining space to analysis of his theater and concert works. The resulting volume works equally well as straight biography and a reference guide to his music.
Pollack weaves an engaging narrative of Gershwin’s childhood, musical education, and journey from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway and the concert stage. He plumbs neglected areas of the composer's life, such as his early training with pianist Charles Hambitzer and composition/theory study with Edward Kilenyi and Rubin Goldmark. By recounting his deep involvement in the practice and study of classical music starting at age thirteen, Pollack puts to rest the myth that Gershwin was an untrained genius who somehow stumbled upon serious music in later life.
Considerable space is also devoted to Gershwin’s
Jewish-Russian heritage and conjecture over the possible Jewish influences in
his music. Gershwin’s own reflections on the matter in both public and
private conversations suggest that he believed “the internal, deep
emotional elements” of at least some of his melodies had origins in
Hebrew chant and Yiddish folk music. Certain melodic traits, such as the use
of modal irregularities, pentatonic scales, and falling thirds are common to
Jewish folk music and a number of Gershwin tunes. But Pollack concludes the composer owed far
more to the blues and jazz idioms and the conventions of American popular
song than to Hebrew or Yiddish idioms. That said, the Jewish background
Gershwin shared with many of
Gershwin’s rise to stardom is contextualized
against the backdrop of
Pollack treats Gershwin’s personal life with
similar depth and sensitivity. His charismatic personality put him at the
center of a large circle of
The “Work” section of the book, spanning thirty-four chapters, surveys Gershwin’s entire oeuvre of stage, film, and concert material, from the popular song “Raggin’ the Traumerei” (1913) through soundtracks to Goldwyn Follies (1938) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964, with George’s melodies posthumously lyricized by his brother Ira). The works are presented in roughly chronological order, although Pollack doesn’t hesitate to jump forward in time to discuss revivals, film adaptations, and recordings of a given song, show, or concert work. The work section may serve as an encyclopedic compendium allowing readers to quickly locate commentary on any of Gershwin’s hundreds of creations: his first Broadway success, Lady be Good; his most influential song, “I’ve Got Rhythm;” the Pulitzer Prize winning political satire Of Thee I Sing; or his final and most enduring concert work, the opera Porgy and Bess (to which Pollack devotes four chapters).
The chapters in the work section follow a common structure. Pollack initially lays out the historical circumstances in which each work was conceived and actualized. He then offers general commentary on the music itself, reviews critical responses to the work, and finally recounts the entire performance history that includes not only opening runs but stage revivals, film scores, and audio recordings. The musical theater and Porgy and Bess chapters include useful plot summaries. The breadth of coverage and attention to referencing is extraordinary, given the enormity of Gershwin’s creative output.
Some readers will undoubtedly be disappointed that Pollack’s musical commentary is narrative rather than analytical, and contains no musical notation (whether this is due to space limitations or difficulty in obtaining reproduction rights is not explained). When the author does slip into more technical discussions of melodic intervals, harmonic structure, and form he often makes reference to specific sections of a particular score, a practice that may frustrate or distract those readers who will not have the music in front of them. Nevertheless Pollack strikes a satisfactory balance by mingling relatively simple technical language with well-crafted descriptive prose. His sketch of the slow movement of Gershwin’s Concerto in F is exemplary: “The music unfolds an ABACA rondo form whose main theme, introduced by solo trumpet and wind choir in counterpoint, evokes the blues. Reversing its role in the first movement, the piano imitates, not a pensive episode, but a witty dialogue largely carried out between the soloist and the strings (B). The ensuing C interlude, with its magnificent big tune, constitutes the heart of the movement, if not the entire concerto. …its prevailing E-major tonality contrasts poetically with the larger tonal context.” (p. 349)
On the cultural front Pollack does not shy away from issues of race, class, and cultural hierarchy that infused debates over the validity of Gershwin’s music. While he approaches the controversies surrounding a number of Gershwin’s works with a studied thoroughness, he consistently comes down as a defender of the composer. He contends Rhapsody in Blue is more than a patched together collection of catchy pop tunes as some argued, for it exhibits an “extraordinary unity” of thematic material, and the “work’s form serves the complexity of its ideas” (p. 300). The Pulitzer Prize board’s decision to give its prestigious award to Of Thee I Sing for the book and lyrics while excluding Gershwin’s musical score was simply “indefensible” (p. 581). Although it produced a number of “hit tunes,” Porgy and Bess stands as “the most successful American opera to date” and should not be demoted to the stature of pedestrian musical theater. And while some critics raised troubling questions regarding the opera’s portrayal of African Americans and their culture, Pollack concludes Porgy and Bess “shows its author to be deeply humane in his sensitive understanding of the weakness and resilience, the haplessness and dignity, of an oppressed and tight-knit group” (p. 591).
Pollack’s Gershwin promises to reach a wide readership. Gershwin fans will appreciate the insightful life story as well as the ease with which they can thumb through the works section to find out more about their favorite songs, shows, and orchestral pieces. Musicologists and students can look to the book as a model of meticulously researched and lucidly written musical biography, and the works section as a useful starting point for more in-depth research on specific pieces. Cultural historians will find fresh insights regarding the role music and theater played in American life during the 1920s and 1930s.
Can the totality of Gershwin’s life and music be
captured between the covers of any single volume? Howard Pollack has unquestionably produced
the most exhaustive effort to date, but given
Copyright © 2005 Institute for Studies in
American Music, Conservatory of Music,