Fall 1998 Volume XXVIII, No. 1
Rethinking the Rhapsody
by Richard Crawford
New Music Notes
Time to Remember Zez Confrey by Artis Wodehouse
Behind the Beat
Widening the Lens II
ReviewsA Centenary Moment?
by Stephen Banfield
Gershwin on Disc
Country and Gospel Notes
A Centenary Moment?
by Stephen Banfield
As George Gershwin’s centenary draws to a close, the demand for scholarly, comprehensive published resources remains an issue. Over the past decade material has certainly been building up, especially with the marvelous CD reconstructions of prominent shows and piano roll performances, and the reissuing of valuable historical recordings. Scores have appeared, including facsimiles, but as Wayne Schneider points out in his introduction to The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin (Oxford University Press, 1999; $35), still “much of Gershwin’s music is simply not published.” The list of Gershwin books has grown steadily, many feeding off each other and leaving Edward Jablonski’s standard biography of 1987 unchallenged. Two musicological studies pushing the boat far out are Steven Gilbert’s The Music of Gershwin (1995) and David Schiff’s Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1997). But Schiff’s study is in no position to extend its provocative probings and brilliant terms of reference to the whole output, while Gilbert, the Schenkerian, often masterly on the concert works and Porgy and Bess, makes little attempt to see what the other shows and songs amount to beyond the musical line of an individual number.
So we badly need a view of the man in his creative wholeness. Is Schneider’s book, if a little late (in proof as I write), that centenary monument? While the compi-lation’s title, “The Gershwin Style,” suggests that it could be, its format and content preclude fulfillment. Given this premise, the following comments, rather than attempting fair coverage of all its diverse and discrete contributions, will briefly indicate the book’s scope before focusing on the portions that seem closest to penetrating George Gershwin’s musical mind.
Following Schneider’s introduction and Charles Hamm’s provocative challenge to demolish the old Gershwin myths, the work moves into Part I, “Analysis and Manuscript Studies.” This section contains core chapters by Schneider on Gershwin’s operetta overtures, by Gilbert on Gershwin’s last songs, and by Larry Starr on form and harmony in Gershwin’s concert music. In addition, two rather more microscopic studies are Wayne Shirley’s Schillingeresque analysis of Porgy and Bess and John Andrew Johnson’s study of Blue Monday. Part II, “Reception,” contains Charlotte Greenspan’s study of the 1945 Hollywood bio-pic Rhapsody in Blue, Susan Richardson’s account of Gershwin and the pop world, titled “Gershwin on the Cover of Rolling Stone,” and André Barbera’s exploration of George Gershwin and jazz. This last contribution is probably the best thing to read on an impossibly complex topic, but it has to do a number of jobs at once, a dissection of his style only one of them. Part III, “Performance Practice,” opens with a fascinating chapter by Artis Wodehouse on the Gershwin piano rolls, followed by Michael Montgomery’s annotated piano rollography. While informative, these two chapters leave us hungry for the definitive account of Gershwin the pianist. Edward Jablonski’s concluding article, “What About Ira?,” recounts his career after George’s death. Jablonski does not offer a musicologist’s study of how the incomplete tunes were fleshed out, which might further the book’s task directly; but one would not want to be without his all too essential account of the Gershwin archives, buried though it is in an enormous footnote.
What, then, of the more analytical readings? Schneider examines Gershwin’s developing compositional technique and harmonic style through an unexpected prism of three overtures. This is authoritative and enlightening stuff, though I miss useful reference to octatonics, and thereby current or recent practice in other spheres, in Gershwin’s increasing use of superimposed chordal and tonal layers. Starr knocks firmly on the head the persistent notion that Gershwin could only string together good tunes, partly by demonstrating that the tunes are not so good. But Starr should acknowledge Schiff’s and Gilbert’s differing perspectives on Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. Starr needs less prose and more diagrams once he gets going, and there really are some jobs that Schenker does best. Gilbert’s relaxed chapter, partly duplicating and partly avoiding material from the last chapter of his book, is well focused, though it cries out, like all writing on the brothers, for really close consideration of the melopoetics of George’s songwriting with Ira. What were they doing in those pictures of them side-by-side, Ira with his desk right by the piano keyboard? There are any number of places in which one might argue that a musical phrase was extended, an instrumental fill vocalized, because Ira had some words that would clinch the structural deal. Genesis cannot be proved, but effect can.
The Gershwin Style, then, is a mixed bag. Read it all; then try to connect up the strands yourself into a rounded understanding of perhaps the twentieth century’s most famous composer.