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Clip: George Gershwin and historical memory

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  • Carl Zimring
    An Upstart Named Gershwin Gets His Shot By JOSEPH HOROWITZ Published: October 2, 2005 THE
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2005

      An Upstart Named Gershwin Gets His Shot

      Published: October 2, 2005

      THE 124-year-old Boston Symphony Orchestra is about to break with a Boston
      tradition. Beginning on Thursday, it offers George Gershwin's popular Piano
      Concerto in F for the first time on the regular-season subscription series
      at Symphony Hall, with Jean-Yves Thibaudet as soloist and James Levine
      conducting. (The same program, which includes works by Charles Ives,
      Elliott Carter and Lukas Foss, comes to Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10.)

      No longer on the margins: George Gershwin's vexed reputation in the United
      States is improving as more major symphonies begin accepting him as a
      composer worthy of inclusion in high-minded subscription series.

      Antipathy and loathing dogged Gershwin in the elite music realm.

      Mr. Levine, who introduced Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" at the Metropolitan
      Opera in 1985, also led the Boston Symphony's first subscription
      performances of "An American in Paris" last season. The orchestra first
      played "Rhapsody in Blue" for its regular subscribers only in 1997, with
      André Previn as pianist and conductor.

      In its guise as the Boston Pops, the orchestra has long presented Gershwin
      for casual summer listeners. That the music is no longer relegated to pops
      status is part of a national trend.

      Gershwin's marginalization in Boston was a legacy of the orchestra's
      seminal post-World War I music director, Serge Koussevitzky. Koussevitzky
      championed American music and predicted that the next Beethoven would "come
      from Colorado." But although he commissioned Gershwin's Second Rhapsody,
      Koussevitzky did not consider Gershwin a potential Beethoven. He preferred
      the kind of "serious" Americana found in the heroic third symphonies of Roy
      Harris and Aaron Copland, both of which he introduced.

      In retrospect, "An American in Paris" is more lastingly infectious than any
      of the American symphonies Koussevitzky sampled, but it was long regarded
      as a lower musical species. Gershwin's first appearance with the New York
      Symphony in 1933, playing the premiere of the Concerto in F with Walter
      Damrosch conducting, elicited a similar antipathy. The musicians "hated
      Gershwin with instinctive loathing," testified the violinist Winthrop
      Sargeant (later a music critic at The New Yorker). They "pretended to
      regard Gershwin's music humorously, made funny noises and played it, in
      general, with a complete lack of understanding of the American idiom."

      Other orchestras were more respectful, but some writers were not. The
      critic Paul Rosenfeld, who championed Copland in intellectual circles and
      whose Jewish lineage was German, detected in Gershwin the Russian Jew a
      "weakness of spirit, possibly as a consequence of the circumstance that the
      new world attracted the less stable types." Rosenfeld's point was that
      Gershwin was talented, but vulgar, "a gifted composer of the lower,
      unpretentious order."

      Copland, though more polite, was similarly disposed. He omitted Gershwin
      from his surveys of important or promising American composers. When Copland
      was asked to compare his music with "Mr. Gershwin's jazz" in 1937, he said:
      "Gershwin is serious up to a point. My idea was to intensify it. Not what
      you get in the dance hall, but to use it cubistically - to make it more
      exciting than ordinary jazz." The song forms blithely employed by Gershwin
      seemed banal to American composers seeking an up-to-date high-culture idiom.

      The performance history of the Concerto in F documents Gershwin's vexed
      reputation in American classical-music circles. Gershwin's own renditions
      attracted exceptionally large and enthusiastic audiences, but the critical
      response swirled with confusion and controversy over the work's pedigree.
      Many local premieres were engulfed in short pops numbers by
      Rimsky-Korsakov, Smetana, Chabrier and the like.

      Damrosch, at Carnegie Hall, gave the world premiere in a program with a
      symphony by Glazunov and a suite by Henri Rabaud. In St. Louis, Vladimir
      Golschmann (who had already conducted the concerto in Paris to resounding
      popular and critical acclaim) positioned it after Tchaikovsky's
      "Pathétique" Symphony. Fritz Reiner, in Cincinnati, presented it with
      Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel" and "Rhapsody
      in Blue."

      But during his later reign as music director of the Chicago Symphony (1953
      to 1963) Reiner conducted not a note of Gershwin - not even Robert Russell
      Bennett's ever popular "Porgy and Bess" synthesis, which Reiner himself had
      commissioned and introduced. Not until 2000 did Daniel Barenboim become the
      first Chicago music director to have led all three of Gershwin's choice
      symphonic productions - the concerto, "Rhapsody in Blue" and "An American
      in Paris" - in regular-season subscription concerts.

      This Chicago history is emblematic. It seems that Gershwin most fell out of
      favor on mainstream American symphonic programs around midcentury. Then, in
      Pittsburgh in the 1980's, Lorin Maazel brought him back. More recently,
      Andrew Litton in Dallas and Michael Tilson Thomas in San Francisco have
      conspicuously advocated Gershwin. Of the most prestigious American
      orchestras, only Philadelphia and Cleveland continue to marginalize the big
      Gershwin scores. The New York Philharmonic alone has never done so. Artur
      Rodzinski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leonard Bernstein, Zubin Mehta, Kurt Masur
      and now Mr. Maazel have all conducted Gershwin for regular-season

      The experience of Benjamin Pasternack, who regularly played piano parts for
      the Boston Symphony in the 1980's, testifies to the aspersions once cast on
      "Rhapsody in Blue." As a regular-season soloist with the orchestra, he
      played Bartok, Bernstein, Mozart and Rachmaninoff. But his Boston
      performances of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" were always Pops events.
      Following the advice of his New York manager, he omitted the work from his
      repertory list.

      The pianist Alexander Toradze reports a similar experience. After defecting
      to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1983, he considered
      performing the Concerto in F. Two American managers told him that to do so
      would harm his professional standing.

      "In Russia, if you could improvise and play Gershwin, your reputation went
      up, not down," Mr. Toradze said.

      When Dmitri Shostakovich heard "Porgy and Bess" in Moscow in 1945, he
      called it magnificent and compared Gershwin to Borodin and Mussorgsky. In
      the United States the composer and critic Virgil Thomson, reviewing the
      work's premiere in 1935, found it "crooked folklore and halfway opera."

      For that matter, eminent European-born musicians enjoyed Gershwin for
      decades without the qualms typically expressed by eminent American
      musicians. Reiner and Arnold Schoenberg befriended him. Otto Klemperer and
      Sergei Rachmaninoff admired him from a distance. Jascha Heifetz, who
      transcribed tunes from "Porgy," hoped for a Gershwin violin concerto. On
      hearing the Concerto in F, the Paris-born musicologist Carl Engel sent
      Gershwin a note reading, "You must whisper softly still when you dare
      suggest that at last America has a music all its own."

      Alluding to the Americans Copland and George Antheil, the important
      German-born Boston composer Charles Martin Loeffler wrote to Gershwin in
      1927: "It is needless to say that I have pinned my faith on your delightful
      genius and on your future. You alone seem to express charm, race and
      invention amongst the composers of our time. When the Anthlands and
      Coptheils et tutti quanti will be forgotten," he continued, "you, my dear
      friend, will be recorded in the Anthologies of coming ages."

      And the influential European admirers of American jazz were legion:
      Hindemith, Milhaud, Weill, Honegger, Poulenc, Ravel. That visitors like
      Stravinsky and Bartok gravitated to Harlem bands, not to the
      Koussevitzky-sanctioned symphonists, made Gershwin and jazz the more
      threatening to the nascent American symphonic enterprise.

      So it is both paradoxical and appropriate that this week's Gershwin soloist
      in Boston is a Frenchman. Speaking from the West Coast recently, Mr.
      Thibaudet, a product of the Paris Conservatory, said that as far as he was
      concerned, Gershwin was "always part of the mainstream repertoire."

      "I learned the Concerto in F and 'Rhapsody in Blue' when I was 13 or 14
      years old," he added. "These pieces are very well known in France." (Among
      eminent French pianists, Philippe Entremont, Pascal Rogé, and Hélène
      Grimaud are also Gershwin players.)

      Mr. Thibaudet was incredulous when informed that his Gershwin performances
      would be a Boston landmark. "I was also told that in San Francisco I will
      be giving the first Concerto in F on subscription in 56 years," he said. "I
      thought they were joking."

      As for criticism of the concerto's structure, he added: "How many people
      think about that when they're listening? And who cares? Look at how Ravel
      was impressed. He was completely crazy about Gershwin. I think that's a
      symptom of his intelligence, really. I think other composers were simply

      In 1931 Ravel composed a singular homage: his Piano Concerto in G, music
      inconceivable without Gershwin's example. He had earlier penned one of the
      most eloquent tributes ever expressed by one composer about another.
      Writing to Nadia Boulanger, from whom Gershwin had asked for composition
      lessons, Ravel declared: "There is a musician here endowed with the most
      brilliant, most enchanting and perhaps the most profound talent: George
      Gershwin. His worldwide success no longer satisfies him, for he is aiming
      higher. He knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In
      teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent. Would you have the
      courage, which I wouldn't dare have, to undertake this awesome
      responsibility?" (Boulanger declined Gershwin's request.)

      One moral of this tangled Gershwin tale is that America's classical music
      culture - with a late start in relation to the parent culture in Europe -
      long overstressed its elite pedigree. Now that everyone has relaxed about
      that (even classical music is not immune to easy postmodern excursions
      across onetime cultural boundaries) it becomes easy, too, to acknowledge
      the genius of a favorite native composer on the outskirts of high-cultural

      Roy Harris, who rejected jazz, was once called "the great white hope" of
      American music. With the wisdom of hindsight we can appreciate today that
      the great interwar hope for American classical music was an interloper who
      could seamlessly connect the world of Beethoven with the popular genres
      that made American music world famous: with Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and
      Hollywood; with Paul Whiteman and Duke Ellington.

      Gershwin's early death - in 1937, at 38 - robbed us of the string quartet
      he had begun, of the concerto he might have given his friend Heifetz, of an
      American opera to build on "Porgy." These are losses that cannot be
      recouped. But "An American in Paris," "Rhapsody in Blue" and the Concerto
      in F can be properly reclaimed.

      "Of course Gershwin called it a 'concerto,' and some people think that the
      word 'concerto' dictates a certain European form," Mr. Pasternack, the
      pianist, said. "But those criticisms are simply not germane. You know, the
      person who first recommended this music to me was my teacher Rudolf Serkin.
      'Maybe you'd like Gershwin's concerto,' he said. 'It's a wonderful piece.'
      As for 'Rhapsody in Blue,' audiences are simply thrilled and happy when
      they hear it, from beginning to end. It always has that effect. I think
      it's probably the best-loved music in the entire concert repertoire."
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