Chester Design Associates, Chicago
George Gershwin (1898–1937), the boy wonder of American music, could do it all. He wrote Al Jolson’s mega-hit“Swanee,” and then turned around and composed jazz-inflected orchestral pieces that bridged the gap between classical and popular music; he could write for the musical stage but also for the opera house. And he could play with percussive intensity: when the clarinet glissando kicked off “Rhapsody in Blue” for the first time in 1924, it was with Gershwin himself at the piano.
That same year he found his ideal lyricist when he and his brother Ira wrote their first Broadway score, ”Lady, Be Good!” To Ira went the daunting task of fitting words “mosaically,” as he put it, to such complex songs as “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Embraceable You,” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” An American in Paris, the orchestral piece George wrote in 1928, may be heard in concert, or seen in the form of the eighteen-minute ballet danced by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the MGM movie in 1951.
George was famous for his boundless self-confidence, lofty ambition, and zest for life. In the 1930s it wasn’t an A-list Hollywood party if it didn’t have George at the piano. His death of a brain tumor at the age of thirty-eight came as a shock. The novelist John O’Hara spoke for many on that July day in 1937: “George died, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.” It took Ira years to recover, though he did, writing superb lyrics for the likes of Vernon Duke, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen.
Panel photo captions:
George Gershwin painting a self-portrait, Courtesy of Photofest. Gershwin loved playing the piano and could reliably be found doing so at fashionable Hollywood parties. The composer had enough surplus time and creative energy left to take up painting.
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, Courtesy of MGM/Photofest ©MGM. The all-Gershwin movie culminates in a full-length ballet performance of the title piece. Other Gershwin tunes in the picture include “I Got Rhythm,” “ ‘S Wonderful,” and “Our Love is Here to Stay.”
The affinities between Jewish songwriters and African-American musicians have often been noted: Miles Davis playing George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess on the trumpet is one celebrated example. To African-American musical idioms—ragtime, blues, jazz, spirituals—Jewish composers owed a profound debt. In the wail of a brass instrument, they heard the wail of the high priest or cantor translated into the city of the living present.
Porgy and Bess may be the most enduring of all of George Gershwin’s ambitious efforts to wed the conventions of popular song with the structures and idioms of “serious” music. Leonard Bernstein maintained that with his opera “the real destiny of Gershwin begins to be clear. . . . With Porgy you suddenly realize that Gershwin was a great, great theater composer.”
From the start, Gershwin insisted on black performers exclusively in Porgy and Bess, and over the years productions have featured major operatic talents. The representation of African Americans—poor uneducated folk who fight, drink, pimp, make love, and get high—has not escaped criticism. But the depiction of the denizens of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, goes beyond racial stereotypes. The characters are superior to their roles because they express themselves in magnificent music and because their conflicts and aspirations are universal.
The opera tapped into the Zeitgeist in an uncanny way. The hero is a crippled black man in a goat-cart. In 1935, when the opera was produced, the president of the United States was a crippled white man in a wheel chair but as redoubtable a statesman as any on the world stage then or since.
Panel photo captions:
George Gershwin with the cast of Porgy and Bess, Courtesy of Photofest.
Poster for the movie version of Porgy and Bess, Courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Photofest ©Columbia Pictures. Leonard Bernstein thought that Gershwin’s 1935 opera surpassed in greatness even his celebrated concert pieces (Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris) and his many jazz standards.
Gershwin, George, 1898-1937, Gershwin, Ira, 1896-1983, Jolson, Al, d. 1950, Kern, Jerome, 1885-1945, Arlen, Harold, 1905-1986