Music makes the man

Music makes the man

October 15, 2009 12:04
4 minute read.
George Gershwin book 248 88

George Gershwin book 248 88. (photo credit: )

George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait By Walter Rimler University of Illinois Press 204 pages; $29.95 After escaping the streets, a young composer, torn between love and his art, burns brightly in the lights of Broadway and Hollywood, only to be extinguished in his prime by a tragic, undetected illness. Were George Gershwin to have scored this, the story of his life, the critics probably would have panned the plot. And the music? As portrayed in Walter Rimler's new biography, George Gershwin: An Intimate Portrait, the composer, arguably one of America's finest, was beloved by his public yet failed to gain acceptance and appreciation in serious music circles. He lived a bon temps existence, yet scored an opera about poor blacks (considered by most his magnum opus) before returning to bright show tunes prior to his early death at 38. In walking the ever-blurring line between popular and classical music, Gershwin was a rare breed: a well-paid, popular genius. Rimler opens with 10-year-old Gershwin, a "hyperactive, scrappy street kid, as well as a petty thief and habitual hooky player." He tells of Gershwin's first true exposure to music, when he heard a classmate playing Dvorak at an assembly as Gershwin played ball in the school yard. Soon after, the Gershwins, more for appearances' sake than musical appreciation, purchased an old upright piano. Though older brother Ira had been the designated student, George impressed his parents enough with a few pop tunes he'd picked up at a friend's house to be given the privilege. Eventually he studied with Charles Hambitzer, who exposed him to the classics. Hambitzer was the first to recognize Gershwin's talent and wrote at the time: "The boy is a genius without a doubt… He wants to go in for this modern stuff, jazz, and what not. But I'm not going to let him for a while. I'll see that he gets a firm foundation in standard music first." This tension between Gershwin's two largely exclusive musical worlds would only increase with his mounting success. Rimler hypothesizes that "early on, he developed a carefully thought-out professional trajectory. First there would be Tin Pan Alley-style popular songs, then Broadway theater music, and after that, when he had the necessary prominence and experience, he would compose serious pieces for the stage, probably opera." How much of this was intentional planning versus the author's 20/20 hindsight is hard to gauge. It is, however, the basic curve of Gershwin's career and the outline of the book's narrative, with both climaxing in the staging of Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess, in 1935. He died two years later after penning masterpieces of a different genre for Hollywood, including "Love Is Here to Stay," "A Foggy Day," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Gershwin's first hit was in 1919, when the 21-year-old wrote "Swanee," which was recorded by Al Jolson and sold millions of copies. Five years later he composed "Rhapsody in Blue," which was intended to be a jazz concerto for a group performance, "An Experiment in Modern Music." Incidentally, Rimler writes, "in rehearsal, clarinetist Ross Gorman jokingly turned the composer's opening 17-note run into a whoop. Gershwin loved the effect and asked Gorman to play it that way at the premiere." Rimler shines in weaving together anecdotes, correspondence and a wealth of interviews with the composer and his contemporaries to create a vibrant, flesh-and-blood picture of the man and his music in a readable and enjoyable book. Rimler's Gershwin is genuinely likable, if somewhat arrogant: a mama's boy to a coldhearted matriarch; a brother who was abandoned in deteriorating health; and a playboy who finally tried to settle with the wrong girl. How much Judaism played a role in his life is unclear. He was definitely surrounded by Jewish friends and musicians. One of the issues thwarting his longest love affair was her religious incompatibility, which reportedly irked his mother. His Jewishness also dogged him at times while on tour, and he was once even denied a hotel room in Toronto. Rimler writes that as a youth, Gershwin attended productions of New York's Yiddish Theater, and at age 16, he was tapped by the great Boris Thomashevsky to collaborate with Sholam Secunda on a Yiddish operetta. Later Gershwin was lined up to compose for S. Ansky's The Dybbuk, and a contract was drawn up with the Metropolitan Opera. Before it was discovered that the musical rights were unavailable, plans were made to study Klezmer in Eastern Europe, and the composer began charting out some of his ideas in the form of choral prayers. Rimler writes that his friend and biographer Isaac Goldberg was witness to some of this now-lost music. It was described as having a "slow lilt [that] gradually assumed a hieratic character, swinging in drowsy dignity above the drone. The room became a synagogue." Gershwin was buried after a funeral in New York's Temple Emanu-El that more than 3,500 people attended, stopping traffic in the area. Likewise a memorial all-Gershwin concert broke attendance records of the era. Regardless, critics remained ambivalent about the composer's lasting contribution. Clearly today there is no doubt that Gershwin looms large in the halls of America's greatest composers, alongside many of his colleagues of the day - Aaron Copland and Jerome Kern among them. Very few of these venerable composers, however, were able to leave such a lasting legacy in so many musical worlds.

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