The straight and narrow of a keyboard -- with its rigid black and whites, its parallel and perpendicular lines, like a harshly horizontal horizon against a wooden setting sun -- seem altogether much too flat when listening to George Gershwin. It seems the materials themselves need to be reshaped, blown out like rocks standing in the way of a rolling highway with sticks of eighth note dynamite. Because a Gershwin song is all movement and almost demands a plane that can match its fasts and slows.
Take "Rhapsody in Blue". When I hear it, I see legs: slinking, slender female legs with the opening clarinet glissando, masculine marching legs set to trumpeting horns, and tiptoeing legs tickling ivory alleyways. Themes vary and repeat throughout "Rhapsody in Blue", playing heavily on the blues scale with its lowered sevenths and vacillating thirds. The repetition, mixed with Gershwin’s use of Harlem stride piano’s rhythmic and improvisational style, added the kind of vibrant surprises and predicted unpredictability found only in the erratic motion of a butterfly or entire city. The harmonic structure runs on bustling city legs down B flats through E, A, and D flats, until riding the freight train in G major. Gershwin’s recursive harmonic pattern and modulation of Tin Pan Alley thirds created that feeling of motion and roaring twenties jazz."Rhapsody"’s tempo rubato (the expressive freedom of speeding up and slowing down) captures the 8:00am bustle and comparative 10:00am teeming still.
But setting aside the E’s and eighths and all the numeric and alphabetical pieces that make up the language of music, George Gershwin’s compositions did more than speak a language. In a way, he made his own. He pulled from the musical dialects of Western classical orchestra, African American slave songs, contemporary French composition, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and East Coast jazz. And in doing so, he made music for a world moving away from quiet, monolingual monotony. Gershwin moved toward life, sticky summer days, and sheer, electric vibrancy. Gershwin himself said of "Rhapsody in Blue" and the process it was born under: ”It was on a train, with its steely rhythms, it’s rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer (I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise), that I suddenly heard – and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end…. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America – of our vast melting pot, of our incomparable national pep, our blues, our metropolitan madness.”1
From the very beginning, "Rhapsody in Blue" was a jazz/orchestral fusion on a mission. Gershwin also said of the piece, “Suddenly an idea occurred to me. There had been so much talk about the limitations of jazz, not to speak of the manifest misunderstanding of its function. Jazz, they said, had to be strict in time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill the misconception with one sturdy blow... I had no set plan, no structure to which my music must conform. The Rhapsody, you see, began as a purpose, not as a plan.” “King of Jazz” Paul Whiteman commissioned what would become "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1923 when he asked Gershwin to compose a serious jazz piece for the upcoming concert, An Experiment in Modern Music, at New York’s Aeolian Hall. Gershwin was only 25 at the time. While critics with high-set brows disapproved of the classical/jazz border jumping, others in the audience (which included Serge Rachmaninov, and Igor Stravinsky) reacted in a way that put George Gershwin one step closer to being considered a serious composer and "Rhapsody" one step closer to being considered something more than that dirty, titillating jazz stuff creeping around the city streets by nightfall, tinting the morals of listeners in sultry shades of blue.
Gershwin faced similar brows raised to new and sneering heights when he composed his “American Folk Opera,” Porgy and Bess. Gershwin had previously had smashing Broadway hits with Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Strike Up the Band (1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), a bold political satire for which his brother Ira Gershwin and playwrights George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind earned a Pulitzer Prize2. Yet while these Broadway smash hits petered out as the flame that fed the roaring twenties began to die, the music from the initially half-heartedly-received (if not outright disdainfully) and all in all poorly-attended Porgy and Bess went on to become Gershwin’s most enduring and revered creations. Gershwin spent eleven months composing the score and another nine months orchestrating it. And that’s after he spent some serious time visiting James Island, an island near Charleston,3 to immerse himself in the the sounds and space of the story. Black residents of James Island spoke Gullah, an English-creole dialect with many linguistic features borrowed from West African languages. Listening to the language, Gershwin also took part in residents’ religious services and traditional dances. And this is why Porgy and Bess is a masterpiece, because like all works of Gershwin, it is so deeply entrenched in real life with heaping mounds of soil he dug from the world around him.
George Gershwin died of a brain tumor at only 38 years old on July 11, 1937. But his music still endures through orchestral, Broadway, and Hollywood classics, first and foremost because he was incredibly talented. But there are plenty of talented musicians, musicians who can do wonders with flat plane of a keyboard. What gives Gershwin’s music that recognizable staying power is that it is about life, a life spent learning new languages, speaking unfamiliar dialects, and blurring cultures to make another; a life spent in awe of all the bustling, speeding, slowing, lives roaring around it in a world electrified by light with music amplified by electricity. It’s music that favors lifestyle over contemporary style. Music that makes you want to build up the skyline of piano keys to match its magnificence, and light it up in burning blues.
“George Gershwin: He Got Rhythm” written by Ron Cowen for The Washington Post (1998)
The Encyclopedia Britannica entry on George Gershwin
PBS “George Gershwin: About the Composer” (2006)
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra’s About the Piece article “Rhapsody in Blue”
The Songwriter’s Hall of Fame George Gershwin biography
1 Both quotes on "Rhapsody in Blue" found in Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue by David Schiff: Cambridge University Press. (1997)
2 Poor George. Pulitzer committee rules at the time barred composers from sharing in a drama award. But in protest of the Pulitzer people shafting his baby brother, Ira Gershwin hung his certificate for Of Thee I Sing in the bathroom. Ira Gershwin was also a lifelong collaborator as a lyricist to George’s compositions. In fact, from the mid-twenties, the brothers wrote music almost exclusively together, churning out over two-dozen compositions for Broadway and Hollywood. In grappling with George’s death, Ira continued to pore over George’s unfinished melodies because he wanted to continue collaborating with his brother.
3 Porgy and Bess is based on the novel Porgy, written by DoBose Heyward, about African-American life in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s set in the mythical Catfish Row during the 1920s, hence why Gershwin decided to take a trip to the South Carolina waterfront.
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.