A Gershwin Portrait
A Washington DC conference in March 13-16, 2009 marked the re-opening of the Gershwin Room at the Library of Congress: The Library has become the repository of a marvelous trove of Gershwiniana, much of it donated by the Gershwin family themselves. One of the people honored at the conference was Anne Wiggins Brown, who had been the original Bess in the Gershwins’ groundbreaking folk opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. The part of Bess– who had been a minor character in DuBose Heyward’s novel Catfish Row, which was the inspiration for the opera– was substantially expanded as a result of Ms. Brown’s acquaintance with the Gershwins.
Having an entire room in the Library of Congress emphasizes the importance of the Gershwins to American music, but that can also be seen by looking at the prevalence of their music on any given segment of the musical event calendar: In Chicago, there is a performance of the solo piano version of “Rhapsody in Blue” on the weekend I write this; and Chicago A Capella is featuring a heavy dose of Gershwin on their annual fundraiser, which is within a week of tonight’s concert. More to the point, while most of the selections in the Chorus’ medley here will be familiar to our audience, even some of us who grew up with the Gershwins and their contemporaries found some of the material new: There is almost no limit to the variety and range of this music.
But one has to understand that the Gershwins were creatures of their own time: They were not the first, and certainly not the only, creators of the sea change in music during the first thirty years of the 20th century. The syrupy, sentimental songs of the late Victorian era were swept away– by ragtime and jazz, in particular, both new concepts from a largely American idiom– and by a new freedom in popular expression, represented not only by the women’s suffrage movement but ultimately by the “flappers” of the 1920’s. And in spite of Prohibition, no less! These years empowered Scott Joplin, on one hand, and Les Six, those avant-garde French students intent on reforming classical music, on the other. Granted, there was Victor Herbert, who represented something of a holdover from the Strausses, Lehar, and Friml, but the stage (and later movies) quickly embraced rhythms and lyrics which were bouncy if not downright bawdy. And the Gershwins were among many who found that a fortunate environment.
I have intentionally avoided a focus solely on George Gershwin: Ira was clearly part of the team, and modern lyricists are unanimous in praising the originality and cleverness of his lyrics and he penned many successful shows after the death of George. George had the capability to spin endless melodies– and did that incredibly successfully in his all-too-short life. Ira, who lived more than twice the lifespan of his two-years-younger sibling, was rather reticent– notwithstanding those clever lyrics–, as attested by some of his surviving friends; but the real work was done as a partnership. Neither could have done it alone.
This medley, arranged (as is the Cole Porter entry on this concert) by Mac Huff, showcases 30 different melodies– albeit some of them quite briefly. They represent works from 1924 to 1938; yet most of them remain fresh and are heard repeatedly today, in one version or another. And they represent the best of American dramatic music, whether that is identified with movies, the stage, or popular song.