He yearned to be more than a mere songwriter -- and was he ever!

Neil A. Grauer

September 27, 1993|By Neil A. Grauer

THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT. By Joan Peyser. Simon & Schuster. 319 pages. $25.

5/8

IN THE decades during which songwriters produced what may turn out to be America's most enduring popular music, the 1920s, '30s and '40s, one tunesmith stood out: George Gershwin.

The melodies of Gershwin and his contemporaries -- Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen and others -- have demonstrated their staying power for well over half a century.

That is a test to which rock, rap and their permutations have yet to be put and may never pass.

Gershwin, who died in 1937 at the age of 38, the tragically young victim of a brain tumor, was unique among these elegant craftsmen because he deliberately -- some thought presumptuously -- sought to do and be more than just a songwriter. He yearned for the status of "serious composer."

Gershwin thus set out to create works that would earn him that supposedly exalted position: "Rhapsody in Blue," "An American in Paris," "Concerto in F," "Preludes for Piano" and, of course, the "folk opera" (now acknowledged by many critics to be an opera opera), "Porgy and Bess."

Amazingly, in the course of such a short life, Gershwin also wrote some of the grandest melodies in our Broadway and motion picture songbooks, including "I Got Rhythm," "Biding My Time," "Embraceable You," "But Not for Me," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Lady, Be Good," "Somebody Loves Me," "Strike Up the Band," " 'S Wonderful," "My One and Only," "Willow Weep for Me," "Of Thee I Sing" . . . and that's not counting the score from "Porgy and Bess."

Incredibly, as he suffered excruciating headaches from the mysteriously undiagnosed tumor that would kill him, Gershwin wrote "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "A Foggy Day in London Town," "Love Walked In," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away From Me," from the lyrics of which Joan Peyser has taken the title of her biography of Gershwin, "The Memory of All That."

Regrettably, this book is without any of the class or elegance for which Gershwin's name became a byword.

In an often jumpy, repetitious and garbled narrative, Ms. Peyser proclaims that the outwardly cocky and even occasionally arrogant Gershwin was in reality a profoundly melancholy man who suffered "overwhelming self-doubt" and constant frustration because the snobbish arbiters of the concert world snubbed and scorned him.

This is not a major revelation. As Ms. Peyser notes, Gershwin's first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, wrote in his 1931 book -- a study that had Gershwin's cooperation -- that the composer regarded himself as a "rather sad young man." And Gershwin had more to be sad about than artistic frustrations. He appears to have been saddled with a cold, rapacious mother, jealous siblings, a greedy sister-in-law and incompetent physicians -- all of whom apparently ignored the alarming symptoms of Gershwin's health problems until it was too late.

Ms. Peyser, a former editor of the Musical Quarterly, spends an inordinate amount of space rehashing the academic argument over Gershwin's place in the musical universe -- torn as he was, she says, "between two worlds," Broadway and the concert hall. "As much as Gershwin wanted to be part of the high art universe, when it seemed possible that he was arriving, he sabotaged himself," she writes, noting that in "An American in Paris," "despite his concessions to Carnegie Hall, touches of jazz permeate the whole piece."

Many contemporary critics pooh-poohed "Paris," Ms. Peyser writes, but "the audience cheered" -- and it still does.

So did many of the critics of Beethoven's time lambaste his works, which only shows how pompous and dense critics can be. By apparently accepting what she calls the "justified snobbism" of European-trained composers such as Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson regarding Gershwin's academic deficiencies, and by insisting on an inviolable distinction between his Broadway and concert compositions, Ms. Peyser consistently fails to make the point that a well-wrought, superbly crafted and enduringly delightful popular song is "high art."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist.

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