From high school dropout to American classic

Review Music

November 26, 2006|By Glenn C. Altschuler | Glenn C. Altschuler,Special to the Sun

George Gershwin: His Life and Work

Howard Pollack

University of California Press / 884 pages / $39.95

Introduced at Aeolian Hall in New York City on Feb. 12, 1924, by Paul Whiteman and his Palais Royal Orchestra, Rhapsody in Blue received three curtain calls - and became one of the best-known concert works of the 20th century. It "is all New York, all America," George Gershwin, the 26-year-old composer, explained. "It is a picnic party in Brooklyn or a dark-skinned girl singing and shouting her blues in a Harlem cabaret. ... It's full of vulgarisms. That's what gives it weight." And what aroused the ire of traditionalists, who dismissed the piece as "circus music," "vaporous with second-hand ideas and ecstasies," "not so much music, as jazz dolled up."

The son of Morris and Rose Gershovitz, who attained a modest prosperity in the restaurant and bakery business, George Gershwin was a precocious genius who wrote memorable music for concert halls, Broadway shows and Hollywood films.

Gershwin's gift, according to Howard Pollack, a professor of music at the University of Houston, was his ability to cross the boundaries between classical and popular music by drawing on apparently incompatible styles. Gershwin used the American vernacular to give voice to the kaleidoscopic spirit of the nation - a melting pot of red, white, black and brown, boldness, bluster and the blues, small-town stability and metropolitan madness.

Drawing on letters, reminiscences, reviews and recordings, George Gershwin: His Life and Work is encyclopedic and exhaustive. Pollack traces Gershwin's meteoric rise from high school dropout to song plugger for a Tin Pan Alley publisher and rehearsal pianist, to fame, fortune and death from a brain tumor at age 38. He debunks the myth that Gershwin "scaled the heights without benefit of formal instruction." Eager for instruction in composition and orchestration, Gershwin studied with three brilliant musicians - Charles Hambitzer, Edward Kilenyi and Joseph Schillinger - and sought advice from Maurice Ravel, Nadia Boulanger and Igor Stravinsky.

Unfortunately, Pollack's narrative of Gershwin's life proceeds in fits and starts, with digressions and dead ends. Except for his brother Ira, Gershwin's large extended family was neither interesting nor influential. But they command center stage in Chapter One. Gershwin then dies on page 19 - and at frequent intervals thereafter. And Pollack's 500-page survey of Gershwin's entire oeuvre has, well, too many notes. For every one of Gershwin's shows, including the flops, he provides lengthy plot summaries, details about the cast, the first production, the critical reception and subsequent performance history. More than a bit defensively, Pollack suggests that readers can "skim or skip" this material "without losing the basic thread of the book."

Pollack's extensive examination of Porgy and Bess, however, does illuminate Gershwin's life and work. As early as 1925, he demonstrates, the composer contemplated composing a jazz opera that would be "a Negro opera, almost a Negro Scheherazade." The opera's mood could shift plausibly from ecstasy to lyricism, Gershwin added, "because the Negro has so much of both in his nature." Eight years later, Gershwin joined forces with DuBose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy. They visited the Macedonia Church of Charleston, S.C., listened to spirituals, and lingered at cafes frequented by African-Americans. And so, Pollack suggests, Gershwin evoked the spiritual splendidly with Summertime - and produced a score with a distinctive blend of "operatic grandeur and folk-like spontaneity."

From its world premiere in Boston's Colonial Theater in 1935, Pollack points out, Porgy and Bess was larger than life. Hailed as an important first step toward a distinctively American opera, it was also criticized as "fake folklore," bursting at the seams with racial stereotypes. Pollack defends the characters as dignified and lovable, despite "all their imperfections," with Porgy attaining a "sort of heroic grandeur." Although he judges the opera as "a relatively modest work," Pollack sees in it evidence of Gershwin's "superb abilities as a musical dramatist" and his sensitivity to "the weakness and resilience, the haplessness and dignity, of an oppressed but tight-knit group."

Pollack shows that the composer of I've Got a Crush on You, Somebody Loves Me and How Long Has This Been Going On? sometimes sought to break new paths and free himself of "conventional sentimentality." All heart and no head, Gershwin wrote, "produce a soft, fibreless sort of music." He dreamed of catching the rhythms of America's "interfusing people - to show them clashing and blending." Gershwin never wrote his melting-pot opera. Nor did he really ever intend to abandon popular music for more "serious" work.

Opinions vary, Howard Pollack concludes, grandiloquently, about whether Gershwin belongs in the "exalted company" of Mozart and Chopin or "might better be compared to, say, Johann Strauss or Offenbach." Perhaps. But, despite occasional ambivalence activated by ambition, Gershwin had a better handle on his legacy. "I'd like my compositions to be so vital," he once said, "that I'd be required by law to dispense sedatives with each score sold."

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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