Writings by Eric Himy
George Gershwin, The Art Of Transcription – CD Notes
"…true music… must repeat the thought and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans. My time is today…" George Gershwin (1925)
In 1937 George Gershwin, the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, was only 38 when he died suddenly and tragically from an undetected brain tumor, but he had already proved himself to be a genius and a prominent member of a musical movement which was trying to expand popular music by infusing so called “concert-hall music” with distinctively American sounds of jazz, blues, spiritual and gospel.
The Art of Transcription
This CD features the genius of Gershwin’s music but in a most beguiling, unique and novel way. That is through the ingenious art of transcription, which can sometimes shed new light on already familiar music.
The art of transcription - of recasting music, more or less literally, from one performance medium into another - has been a common practice for a long time. A good transcription (or a paraphrase) tests the abilities and the imagination of the transcriber as much as the creation of an original composition. Trying to maintain the distinct characteristics of a given work, while meeting the demands of a new medium, are not always easily achieved.
It seems that with all the fast-pace changes and problems that we face in the world today, one wonders if in this serious atmosphere whether we haven’t forgotten the general enjoyment of music. Often the pursuit of stylistic authenticity has become the performance ideal of our era and thus transcriptions and paraphrases have often been frowned upon by purists as tamperings or sacrilegious alterations with the purity of the composer’s original.
With this attitude regrettably, the transcription as a valid form of artistic expression and comment upon another’s work has sometimes been discounted and even neglected. Liszt was the most prolific of transcribers and audiences were not only entertained but they also had the chance to hear music they might otherwise never have encountered. His famous Tristan Liebestod transcription reached audiences before Wagner’s Opera did!
By the late 19th century, concert transcriptions were very popular and many others great virtuoso performers and composers continued this tradition: Busoni, Godowsky, Rachmaninov, and Horowitz to name but a few. The great virtuoso Earl Wild can also be mentioned. Wild in fact studied with the famed Egon Petri, who was a student of Busoni and the performance of transcriptions and transcription-making was indeed admired and encouraged as an important development in becoming a complete pianist.
"From Gershwin emanated a new American music not written with the ruthlessness of one who strives to demolish established rules but based on a new native gusto and wit and awareness. His was a modernity that reflected the civilization we live in as excitingly as the headline in today's newspaper." Ira Gershwin (1938)
George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz (Gershovitz was probably changed to Gershvin by an immigration official upon Morris' arrival from Russia, on September 26, 1898 in Brooklyn, New York). At home, the children were called by their American names. Thus Jacob becomes George and later the family changed the name to Gershwin. George had two brothers, Arthur and Ira, and one sister, Francis (Frankie). George is the most well known of the family but his brother Ira was also a successful lyricist. Indeed, had it not been for Ira's interest in music, George's parents might not have purchased the family's first piano. Ira was going to study the piano when it first arrived but it was George who took an immediate interest in it and began to play by ear.
In 1910, George had various neighborhood piano teachers for 2 years, and then was introduced to Charles Hambitzer - who became his mentor (and would remain so until Hambitzer's death in 1918). He taught George conventional piano technique, introduced him to the European masters, and encouraged him to attend orchestral concerts. George later studied theory and harmony with Rubin Goldmark and Edward Kilenyi for whom he wrote a string quartet (1919). At this time however he also worked long hours at one of his father's restaurants, and he hated it. But in 1913, the young George Gershwin landed a job as a pianist at a summer resort in the Catskills - at $5 per week.. This did not make his mother happy at all. She didn't want to think of her son as a musician. She wanted him to be a bookkeeper or a lawyer, not a musician.
George was also attending the High School of Commerce but there was only so much that George could handle and school was clearly what he disliked the most. Finally one day he told his family that he was dropping out of school altogether. Apparently, he had met a man named Moses Gumble. Moses said that he worked for a music publishing house Jerome H. Remick & Company and that he liked the way that George played the piano and especially how well he could sightread music. Moses offered him a job that paid fifteen dollars a week as a song plugger, one of the pianists who played new tunes in hopes of selling the sheet music. George and his family argued over and over about this. He said it was better than the four dollars he was getting at his father's restaurant. They finally gave in, and at the age of fifteen, George dropped out of school to pursue music.
Life as a song plugger was a big change and he got to see a lot of New York. He went to theaters, hotels, and restaurants, where singers performed. But George wanted to be a songwriter and dreamed of writing Broadway shows, or even operas and symphonies. After a short time, he grew tired of his piano plugging and finally George started to compose music and would stay up late writing into the early morning. He was greatly influenced by music and lyrics of other contemporary composers. Composers such as Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern were a major influence and inspiration to George. He wrote his first song in 1916 and his first Broadway musical, La La Lucille, in 1919. He continued to write for various Broadway musicals and jazz tunes. In fact, for the next 14 years a Gershwin musical was a feature of NY theatrical life. His first outstanding ‘hit’ was the song Swanee (1919), which became associated with the famous Al Jolson.
But it was not until 1923 that Gershwin’s fame exploded when the bandleader Paul Whiteman asked George to think about writing a jazz piece for his band. Gershwin gave it some thought, sketched some possible themes, and left it at that. On January 4, 1924 to his surprise, an article appeared in the New York Tribune announcing that George Gershwin was at work on a "jazz concerto" to be premiered by the Whiteman Band at the Aeolian Hall in New York on February 12, in a concert to be called An Experiment in Modern Music. This work was to be completed in one month, and George had not started it yet! At the time, he was intensely involved with his various Broadway commitments and the “jazz concerto” was barely more than a thought. Later George claimed that the rhythm and rattle of the Boston train was a source of his rhythmic ideas, and also the James McNeill Whistler's painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as the inspiration for Rhapsody's title. On February 12, 1924 at the appointed time, which was toward the end of the program, he delivered his first large-scale work - to an audience that included luminaries like Jascha Heifetz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Efrem Zimbalist, Sr.
George was nervous because he felt he might not have anything to offer to the audience. The program was very long and the audience was bored. Rhapsody in Blue was place second to last on the program. Gershwin appeared onstage, took his place at the piano and started. As the clarinet player let out the now famous, slowly ascending wail which begins the Rhapsody, the excitement in the audience could be felt.. "Somewhere in the middle of the score I began crying," he recalled later. "When I came to myself I was eleven pages along and to this day I cannot tell you how I conducted that far". The audience rose to its feet and George and his work received a wild ovation. Rhapsody was a huge success and the day's most talked about musical "experiment" eclipsing the rest of the program. It was very American in its daring and its energy. Like America, it was a veritable "melting pot" of the influences that had shaped Gershwin's.
George Gershwin's presence on the musical scene of the 1920’s and 30’s was like a brilliant, dazzling star soaring through the ears and minds and musical imaginations of the American people. Novelist John O'Hara summarized the attitude of many Americans at the time who refused to believe Gershwin's premature death when he said “I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.”
Earl Wild and Gershwin
In 1937, Earl Wild became the staff pianist for the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. When NBC in 1939 began broadcasting its first commercial live musical telecasts, Mr. Wild became the first pianist to perform a recital on U.S. television. And in 1942, Toscanini made Earl Wild literally a household name when he invited him to be the soloist in an NBC radio broadcast of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (Benny Goodman was performing the famous clarinet opening). Also, Earl Wild apparently was privileged to have heard Gershwin play both in private and in concert on numerous occasions.
In 1976, Earl Wild transcribed several of Gershwin’s best known songs. I have selected among them: Liza, Lady be Good, Fascinatin’ Rhythm, The Man I love, Somebody loves me, I got Rhythm.
With them he has literally created dazzling concert pieces imbued with color, elegance, charm, wit and imagination. Indeed, despite the pianistic challenges Wild poses, he never allows the technical difficulty to intrude upon the style and flow of the original music. And as in any successful transcription or paraphrase, the melody is the most important element and should never be forsaken or lost.
Rhapsody in Blue (1924)
By 1924, Gershwin had already started composing in a more sophisticated ambitious style. Paul Whiteman invited him to compose a serious work combining classical and jazz elements. He had already composed Blue Monday, which would prove to be some of the initial ideas for his eventual Rhapsody in Blue. The similarities between the two pieces are striking. “There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz,” Gershwin wrote, “not to speak of the manifest misunderstandings of its function. Jazz, they said, had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow.”
An astonishing and little known fact lies in the actual original manuscript of the Rhapsody in Blue. And what makes the version of the Rhapsody in Blue on this CD especially interesting, is that it was never published! In fact, it’s the original manuscript. Apparently in the piano/orchestra version, originally published in 1924, his editors deleted over fifty measures in the piano part. Also in the piano solo version, eighty-eight bars were cut from the manuscript so there are parts in this performance that you will have never heard before!
Now the mystery is why the editors apparently deleted 88 measures of music from this manuscript. Ferde Grofé's (composer-arranger who helped Gershwin orchestrate the Rhapsody in Blue) manuscript of the orchestration of the Rhapsody is identical to Gershwin's. These two manuscripts confirm that this version was the version performed by Gershwin at Aeolian Hall in 1924, and at subsequent concerts, a fact confirmed by his sister Francis Gershwin, whom I met at her 80th birthday party in New York at the Gramercy Club. Gershwin's verbal directives had also been altered, changing the performance style of the Rhapsody from lighthearted and jazzy (his time was, after all, the “roaring twenties”), to romantic in the style of the late nineteenth century. Personally, I think that it makes the work more rhapsodic, improvised, as true jazz should be.
Rhapsody in Blue had its debut in New York on February 12, 1924 which was also Lincoln’s birthday so that the event became dubbed “the emancipation proclamation of jazz”. It was an instant hit and Rhapsody in Blue went to represent the unmistakable optimistic, impulsive and brazen sounds of America in the 1920’s.
On this CD I perform the Rhapsody in Blue with these edited missing parts from the original manuscript. But as this is a piano-solo version I have had to find new ways in hopes of trying to express and achieve the grand total effect of both the piano and the orchestra of the original.
An American in Paris (1928)
By 1928, with already a few hits on Broadway, Gershwin became interested in composing an orchestral work without piano solo. This came about at the invitation from friends in Paris, a city which he had never seen before. So then began his thinking for a “ rhapsodic ballet” whose title became quickly evident: An American in Paris. His stay in Paris, which lasted from March to June, was a whirlwind of parties, museums, and sightseeing. He “got dizzy” at the Eiffel Tower but was “really impressed”. Gershwin worked steadily on An American in Paris, reconciling his imagination with the City of Lights. His hostess, Mabel Schirmer took him on a shopping trip to the auto supply stores on the Grande Armée, where he selected several horns to experiment with for the work. Four horns in fact were taken back to New York where they added original color to the premiere given by the New York Symphony under Walter Damrosch on December 13, 1928 !
Talking to the press Gershwin describes the piece’s bustling spirit as “the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere. Our American friend perhaps after strolling into a café and having a few drinks, succumbs to a spasm of homesickness. The harmony here is both more intense and simple than in the beginning pages, and then having left the café and reached the open air; he now had downed his spell of blues and once again is an alert spectator of Parisian life.”
All the themes come together for a rousing and ebullient conclusion. After Gershwin’s untimely death, An American in Paris (1951) starring Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron was filmed and produced by Alan Jay Lerner (who wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady). The film won an Academy Award for best picture in 1951. Having lived myself in Paris from 1990 to1997, I naturally was inspired by the notion and idea of the American “artist” visiting Paris and eventually created a sort of mini-paraphrase of the original orchestral work An American in Paris for piano solo.
Porgy and Bess (1935)
"... a great advance in American opera..." Serge Koussevitzky, conductor
"...Gershwin has traveled a long way from Tin Pan Alley and must now be accepted as a serious composer..."
After its world premiere at Boston's Colonial Theater on September 30, 1935 it ran for 124 performances at the Alvin Theater in New York. But many remained dismissive of the work's impact, some calling it nothing more than "a hybrid," and an "aggrandized musical show," with too many "songs" instead of arias. Another predicted that of Gershwin's major works, Porgy and Bess would be "the first to go." The New York Herald Tribune called the music "...only half alive. Its gorgeous vitality of rhythm and of instrumental color is impaired by melodic and harmonic anemia of the most pernicious sort. How trite and feeble and conventional the tunes...." Virgil Thomson, critic/composer wrote that he and America's other composers "never could compete with Gershwin for distribution, nor he with us for intellectual prestige." But give him credit for belatedly turning around: "Gershwin does not even know what an opera is... and yet Porgy and Bess is an opera and it has power and it has vigor."
Unfazed, George Gershwin faced his critics head-on and with unwavering faith in his opera wrote in the New York Times:
"I am not ashamed of writing songs at any time so long as they are good songs. In Porgy and Bess I realized I was writing an opera for the theater, and without songs, it could neither be of the theater nor entertaining from my viewpoint. But the songs are entirely within the operatic tradition. Many of the most successful operas of the past have had songs. Nearly all of Verdi's operas contain what are known as "song hits." Carmen is almost a collection of song hits...."
The 1926 novel “Porgy” by Dubose Heyward is about black small-town life. Written by a white Southerner, it touched Gershwin and caused a profound response in his musical imagination. He immediately wrote to Heyward proposing to write a musical adaptation of “Porgy”. Eight years later the composer was setting the text to music with lyrics by his brother Ira Gershwin.” If I am successful,” Gershwin told the press” it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger, if you can imagine that!” The first run ofPorgy and Bess in 1935 was a financial disaster with mixed reactions.
Gershwin’s folk Opera takes place in the waterfront district of Charleston, South Carolina called “Catfish Row”. Sydney Beck (annotator from the original New York production) writes: “Catfish Row responds to a deep and irresistible stream of movement, color, and sound, out of which the story flows as spontaneously and as powerfully as life itself.. The tale centers around the crippled, sex-starved Porgy, the two-timin’ trollop, Bess, the brutal stevedore, Crown and the wily, high-steppin’ Sporting’ Life, visitor from New York’s Harlem, selling dope and liquor to all willing to take.”
Earl Wild’s Grande Fantasy opens with Jasbo Brown Blues, followed by the famous lullaby Summertime a mother sings to her baby. Then there is a picnic scene Oh, I can’t sit down, followed by a moving song of mourning My man’s gone now. Then Porgy happily sings Oh, I got plenty o’ nuttin’ followed by a bad omen when a flying buzzard soars by, Buzzard Song, then the ever conniving Sporting Life dances and amuses the crowd with his humorous song about da t’ings yo’ li’ble to read in the Bible, It ain’t necessarily so. The heart of the work is reached when the beautiful Bess you is my Woman is cleverly combined by Earl Wild with I love you Porgy into a love duet. Finally Sporting Life tries to tempt Bess with There’s a boat living for New York. Weakly Bess leaves and in desperation the crippled Porgy sings a inspiringly rousing Oh, Lawd I’m on my way. As he leaves Catfish Row to find her, the curtain drops on the opera, which is considered one of the greatest Masterpieces of American Opera.
Wild About Gershwin
While performing Mr. Wild 's complete Gershwin transcriptions in various concerts in 1998 for the Gershwin centennial, I crossed paths by chance with the super-virtuoso himself! Since that initial meeting Mr. Wild has continuously been a tremendous source of inspiration for me and has been invaluable in his insight, care and generosity. It is in this spirit of kindness and gratitude that I dedicate this CD to the maître: Earl Wild. (Mr. Wild's home page can be found on the Internet at URL address:http://www.andrew.cmu.edu/user/wild/).
Schoenberg on Gershwin
Gershwin went for lessons to Henry Cowell and Joseph Schillinger, and there can be little doubt that had he lived longer he would have progressed to some considerable symphonic achievement. His fans included the French composers Francis Poulenc and Maurice Ravel. Indeed, Austrian-born composer, conductor, and teacher Arnold Schoenberg, who was one of most influential figures in history of music had this to say about George Gershwin:
Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer, but they should understand that, serious or not, he is a composer - that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language. There are a number of composers, serious (as they believe) or not (as I know), who learned to add notes together. But they are only serious on account of a perfect lack of humor and soul.
It seems to me that this difference alone is sufficient to justify calling the one a composer, but the other none. An artist is to me like an apple tree: When his time comes, whether he wants it or not, he bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. And as an apple tree neither knows nor asks about the value experts of the market will attribute to its product, so a real composer does not ask whether his products will please the experts of serious arts. He only feels he has to say something; and says it.
It seems to me beyond doubt that Gershwin was an innovator. What he has done with rhythm, harmony and melody is not merely style. It is fundamentally different from the mannerism of many a serious composer. Such mannerism is based on artificial presumptions, which are gained by speculation and are conclusions drawn from the fashions and aims current among contemporary composers at certain times. Such a style is a superficial union of devices applied to a minimum of idea, without any inner reason or cause.
Such music could be taken to pieces and put together in a different way, and the result would be the same nothingness expressed by another mannerism. One could not do this with Gershwin's music. His melodies are not products of a combination, or of a mechanical union, but they are units and could therefore not be taken to pieces. Melody, harmony and rhythm are not welded together, but cast. I do not know it, but I imagine, he improvised them on the piano. Perhaps he gave them later the finishing touch; perhaps he spent much time to go over them again and again - I do not know. But the impression is that of an improvisation with all the merits and shortcomings appertaining to this kind of production.
Their effect in this regard might be compared to that of an oration which might disappoint you when you read and examine it as with a magnifying glass - you miss what touched you so much, when you were overwhelmed by the charm of the orator's personality. One has probably to add something of one's own to reestablish the first effect. But it is always that way with art - you get from a work about as much as you are able to give to it yourself.
"I do not speak here as a musical theorist, nor am I a critic, and hence I am not forced to say whether history will consider Gershwin a kind of Johann Strauss or Debussy, Offenbach or Brahms, Lehar or Puccini."
"But I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new - as is the way in which he expressed them."
Arnold Schoenberg (1938)