Rhapsodizing about “Rhapsody in Blue.”
A little while past it was vulgarly considered safe to praise light foreign music, Viennese waltzes, Spanish folk dancing, and even the scores of English musical comedies; but American popular music (by which is meant music of a recognizably native flavor, written for publication and sale, and exhibiting the technique which then made it most likely that the sale would be large) was considered something to be enjoyed only with apologies, just as many Negroes have felt that they must apologize for the spirituals. The distinction between “classical” and “popular” was, in short, felt necessarily and in all cases to coincide with the one fundamental distinction between good and bad.
Snobbery, of course, partly accounted for this fallacy, but it had a certain amount of excuse. From about the end of the Civil War to the late nineties, American popular music had suffered a dismal slump. The unconscious humor of the lyrics had been the redeeming feature of the songs. With the rise of ragtime and various more capable composers there came an improvement, but the music, judged by unsentimental standards, remained pretty bad. Ragtime, the most convenient, purely American, popular technique, was conceived and set down so as to be playable by virtual illiterates. Its thin stock harmonies, for instance, might almost be numbered on one’s fingers, and where the tunes showed inventive ability it tended to be canceled by the despicable poverty of their apparel. But these facts merely went to demonstrate the more clearly that the fallacy needed knocking down.
It was Jerome Kern who struck the first blow by producing a series of songs, many of them recognizably American in spirit and treatment, which, besides having good tunes, exhibited sound, self-respecting, and musicianly workmanship. The second blow came with the rise of jazz, concerned, in its most prominent aspect, with technique. This ne-cessitated Tin Pan Alley’s importing trained musicians as arrangers; the success of jazz resulted in its invading the musical comedies, thus bringing popular music into an atmosphere where better work is expected, or at least tolerated, than in songs written solely for the trade. But more than any other one person, George Gershwin has reminded his hearers that the division between good and bad cuts across all others. This, it is submitted, is a valuable reminder. If the fallacy to the contrary was a vulgar one, it was &mdash and to a less degree still is &mdash powerful.
It is not that Gershwin has written good music; the present writer thinks it good, but the point is that, good or not, it is American, in the popular idiom, and good enough to show that first-rate music, even in the longer forms, can be written in that idiom by anyone with the requisite training and natural gifts.
This demonstration Gershwin has achieved, in the first place, by perhaps 150 songs. Not all of them are good ones. Some that present their writer’s inspiration at its height suffer from the real or fancied necessity of writing, for musical comedies, only in the narrow forms desired by dance orchestras. Yet they are engagingly cast in their constricted mold and so widely appealing as to make it unnecessary to cite the titles of the best, from “I Was so Young” to “The Man I Love.” They show a pride of workmanship, an attention to detail (vide the invention spent on their introductory measures and on the two bars at their close), and an avoidance of harmonic cliches, qualities which were unknown to popular music a few years ago, and which are being emulated by others to the general good of the art.