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A Note on Gershwin | The Nation

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A Note on Gershwin

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Rhapsodizing about "Rhapsody in Blue."

About the Author

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.

It is, however, through his adventures in the concert halls that this composer has done most to discredit the vulgar fallacy, because these adventures were not only well, but spectacularly, carried off. The "Rhapsody in Blue" demonstrated in fifteen minutes that jazz is independent of the fox-trot rhythm and form, and is therefore available for experiments in the longer forms. This lesson was driven home by the piano concerto in F, a less compact and balanced work, less happy in its orchestration (Gershwin's first attempt), but rich, if not too rich, in pleasing themes. It reveals a unity that signifies the same devoted care and thought as do the best of the songs. "135th Street," wrongly labeled a jazz opera, suggested little new save, for a moment during the "Pagliacci" burlesque which formed its prologue, the possibilities of the more savage and wry-mouthed jazz for conveying a sense of tragedy.

It is not to be imagined that by "An American in Paris" (presented December 13 by Mr. Damrosch and the Philharmonic Symphony) Gershwin darkly planned to damage fallacies and confute snobs. Obviously he had immensely enjoyed working out his little story of a Yankee, as simple in his peculiar way as Mallarmé's faun, harmlessly trotting the streets, eluding the taxis and the museums, sitting down for a book at a boulevard table, getting the homesickness blues, getting over them, and toddling happily off again. That, and the anticipation of exciting a sympathetic pleasure in the conceit, probably measured the composer's main motive for putting his American on paper; and his hope was justified by the joy with which the audience welcomed his creation.

But it is as important to the purposes of the present article to point out that "An American in Paris" represents an advance in Gershwin's ability both to get what he wants out of a symphony orchestra (no mean problem), and so to transform and combine his themes as to make a living organism of the sum total. It has a personality apart from Gershwin's own, which his concerto had not; the Rhapsody had one, but it was partly the gift of the arranger, Grofe. It is questionable whether the brilliant concert-notes supplied by Mr. Deems Taylor were as much a blessing as a curse at the christening; not only did they supply a far more elaborate, and so distracting, "program" than the composer had suspected to be applicable to his piece, but by doing this, Mr. Taylor enabled the critics to sit back and relax, comfortable in the knowledge that they could fill their space in next day's editions with a rehash of Taylor. Most of them did, even to the extent of repeating Mr. Taylor's obvious error in identifying a certain music-hall piece, quoted in the score, as a maxixe. The ill-disposed critics, who are still numerous, added a rebuke to the conductor for including this light (and American?) work in the same program with Franck's D-minor symphony; the unshocked added a kind word or so; but scarcely anywhere was it pointed out that Gershwin had gained considerably in his knowledge of how to write long compositions for large orchestras. Assuming that he knows more of musical theory than many professional theorists know of jazz, he is largely self-taught, and is under no financial necessity of continuing his education. Every proof that he is, nevertheless, taking the trouble to do so, is highly important evidence for critics to take into consideration in attempting to anticipate what he may yet accomplish.

Such a prediction is difficult. That he will write great music, his work to date does not promise. Its spirit is vital but not profound, not elevated, but humorous, witty, ribald; on occasion, pathetic or of a cool, blue melancholy, but not tragic. It is the product of an immense gusto for life, work, and appreciation, which, it may be expected, will not quickly fade. It will continue to arouse pleased surprise in the minds of intelligent hearers, including serious if not solemn musicians, over the world; to raise the general level of American popular music, and to obliterate a snobbish, vulgar, and potent error.

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