Wednesday, December 20, 2006

On George Gershwin and Elitism

by Dr. Alicia Zizzo

The occurrences took place decades ago, but they could as well have happened yesterday in my mind's eye. I, the virginal pianist, making the weekly climb up six flights of ancient stairs at 534 Madison Avenue in New York City to the smoky alter of my mentor's temple. Schumann, Bach, Chopin and the others would be placed at his feet awaiting his omniscient dictum. "What you opine or 'feel' is of no consequence here, " he would bellow when I dared conjecture. "Study the score, it's all in there ... they knew what they were doing. Their souls are locked in the notes. Find them!" and an impish grin would cross his aging face and his tiny, narrowed eyes seared those words into my memory for life. "Study the score, it's all in there"... Carlos Buhler, truly a highly bred intellectual, was not predisposed to solicitous musical discourse in general, and with me, as a fearfully reverential student, platitudes were non existent in particular. He was, after all, a man with three Doctorates; an international figure who had studied with Busoni, Cortot, and collaborated with Boulanger on Bach. Among his confreres in Paris in the Twenties and Thirties were members of Les Six, and Ravel, and he considered his friend in New York Edgar Varese, a genius. Looking back, I realize that George Gershwin was never mentioned in all the years I knew him, and I never played a single note of his work until a dozen years ago or so. And, in a sense, Carlos Buhler and so many other piano coaches who have traditionally dismissed Gershwin were not entirely wrong in their assessment of him as being of minor importance in the classical food chain. Where were his symphonies or sonatas? Where was his piano literature? He had left us little and there seemed to be no evolutionary trail. Not too many teachers were interested to know how Gershwin came to compose the Rhapsody in Blue or his Concerto in F. An entire recital of published classical solo piano pieces by Gershwin was almost impossible if one didn't include their own or others' arrangements in order to fill out a program.

George Gershwin entered my life when I was invited to tour Eastern Europe with the Concerto in F. My disdain was palpable until I saw the score. Dr. Buhler's words became my mantra: "Study the score, it's all there ..." Gershwin's soul was indeed locked in the notes. I was awed by the beauty and embarrassed by my own intellectual hubris and I determined to remedy some long held myths about this great genius. I wanted to expand his classical piano literature and I needed help. It came from the eminent Gershwin scholar Edward Jablonski. It was he, along with the blessing of the Gershwin Estate, who led me to the original Gershwin manuscripts that ultimately resulted in the following Warner Bros./Alfred Publishing editions (, thus providing a glimpse into Gershwin's development:

LULLABY (1919) - First composed as a piano sketch in preparation for his string quartet, and reconstructed as a piano solo, 'Lullaby' contains the rhythmic motives and themes of 'Rhapsody in Blue'. It represents an Impressionist's stroll into dreams and yet the unfaltering bass gives the piece a constant pulse. Gershwin's skills as a composer are obvious even in this early work. His clever use of a simple theme over and over again without creating redundancy is a masterstroke that would fell lesser talents. Although in each statement the theme is played differently, it does not morph into variations. A second theme becomes 'The Man I Love' (1927). (00-PS0374)

BLUE MONDAY (1922) - This first extended serious composition is an opera based in Harlem and anticipated Porgy & Bess in 1935. 'Blue Monday' has enjoyed great popularity among pianists because of its compelling beauty. A rare and important piano sketch in Gershwin's hand lent itself very well to the formation of a piano solo 'suite' based on high drama, melody and rhythm. It is programmatic and reveals Gershwin's involvement with 19tn Century Romantic literature and his initial attempts to incorporate jazz into classical composition. 'Blue Monday' was the seed cellar for 'Rhapsody in Blue.'

RHAPSODY IN BLUE (1924) - In the January / February issue of New York Concert Review an article appeared on the 'Annotated Rhapsody in Blue', which contains reinserted material that restores the piece to its original state as Gershwin notated it in his manuscript. It serves as an 'Urtext' edition and is a cohesive masterwork. (00-AF9601)

THE COMPLETE PIANO PRELUDES (1926) - Three preludes were originally published, but Gershwin performed six in his concerts. He also left a fragment of a seventh. The previously 'lost' preludes are easy to play and add a substantial thrust to the original three. 'Melody No. 17' was retitled 'Sleepless Night' and Gershwin had intended to rework it as a song, but never did. 'Novelette in Fourths' is a cakewalk (a la Debussy), and 'Rubato' is a tribute to Chopin. The fragment titled 'Prelude 1925' found its way into the Concerto in F. (00-PF0895)

'I GOT RHYTHM VARIATIONS' - transcribed for solo piano from the piano / orchestral version. It is based upon Gershwin's own piano sketch, his orchestration in his own hand, and the two-piano version published in 1935 as arranged by Gregory Stone. This piece is a blockbuster and is sure to bring audiences to their feet! (00-AFM01011)

Also coming soon: a piano solo suite based on 'Shall We Dance", the 1937 Astaire/Rogers film. It contains previously unpublished orchestral and ballet music arranged for piano solo.

George Gershwin Miniatures - a pianist's 'Readers Digest' style collection of Gershwin's greatest classical pieces in slightly simpler and much shorter versions. (00-0259B)

Thanks to the Gershwin Estate and Warner Bros. Publications/Alfred, we now have access to the very soul of George Gershwin. Indeed, he may not have left us any symphonies or sonatas, but he did leave behind an incomparable definition of his time and place as his music finds the future - past living memory, past elitism, touching hearts and minds in its extraordinary elegance. Throughout the world, all audiences love Gershwin and his music always fills concert halls - some food for thought for performers.

Reprinted with the permission of the New York Concert Review Inc.