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Shortly before the death of his father, George Gershwin told his friend and biographer Isaac Goldberg that the saddest part of knowing that the end was near was the realization “that there is nothing we can do to really help him.” One year later, in the spring of 1933, in accordance with Jewish burial traditions, the Jahrzeit of Morris Gershwin’s death was commemorated with the unveiling of his tombstone at the Westchester Hills Cemetery, a Jewish reform cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Although the Gershwins were not observant Jews, they did participate in certain traditions of their faith.
George Gershwin has long been a challenging figure to categorize and evaluate within mainstream music historiography. Few have gone as far as the Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, who, after attending a performance of Rhapsody in Blue, deemed him “half human and half animal.” But music historians and chroniclers have reacted variably to the composer’s rather anomalous achievement and place in the history of Western music.
To explore and gauge such differing perspectives on Gershwin, in particular his more serious compositions, I have examined his coverage – or lack thereof – among a fairly broad range of mainly American texts on Western and in particular American and twentieth-century concert music.
George Gershwin was an avid traveler, and for most of his adult life he was on the move. There were work retreats in upstate New York, golf excursions and beach trips south (e.g. Florida, Cuba), premieres up and down the East Coast, a trip to Mexico, film projects in California and five trips to Europe. Gershwin’s relationships with his cousins, the poet and folklorist B. A. (Ben) Botkin and his older brother, the painter Henry (Harry) Botkin, deserve to be foregrounded in any discussion of Gershwin’s travels. Through his relationships with them, Gershwin acquired a deep interest in, and knowledge of, folklore and modernist art – topics that increasingly influenced his approach to composition during the last decade of his life, when he went from being a mere traveler to a cultural tourist.
Gershwin scholars and critics looking back on his career often focus on Gershwin’s modernity, his skillful use of jazz in his concert repertoire, and marvel at his ability to cross the divide between popular and classical music. Many people interpret Gershwin as essentially an art music composer who happened to work in musical theater. The over-representation in musicological scholarship that privileges Gershwin’s “classical” works such as Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, and Porgy and Bess compared to his songs and musicals demonstrates the bias of the field toward the long compositions that are routinely performed in concert music spaces and analytical approaches that are grounded within the classical repertory. But viewing Gershwin as primarily a theatrical composer provides a different vantage point on his career, and one, I argue, that is truer to the development of his compositional voice.
George Gershwin is often described as a quintessentially American composer. This Cambridge Companion explains why, engaging with the ways in which his music was shaped by American political, intellectual, cultural and business interests. As a composer and performer, Gershwin embraced technological advances and broke new ground in music business practices. In the decades preceding World War II, he captured the mechanistic pulse of modern life with his concert works and lay the groundwork for the Great American Songbook with his Broadway shows and film music. With his brother Ira, and his cousins Henry and B. A. Botkin, Gershwin explored various ethnic and cultural identities and contemplated their roles in US culture. His music confronted race during the Jim Crow era and continues to engage with issues of race today. This interdisciplinary exploration of Gershwin's life and music describes his avowed pursuit of an 'American' musical identity and its ongoing legacy.