George Gershwin; source:


Gershwin's "Symphonics" – a Brief Analysis of Musical Components

This is American music. This is the way an American should write. This is kind of music I want to write.

George Gershwin (1898–1937)[1]

The Epoch of Gershwin

With the dawn of the 20th century, the United States underwent increased urbanization and industrialization. At that time the New World was recovering from the devastation caused by the Civil War (1861–1865). The experiences of the abolitionist movement and several waves of emigration changed the national consciousness of Americans who, according to Anna Piotrowska, no longer identified themselves with the image of a “White English gentleman”[2]. Black citizens became free by the abolition of slavery (1865). It is one of the reason why the concept of American nationality was taken into consideration. As Piotrowska reports, national myths disseminated by the young community (“from a bootblack to a millionaire” or politicians as “fathers of the nation”), created the faith in the nationalist mission and democracy, as well as vitality and the superiority of the New World over the Old one, which resulted in idealization of sometimes miserable reality[3].

In the meantime the United States began the process of shaping mass culture understood as behavior patterns, norms and role models duplicated by millions of citizens[4]. Before it was standardized, popular culture had been occasionally identified with the lowest social classes, defined as vulgar. The paradox is that the universalism of precisely this culture has led to its commercialization and domination, while its main function was to provide pleasure and enjoyment. The mass media and the emergence of inventions such as a cinématographe, jukebox and a gramophone record played a huge role in the process of promoting popular culture. The most influential labels (including Jerome H. Remick & Co) occupied Tin Pan Alley – the famous avenue in New York. That is where George Gershwin would serve as a song plugger in his youth. Released songs were extremely simple with a verse-chorus structure and a catchy refrain. Popular music, together with Tin Pan Alley trend, incorporated music from musicals, which dynamically developed on the basis of European operetta[5].

According to Piotrowska, American tunes slowly followed behind European music for centuries and was unable to create its own individual style[6].

However, completely new perspective appeared in connection with the emergence of a new phenomenon, derived from blues and ragtime – jazz. Its success resulted in the recognition of the role of former slaves in the process of shaping American musical culture.

Through the interplay of European popular music, African performance practice and Afro-American folklore, it was possible for a distinct style to emerge[7]. To quote Jacqueline Djedje: “Through the constant negotiation of different ideologies, African Americans created a rich, diverse musical tradition that has served as the roots and foundation for all types of music in the United States”[8]. With the influx of people into the cities, jazz was transferred to urban reality. Thanks to its flexibility, the folklore values were modified. The genre was not separated from the cruel past of the Afro-Americans, but was adapted to new conditions of municipalities, by slightly changing issues raised in song lyrics.

In context of 20th century modernism, which affected all domains of life at that time (from inventions in the field of science up to art, that began to be abundant in a wide spectrum of movements), the creative individuality of Gershwin appears. The composer takes a bold step towards the “artistic glow of urbanism”[9] that establishes the ambiance of his entire work. Gershwin wants to write American music and considers jazz as the American folklore. This view reflects in his compositions since the composer perceives jazz as an apparent starting point for serious concert pieces. The composer was also associated with popular music throughout his life. As David Ewen states: “He wrote popular music because it brought him profound artistic satisfaction”[10]. His symphonic masterpieces take advantage of popular part of his output, but are more sophisticated in terms of artistic value. Quoting Piotrowska: “The achievement of G. Gershwin does not consist in combining two musical idioms, but in presenting to the world the possibility of composing works conditioned by popular culture and still intended for concert halls”[11].

Rhapsody in Blue

Rhapsody in Blue (initially American Rhapsody) was written in less than a month. The unusual circumstances of its creation result from the fact that Gershwin found out about himself working on the “jazz concert” from the newspapers.

As reported in many sources, the piece was commissioned by Paul Whiteman, known as “the King of Jazz”[12]. The contract was not officially agreed, so Gershwin started composing almost at the last minute before the premiere.

On the initiative of Whiteman, he gave a concert (as a pianist) entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music” on February 12, 1924[13]. Rhapsody in Blue for piano and jazz band was to open concert halls for jazz, so that the audience would appreciate its innovation and value. On that day, the Manhattan’s Aeolian Hall resounded with enthusiastic applause – the work won the favor of both the public and some critics, whose numerous reviews confirmed Gershwin’s success. According to Małgorzata Kowalska, his debut, thanks to the skillful combination of symphonic and stage music with the idiom of jazz, initiated the era of “symphonic jazz”[14].

The form of Rhapsody in Blue differs from the initial assumptions of Whiteman and Gershwin himself, who wanted to write a piece in the style of symphonic blues. Its title suggests, however, what shape the young composer undertook. This choice gave him great creative freedom, but it was also a kind of ambitious challenge. The piece is formally compared by the authors to Liszt’s rhapsodies[15], but still marked by the composer’s individual idea. The material combines the sonata form, the unrestricted variation technique and the concerto features. Rhapsody can be divided into three sections with a coda that clearly refers thematically to them.

The piece is based on continuous motivic development that evolves throughout three main themes, transformed and enriched. One can risk a statement that Gershwin was composing by improvising on a repeated foundation, which is a typical tendency in jazz. In addition, elements of the concerto style can be noticed, e.g. alternating dialogue between the solo instrument and the orchestra or a kind of piano cadenza, ending with an impressive fermata at the top of a rising passage. The piano part is likewise virtuosic. Gershwin uses such effects as syncopated, ragtime rhythms, chord melodies, daring interval jumps in the bass or sonorous arpeggios in the left hand.

The basic themes are kept in major keys (respectively B-flat, E-flat, E). Richard Crawford observes that the composer applies so-called blue notes from the blues scale (lowered 3rd and 7th degree, and raised 4th degree of a diatonic scale)[16]. Gershwin reached perfection in modeling catchy melodies, using the experience gained by regular song-writing. The harmony, apart from typical tonal chords, leads to dissonant effects and instability.

Some harmonic structures suggest Debussy and Chopin. Gershwin believed that (together with Liszt) they have shaped his career[17]. These chords, however, have a different receptive function (without harmonic correlation). This can be explained by the fact that the most characteristic feature in jazz improvisation is independent use of up-to-date means of artistic music, resulting from the composer’s intuition[18].

The improvisational praxis was being polished by Gershwin mainly on Tim Pan Alley (in the cradle of popular music), on rehearsals of Broadway revues and during social gatherings where the composer did not refuse to perform piano recitals.

The first theme Molto moderato begins with a low clarinet trill that transforms into famous glissando. Some scholars find here the resemblance of the clarinet solo to a flute one, beginning Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun[19]. The first theme is extremely lively and expressive. The characteristic motive opening the second theme (Piu mosso) is established almost parallel to the first theme. The second theme, according to David Ewen, retains the character of a scherzo[20]. Furthermore, Tchaikovsky’s masterpieces served as the inspiration for a broad and contemplative third theme Andantino moderato, performed by string instruments. It has a romantic mood, full of tension and climaxes. In finale, there are echoes of the previous subjects presented with greater vitality and spontaneity.

Gershwin was not much experienced in instrumenting, so this task was undertaken by Ferde Grofé who later orchestrated the oeuvre for a symphony orchestra[21]. Nevertheless, thanks to the contrast of the main musical ideas, Gershwin achieves great dynamism in his work. Rhapsody in Blue amazes with intense dramaturgy and introspection, clearly audible in the cadences of the piano or subtle moments of leitmotifs in orchestral parts. The music keeps the listener in suspense from the very first bars and does not fall into monotony.

Here is an outstanding interpretation by Leonard Bernstein both as a pianist and conductor of the New York Philharmonic (1976): 

Concerto in F

Encouraged by the broad approval of his debut, Gershwin accepted another commission for a piano concerto from the New York Symphonic Society. The original title “New York Concerto” was changed after the last stage of composing. The piece was officially performed in an iconic venue of Carnegie Hall on December 3, 1925[22].

Concerto in F has a three-movement structure. As Lucjan Kydryński writes: “Gershwin himself once said that »Concerto in F has a sonata form, but…«”[23], hence his inconsistency in keeping this form. The structure of the concert is as follows: 1. Allegro, 2. Adagio – Andante con moto – Adagio, 3. Allegro agitato, with animated external movements and a contrasting slow nocturne-like middle section. The final part resembles the classic form of a rondo (one of the recurring themes plays the role of a refrain)[24]. Furthermore, the composer adopts thematic development. Each part is based on three different themes that refer to each other not only within the particular movement, but also throughout the work. The motif that opens the piece, placed in the timpani part, binds the whole piece together, as it also appears in the last measures, just before the six-bar epilogue.

Despite the key F major mentioned in the title, Concerto does not retain the same tonality throughout the work. For instance, the piano solo begins in F minor and there are regular modulations to various keys, often flat (E-flat major, B-flat major, D-flat major, etc.). Interestingly, in second movement Gershwin alludes to Debussy by elaborating wide pentatonic piano passages with a typical timbre function. In general, the harmony persists unstable. This is largely due to chromaticism and use of jazz chords.

High textural density occurs both in the first and third movement. The texture, as one of the contrasting factors, is definitely simplified in the second section.

The composer organizes the time, involving polyrhythm and polymeter. He often shifts accents from a strong beat to the weak one and is thus moving towards the practice of popular music. Moreover, the oeuvre is impacted by ragtime, blues (second movement) and Charleston (first movement).

Apart from the blues scale figurations, there is a frequent call-and-response technique on upbeats. A characteristic feature of ragtime is rhythmic stratification of pianist’s right and left hand or the soloist and the orchestra. In many phrases one part performs mostly crotchets or eighth notes in the form of chords, while the other leads syncopated melody with twice as fast rhythmic values[25].

This time, Gershwin orchestrated the piece on his own, having previously studied the instrumentation textbook of Cecil Forsyth and taken professional lessons[26]. However, the composer made changes to the orchestration during pre-premiere rehearsals. Concerto intended for a piano and orchestra, impresses with a rich set of percussion, which is at the disposal of four percussionists.

A rather romantic performance by brilliant Marc-André Hamelin with Radio Filharmonisch Orkest under Leonard Slatkin direction: 

An American in Paris

During his second European trip (1928) covering London, Paris and Vienna, Gershwin began to work on another piece that featured a large romantic form – a tone poem. In an interview with Musical America the composer stated:

This new piece, really a rhapsodic ballet, is written very freely and is the most modern music I’ve yet attempted. … The opening part will be developed in typical French style, in the manner of Debussy and the Six, though the themes are all original. My purpose here is to portray the impressions of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city, listens to the various street noises, and absorbs the French atmosphere. As in my other orchestral compositions, I’ve not endeavored to present any definite scenes in this music. … The rhapsody is programmatic only in a general impressionistic way, so that the individual listener can read into the music such episodes as his imagination pictures for him[27].

The artist obviously referred to An American in Paris. As in case of previous works, after its premiere on December 13, 1928 at the Carnegie Hall (conducted by Walter Damrosch), the opinions of critics were divergent. However, Gershwin was gaining popularity as each oeuvre progressively attracted the audience[28].

The piece has an unrestrained 3-movement form (fast–slow–fast). In the following sections, the walking themes (as per Deems Taylor’s definition) and side ones overlap. The term walking theme appeared in the detailed commentary included in the concert program[29]. The external movements are cheerful, energetic and in the style of 20thcentury French music mixed with the Charleston features (a dance originating in South Carolina marking a characteristic syncopated rhythm). The second movement is a typical American blues with a trumpet solo. The melodic material is subject to motivic development technique. Walking themes keep coming back and their greatest accumulation can be found in the finale. Expressive melodies are in cantilena style and authentically capture an “American flair”, which is clearly perceptible in the entire composer’s output[30]. In addition, according to Schwartz, one of the themes appearing in the trombone part in the first movement was inspired by a melody from La Belle Parisienne, which is a Brazilian tango[31].

An American in Paris is characterized by harmonic instability. As in Rhapsody in Blue, it manifests both in the constant modulations and intense chromaticism of the melodic material. The main and side themes have specific keys, introducing a given ambiance, e.g. the typical keys of blues are the flat ones. Gershwin follows this rule and composes the middle section in B flat major. The composer also applies numerous harmonic phrases peculiar to jazz: multi-component chords with alterations[32], the blues scale and the blues form itself, based on a simplified harmony narrowing down to a specific chord progression of tonic, dominant and subdominant[33].

Gershwin instrumented the piece himself. He introduced a symphony orchestra with saxophones, cymbals, a rattle, two tom-toms, a xylophone, bells and a celesta. In order to create a Parisian atmosphere imposed by leitmotifs, he resorts to unusual instrumentation measures, such as not necessarily musical effects. During his stay in France, he purchased four taxi horns with the intention of including them in the orchestration, as An American in Paris is an example of program music. In consequence, the first sections brings the idea of Paris as a bustling capital city that the title American is fascinated by. The second walking theme in the slow movement expresses bluesy nostalgia for the homeland. The third section suggests that while it will be wonderful to come back home, for now – there is Paris![34].

Ingenious Gustavo Dudamel conducts Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra: 

Cuban Overture

Gershwin’s stay in Havana (1932) was the inspiration for writing another symphonic piece, the last in our comparision. The composer went to Cuba with the intention of a well-deserved rest after intensive work on the musical comedy Of Thee I Sing. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for the first time in US history in drama category. Overture, originally called Rumba, was written in a fairly short amount of time (as was Rhapsody in Blue) – just in three weeks. The world premiere took place on August 16, 1932 at Lewisohn Stadium, New York. The concert was entirely devoted to Gershwin’s compositions. The piece was well received by critics[35].

Overture is embedded into ternary form preceded by an introduction that already announces melodic material of the first theme. Gershwin described his piece:

Then comes a three-part contrapuntal episode leading to a second theme. The first part finishes with a recurrence of the first theme combined with fragments of the second. A solo clarinet cadenza leads to a middle part, which is in a plaintive mood. It is a gradual developing canon in a polytonal manner. This part concludes with a climax based on an ostinato of the theme in the canon, after which a sudden change in tempo brings us back to the rumba dance rhythms. The finale is a development of the preceding material in a stretto-like manner. This leads us back once again to the main theme. The conclusion of the work is a coda featuring the Cuban instruments of the percussion[36].

Harmony is more stable than in Gershwin’s previous symphonic works, although it does not lack in jazz elements, mainly in the central melancholic part. They concern particularly chord structures and few melodic phrases recurring the blues scale. The composer also touches bitonality, especially in the third movement. Nevertheless, it is barely audible. Its remarkable example is a fragment with wind instruments against orchestra. Ewen also draws attention to the fact that the middle section, whose two-voice canon develops within a dense harmonic background, which is not typical for a traditional form[37]. The composer does not avoid modulations, but unlike his other orchestral works, key changes are not a common procedure. The overture is principally settled in sharp keys G major and D major.

Gershwin pays his greatest attention to rhythm. From the very first bars, it is recognized as a crucial element that inspired the process of creating the work. The Cuban dance rhythmic patterns occur, featuring habanera whose basic unit consists of dotted eighth note, sixteenth note and two eighth notes[38].

  Habanera rhythm

Gershwin enriches this pattern, providing irregular syncopations and triplets. The light-hearted and dance-like character of the outer movements is exaggerated by articulation. It includes staccato, various accents, flutter-tonguing, as well as strings and percussion tremolo.

Overture instrumentation consists of a full orchestra with a set of Cuban percussion instruments that Gershwin brought with him to New York, like the horns of Parisian taxis not so long ago. In the manuscript, the composer guided the exact placement of exotic instruments, including bongos, claves, guiro and maracas. According to Gershwin’s recommendations, these instruments should be placed at the head of the orchestra, next to the conductor’s podium[39].

The composition is an apotheosis of Cuban folklore, inspired by Hawaiian exoticism, which can be experienced here: 

[1] David Ewen, The Life and Music of George Gershwin, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1956), 20.
[2] Anna Piotrowska, Idea muzyki narodowej w ujęciu kompozytorów amerykańskich pierwszej połowy XX wieku, (Toruń: Adam Marszałek, 2003), 65.
[3] A. Piotrowska, op. cit., 69.
[4] Antonina Kłoskowska, Kultura masowa. Krytyka i obrona, (Warszawa: PWN, 1980), 95.
[5] A. Piotrowska, op. cit., 52.
[6] A. Piotrowska, op. cit., 26.
[7] Mark Tucker, “Jazz”, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, vol. 12, (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
[8] Jacqueline Cogdell Djedje, “African American music to 1900”, in The Cambridge History of American Music, ed. D. Nicholls, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 134.
[9] Leopold Tyrmand, U brzegów jazzu, (Kraków: Drukarnia Wydawnicza im. W.L. Anczyca, 2008), 69.
[10] D. Ewen, op. cit, 21.
[11] A. Piotrowska, op. cit.
[12] David Schiff, Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 1997), 53; Charles Schwartz, Gershwin: His life and music, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1979), 76.
[13] Richard Crawford, “George Gershwin”, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, vol. 9, (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
[14] Małgorzata Kowalska, ABC Historii muzyki, (Kraków: Musica Iagellonica, 2001), 598.
[15] Wayne Schneider, The Gershwin Style: New Looks at the Music of George Gershwin, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 182; Howard Pollack, George Gershwin: His Life and Work, (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 299-300.
[16] R. Crawford, op. cit.
[17] D. Ewen, op.cit., 117.
[18] L. Tyrmand, op. cit.
[19] Howard Pollack, George Gershwin: His Life and Work, (Berkely and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 29.
[20] D. Ewen, op. cit., 118; Pollack, op. cit., 28.
[21] Wayne Schneider, “George Gershwin. Works”, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie, vol. 9, (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).
[22] H. Pollack, op. cit., 345-351.
[23] Lucjan Kydryński, Ilustrowane monografie wielkich kompozytorów. Gershwin, (Kraków: PWM, 1998), 67.
[24] Charles Schwartz, Gershwin: His Life and Music, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1979), 183.
[25] Jacek Niedziela, Historia jazzu, (Katowice: infoMAX, 2009), 56.
[26] H. Pollack, op. cit. 33.
[27] Hayman Sandow, “Gershwin Presents a New Work”, Musical America 48, no. 18 (18 August 1928): 5, 12, as cited in H. Pollack, op. cit., 433.
[28] L. Kydryński, op. cit., 94.
[29] Deems Taylor: Selected Writings, compiled and annotated by James A. Pegolotti, (New York and London: Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, 2007), 121-122.
[30] D. Ewen, The Life.., op. cit., 118.
[31] C. Schwartz, op. cit., 201.
[32] M. Kowalska, op. cit., 598.
[33] J. Niedziela, op. cit., 65.
[34] L. Kydryński, op. cit., 94-97.
[35] D. Ewen, op. cit., 230-232.
[36] Charles Schwartz, Gershwin: His Life and Music, (New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1973), 224.
[37] D. Ewen, op. cit., 231.
[38] D. Ewen, op. cit., 230.
[39] L. Kydryński, op. cit., 117.

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