How the uniquely gifted George Gershwin fashioned masterpieces in both popular and classical music
George Gershwin: His Life and Works
By Howard Pollack
University of California, 884 pp., illustrated, $39.95
The writer and playwright S. N. Behrman observed that George Gershwin "oxygenated" any room he entered. Other friends agreed. Commandeering the piano with a cigar clenched between his teeth, Gershwin dominated any gathering, yet instead of sucking the air out of a party he enlivened it. In the same spirit he oxygenated American music, inspiring a new and expanded sense of its possibilities, from pop songs to orchestral works to opera. Nearly 70 years after his death at the age of only 38, he remains America's most protean and popular composer.
"My time is to-day ," Gershwin declared in 1927, but his time has not yet passed. Indeed, although Gershwin conceived "Rhapsody in Blue" to the rhythm of the rails on a train bound for Boston in 1923 , not until 1997 did the Boston Symphony Orchestra perform it for subscribers. Only in 2005 did conductor James Levine program Gershwin's Concerto in F and "An American in Paris."
Such belated and begrudging respect for Gershwin's classical works, and the condescension of critics such as Virgil Thomson, who may have betrayed envy as well as anti-Semitism when he dismissed the scoring of "Porgy and Bess" as "gefiltefish," raise Howard Pollack's hackles. A professor of music at the University of Houston and author of a previous biography of Aaron Copland, Pollack is eager to counter, in his massive "George Gershwin," what he calls "an elite critical tradition that rated the composer's theater music above his concert work." He does so by copiously detailing Gershwin's early love for and continuing education in classical music (when Varèse , Ravel , and Stravinsky declined him as a pupil, Gershwin settled for Henry Cowell, Wallingford Riegger , and Joseph Schillinger ) and by elaborating the classical influences on and of every Gershwin composition. Describing "Blue Monday Blues," for example, a blackface "opera" dropped after opening night from "Scandals of 1922," Pollack invokes Chopin, Bizet, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Milhaud , and even Berg. "Porgy and Bess," Pollack argues, anticipates not only Britten's "Peter Grimes," Weill's "Street Scene, " and Poulenc's "Dialogue s of the Carmelites" but also, and here he is less convincing, "the aleatoric and minimalistic trends of the late twentieth century."
Pollack's emphasis on Gershwin's grounding in classical music is a welcome corrective to the popular notion perpetuated in previous Gershwin biographies -- most recently Edward Jablonski's 1987 life and Joan Peyser's lurid and reductive "The Memory of All That" (1993) -- that Gershwin grew up on New York's mean streets and acquired most of his musical knowledge on Tin Pan Alley. It's helpful to be reminded that the clarinet introducing "Rhapsody in Blue" echoes the flute that begins Debussy's "Afternoon of a Faun," that Rachmaninoff attended many Gershwin performances, and that Gershwin not only witnessed the American premiere of Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" but played tennis with the composer, painted his portrait , and subsidized recordings of his string quartets. Under Schillinger's tutelage, Gershwin even composed 12-tone rows.
Yet many readers who might profit from Pollack's insights will be daunted by the sheer bulk of his book, which is not for the faint of heart or thin of wrist. This is not the definitive so much as the encyclopedic study of Gershwin. The life that occupies the first quarter is organized not sequentially but thematically under headings such as "Gershwin and His Family" and "Working Methods." Disregarding chronology obscures Gershwin's development as a person, while separating the life from the work makes it difficult to trace his development as an artist. Pollack's structure also creates redundancies that recall the eternally rewinding film "Groundhog Day." Gershwin dies in the preface and yet again in Chapters 1, 6, 11, and elsewhere. The phrase "as earlier discussed" recurs as incessantly as, well, "fascinating rhythm" in Gershwin's famous song.
An occasional error inevitably slips into so copious a tome. Blossom Seeley, far from being the first of Al Jolson's several wives (that dubious distinction fell to Henrietta Keller), was wed to her singing partner, Benny Fields. And although it's mildly amusing to learn that even Meat Loaf recorded "Somebody Loves Me" and "The Lawrence Welk Show" presented three bubbly tributes to Gershwin , most readers will skim if not skip altogether Pollack's long lists of artists who recorded this or that composition, and his painstaking summaries of the plots and quotations from the reviews of every show and film featuring Gershwin's music.
It's unfortunate that Pollack cites at such length other people's opinions because his own can be quite eloquent, as when he describes "(I'll Build a) Stairway to Paradise": "The verse alone is extraordinary, a twenty-four-measure trip around the tonal universe, slipping and sliding through various keys -- each a symbolic step upward to paradise -- until it finally arrives at the chorus's dominant harmony, a thrilling preparation to the high-stepping chorus."
The nearly 100 pages Pollack devotes to "Porgy and Bess" are engrossing, from Gershwin's spirited defense of the pot-smoking vaudevillian, John W. "Bubbles" Sublett, who almost lost his role as the original Sportin' Life by playing it off stage as well as on, to a production by a Copenhagen company that used this opera by an American Jew about African -Americans to defy the Aryan ideology of Denmark's Nazi occupiers.
That was many years after the Metropolitan Opera offered commissions to Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern , and Gershwin. Berlin declined because he lacked the technical skills and Kern because he lacked the time, but Gershwin expressed an interest that ultimately (and elsewhere) resulted in "Porgy and Bess." Alone among his popular songwriting peers, Gershwin had the ability and ambition to cross the great divide and compose classical music. Yet among classical composers he was equally unique in embracing uncondescendingly what he characterized as the "nervous, hurried, syncopated, ever accelerando, and slightly vulgar" nature of American life. "Rhapsody in Blue," he wrote, was "full of vulgarisms. That's what gives it weight."
"George Gershwin" captures many glints of how Gershwin's chutzpah, the sheer brazenness of his aspirations, produced musical gold. It remains a mystery why so few other composers have even attempted such alchemy.