George Gershwin and Modern Music

Rhapsody in Blue is performed live for the first time in New York City’s Aeolian Hall. The entire evening’s program, billed as an “Experiment In Modern Music,” was organized by Paul Whiteman, the immensely popular leader of the Palais Royal Orchestra, and intended to demonstrate that the relatively new form of music called jazz deserved to be regarded as a serious and sophisticated art form. The program first featured didactic segments intended to make this case, and segments with titles like “Contrast: Legitimate Scoring vs. Jazzing,” had bored the audience to near tears for interminable pieces.

Enter 25-year-old George Gershwin.“It starts with an outrageous cadenza of the clarinet,” wrote Olin Downes of the New York Times.“It has subsidiary phrases, logically growing out of it . . . often metamorphosed by devices of rhythm and instrumentation.” Downes was in emphatic agreement with Whiteman’s original premise: “This is no mere dance-tune set for piano and other instruments,” he judged. “This composition shows extraordinary talent, just as it also shows a young composer with aims that go far beyond those of his ilk.”

Gershwin, often with the assist from lyricist brother Ira, penned multiple pieces and scores for Broadway, film and orchestral presentation, including Blue Monday, Shall We Dance, You Can’t Take That Away From Me, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Porgy & Bess and An American In Paris. Struck down by a brain tumor at 38, The Guardian, using “estimates of earnings accrued in a composer’s lifetime” concluded that George Gershwin was the wealthiest composer of all time.

On a final note, in September 2013, a partnership between the estates of Ira and George Gershwin and the University of Michigan was created and will provide the university’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance access to Gershwin’s entire body of work, which includes all of Gershwin’s papers, compositional drafts, and scores. This direct access to all of his works will provide opportunities to musicians, composers, and scholars to analyze and reinterpret his work with the goal of accurately reflecting the composers’ vision in order to preserve his legacy.

And here, the song endeth.

Author: Bill Urich

A tail-end baby-boomer, Bill Urich was born in Cleveland to a grade school teacher and her Navy vet husband, and reared in Greater Detroit. Working his way through school primarily at night, Mr. Urich holds a Bachelor’s in Journalism, Phi Beta Kappa, and a Juris Doctorate from Wayne State University. In his legal career he has acted as an assistant state prosecutor, city attorney, special prosecutor, mediator, magistrate, private practitioner and mayor of Royal Oak, a large home-rule city in Michigan. Mr. Urich continues in private practice and municipal prosecution, is on faculty to DePaul University, pens regular contributions to political publications, and remains active in selected campaigns and causes related to labor, social and criminal justice. A father of three mostly-grown sons, he spends his precious free time on family, friends, the pursuit of happiness, beauty and truth, three rescue cats, and fronting the rock band Calcutta Rugs from behind the drum kit.

What say you, the people?