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Views And Reviews: Gershwin's Piano Concerto

Paul Serotsky introduces George Gershwin’s controversial piano concerto with appropriate firecracker words.

To read more of Paul’s illuminating articles on the greatest music ever written please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/views_and_reviews/

Gershwin (1898-1937) – Piano Concerto

1. Allegro: A percussion “fanfare” and Charleston-style syncopations combine orchestral introduction and first subject, while the soloist takes the blues-like second subject. Gershwin tempers the profligate confusion of Rhapsody in Blue by formality, but by favouring strictly alternating variation-form over sonata-form, he creates “playgrounds” where he can wax lyrical – and cut loose. The fanfare both “closes” the form and fires off the firecracker coda.

2. Adagio, andante con moto: “In the still of the steamy night, a sad and lonely blues drifts out of a third-floor tenement window” is the near-inescapable image evoked at the outset of this single-theme variations movement. The soloist's up-tempo variation breaks the spell by casting another, entirely different spell, just one of a string of astonishingly imaginative “takes” that culminates in an almost inevitable “big tune” treatment, before the scene melts away into nocturnal haze.

3. Allegro agitato: Hot Jazz grabs centre-stage in what sounds like a rondo, feels like a rondo – but “ain't no rondo”! Roughly, it's an “alternating variations with interpolated reminiscences”: [A-X1-A]-B-A+[B-Y1-B]-A-[Y2]-B-[A-X1-A]-X2, where A and B are the main subjects, X1 and X2 are the first movement's “big tune” and percussion “fanfare”, and Y1 and Y2 are the second's romantic and up-beat “takes”. Save figuring out the logic (if any there be) for afterwards, – I'm just using it to emphasise the dazzling, dizzy succession of events that flash by in a mere six minutes of hyperactive invention: this is Gershwin on the razzle!

Taking that as prima facie evidence, let's consider a report in the New York Musical Crimes, dated 4 December 1925:

“Yesterday, following the premiere of his Piano Concerto in F, George Gershwin was arrested, charged with wilful corruption of a classical form. Walter Damrosch, the NYPSO's conductor, was arraigned for complicity as commissioner of the work. The DA's office said that Gershwin had knowingly insulted the classical audience's sensitivities by serving up rehashed jazz, and it didn't help that he had also bugged his Broadway and Tin Pan Alley buddies by selling out to the snobs.

“Only last year, Gershwin evaded a similar charge on a technicality – when Rhapsody in Blue was performed at a Jazz, rather than a Classical, concert. The DA is confident that this time his case is pretty watertight – Gershwin has actually called his piece a 'concerto', scoring it himself for full symphony orchestra. Allegedly, Gershwin flouted the rules, according to testimony from ear-witnesses saying that structure-wise he was flying by the seat of his pants, and couldn't 'carry an argument'. Even Gershwin's lawyer admits that the movements are just variations with no symphonic logic, but adds defensively, 'Hey, they're goddamned fine tunes, is all'. The DA agrees that, sure, the tunes are OK – for Broadway – but Charleston, Blues and Jazz have no place on American concert platforms.

“This one looks set to run, so the lawyers here at NYC are keeping close tabs. Because classical composers over in Europe are using jazz already, they reckon the case won't ride on 'good taste' but be down to the increasingly loose legal definitions: following that hosiery case, they say these days anything goes, so it's possible the judge will throw this one out on the grounds that, if the guy says his piece is a concerto then hey, if it's got a soloist, that's what it is and it's up to the audiences to decide if it's a good one.

“Our on-the-spot reporter reckons it's a bum rap – Gershwin is being picked on just because he's a Brooklyn jazz-man, adding, 'Shucks fellas, this guy knocked me sideways. He was terrific, his music was terrific. This has gotta be the American Way; get some real pizazz in there to liven it up a little. Ya know, I'd bet in 75 years' time it'll be wowing 'em, even in Huddersfield, England.' We'd also bet on that, bud, but say, where the hell is Huddersfield, anyway?”

Gershwin was well aware of his limitations, and (I think) cannily chose these simple variational forms precisely because they suited his strengths – especially his innate melodic fertility and the improvisatory skills he honed in his youth as a piano player at Remick's Music Store. Even with the odd original twist, the formal bones were really just a convenient hook on which to hang the good, red meat that assured the Piano Concerto's place in the repertoire and the hearts of audiences, even in li'l ole Huddersfield, England.

© Paul Serotsky


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