Searching for the Authentic Gershwin Performance Style
When I first learned Gershwin's Preludes I was instantly captivated by his uniquely American brand of music, an early twentieth-century style that many have described as a bridge between classical and popular (ragtime and jazz) genres. I devoured these technically challenging works and felt right at home with their 1920s jazzy rhythms thanks to hours of listening to piano rolls on my family's old upright Aeolian player piano. To celebrate the centennial of the Gershwin's birth in 1998, I was engaged to perform all of his works for piano and orchestra which in turn led me to investigate other works by Gershwin and search for the "correct" way to perform his music. I relearned the Preludes and fell in love all over again with their invigorating rhythm and jazzy harmonies. And like many other classical pianists, I fervently wished there were more concert works for solo piano by Gershwin. Unfortunately, he did not publish much solo piano music during his short life (1898-1937). He was too busy composing music for Broadway shows--a task he found to be both "agreeable and remunerative." Fortunately for us however, he did manage to set down some of his piano improvisations on paper and on disc.
Thanks to his ability to play anything by ear and in any key, Gershwin became a popular and sought-after guest at New York society parties in the 20s and 30s. Soon after arriving at a party, he would take a seat at the host's piano and entertain fellow guests for hours with improvisations of his own songs and other popular tunes of the day. He was a master of all the Tin Pan Alley styles he had picked up while employed as a "song plugger" for the Remick Publishing Company from 1914 to 1917, as a player piano roll recording artist (about 140 rolls), and as a rehearsal pianist for Broadway shows. After years of playing these arrangements, in 1932 Gershwin published a collection of improvisations on his own songs called George Gershwin's Song Book (now published by Alfred Music Publishing as Gershwin at the Keyboard). In an introduction to the collection he describes not only influences on his style by other pianists of the time, but more importantly he gives classical pianists specific advice for how best to play this type of music. He explained, "To play American popular music most effectively one must guard against the natural tendency to make too frequent use of the sustaining pedal; our popular music asks for staccato effects, for almost a stenciled style. The rhythms of American popular music are more or less brittle; they should be made to snap, and at times to cackle. The more sharply the music is played, the more effective it sounds. Most pianists with a classical training fail lamentably in the playing of our ragtime or jazz because they use the pedaling of Chopin. The romantic touch, in a tune of strict rhythm is somewhat out of place." These Song Book improvisations, although wonderful, are lamentably short. Most are only two pages in length and take only a minute or so to play. They give us only a glimpse of Gershwin's improvisational abilities.
Gershwin's Columbia Improvisations
In 1987 pianist-scholar Artis Wodehouse significantly expanded Gershwin's solo piano repertoire by transcribing eight of the ten solo song improvisations he recorded in 1926 and 1928 for the Columbia Gramophone Company during visits to London. These live performance recordings are remarkably inventive full-length improvisations that include each song's verse and chorus, unlike the abbreviated Song Book series. (The eight included on this CD are Sweet and Low-Down, Looking for a Boy, Someone to Watch Over Me, That Certain Feeling, 'S Wonderful/Funny Face, Maybe, Clap Yo' Hands, and My One and Only.) The original records were 10-inch 78 rpm discs that had a three-minute time limit and were live studio performances. Editing of recordings was not yet possible at this time, consequently we can hear exactly how Gershwin played the piano (including a few wrong notes!). Wodehouse merits considerable respect for her formidable musicianship and aural skill which enable her to sift through the substantial surface noise and low monaural fidelity of these old records. She has put down on music paper a very close representation of what Gershwin played in the studio. One is immediately impressed with, and overwhelmed by, Gershwin's extraordinary pianistic skill, energy and stamina. He developed a unique style of playing that combined an orchestral texture with propulsive drive. His left hand and arm were unusually strong, leaping easily between large chords (usually filled-out tenths) on strong beats and full chords on off-beats. Simultaneously, his virtuoso right hand would play a syncopated melodic line in unrelenting passages of octaves and filled-out chords. Presumably, this is how Gershwin played at the legendary parties. These improvisations were obviously intended for dancing as the tempos are generally quite fast and the pulse is always steady. (In fact, Gershwin frequently collaborated with Fred Astaire. Four more 1926 Columbia recordings feature Astaire singing and dancing, accompanied by Gershwin.) I have listened to these recordings repeatedly in order to learn how to emulate Gershwin's unique style of piano playing. It has been a joyful task indeed.
1925 was a busy year for George Gershwin. He composed a major concert work for piano and orchestra, Concerto in F, and two new Broadway musicals, Tip-Toes (which garnered the three hits Sweet and Low-Down, Looking for a Boy, and That Certain Feeling) and Tell Me More (with its hit, Kickin' the Clouds Away). According to Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski, Ira Gershwin's catchy title for Sweet and Low-Down is a clever "portmanteau, combining the title of the old song (Sweet and Low) and a current slang phrase" of the times ("low-down").
The next Gershwin show, Oh, Kay! of 1926, also spawned a handful of hits: Someone to Watch Over Me, Maybe, and Clap Yo' Hands. It is interesting to note the two completely different stylistic treatments of Someone to Watch Over Me. According to Ira Gershwin, George originally composed the tune "to be a brisk dance-and-ensemble number," but while working together one day George casually began playing it "in a comparatively slow tempo, half of it hadn't been sounded when both of us had the same reaction: this was no rhythm throwaway, but suddenly something warm and charming." It has become a tradition to perform Someone in a slow, sentimental style. However, when George recorded it as a piano solo in late 1926 for Columbia, he chose to perform it in his original up-tempo dance style. The middle section of this improvisation closely resembles the "upside down" middle section of Prelude No. 2 in C-sharp Minor where the left hand takes on the melody while the right hand strums a banjo-like accompaniment. In the Song Book introduction, Gershwin credits pianist Mike Bernard for inventing this particular style of playing. Gershwin must have enjoyed it for he also employs this technique in Maybe, Sweet and Low-Down, and in the original version of Rhapsody in Blue.
Unique among the Gershwin recordings is a two-song medley called 'S Wonderful/Funny Face from the 1927 show Funny Face. One can hear musical laughter in the descending chromatic triplets of the introduction to 'S Wonderful and in the descending chromatic eighth notes in the modulating bridge to Funny Face. The paired songs are both fast rhythm numbers and like many of the other disc improvisations, ideally suited for fox-trot dancing. My One and Only is another hit from Funny Face. Like Sweet and Low-Down, Clap Yo' Hands, 'S Wonderful, and That Certain Feeling, it closely resembles its two-page improvisation found in the 1932 Song Book, but is a considerably longer and more thoroughly worked-out version.
Old and New Preludes and the Rhapsody in Blue Theme
In addition to these song transcriptions, in June 1928 Gershwin also recorded the three originally published Preludes and a two-and-a-half-minute solo arrangement of the Andantino moderato theme from Rhapsody in Blue. Needless to say, it is very instructive to hear Gershwin playing his own Preludes. The two fast preludes (Nos. 1 and 3) "snap and cackle" as expected, but what is surprising is that the slow prelude (No. 2, which he referred to as a "Blue Lullaby") is also relatively fast. Obviously this could be attributed to the three-minute limitation of the disc recording, but in fact Gershwin also performed this prelude in a similar style during a radio broadcast where time constraints would have been less likely. (On the 1928 disc recording the tempo of the A section (marked Andante con moto e poco rubato) is approximately quarter note = 96-100. In a November 1932 radio broadcast he plays at approximately quarter note = 120!) Thus the tradition nowadays of playing this prelude very slowly and sentimentally is therefore not very "authentic." Gershwin marked the A section Andante con moto after all, not Adagio. Gershwin marked the middle B section Largamente con moto, a tempo indication that is slower than the A section's Andante con moto. The return of the A section is appropriately marked Tempo I thus signalling that the middle section should indeed be performed slower than the A section, not faster.
Gershwin conceived the idea for a suite of piano works in January 1925, labeling a notebook of sketches Preludes. For several years he had already collected short piano works and fragments in a notebook called Novelettes (from which the two-movement violin and piano suite Short Story is derived). In 1926, A British contralto and Gershwin devotee named Marguerite d'Alvarez convinced him to share a program with her in a series of recitals in New York and Boston. Gershwin decided to compose a serious solo work to perform on the recitals--a group of twenty-four preludes called The Melting Pot. At the time of the first recital in New York on December 4, 1926, the preludes numbered only five. A month later he performed six on a recital in Boston. A reviewer described them appropriately as "glowing little vignettes of New York life." Eventually Gershwin decided to publish only three of the preludes, as they were known for seventy years. The three "extra" preludes have been identified by Jablonski as the two novelettes, Rubato and Novelette in Fourths, and a song without words called Sleepless Night. These works have recently been published and satisfy pianists who have long sought to have the complete set of preludes as Gershwin played them.
Novelette in Fourths is an unusual piece of ragtime dating from 1919. The melody is reminiscent of Hello, My Baby!, a popular song of the day, but is harmonized in fourths which lends an Asian flavor to the character. (The Far East was a popular setting for musical comedies and revues in the 1910s and 20s.) Evidently there was a lot of cross-pollination as Novelette's melody closely resembles the second section of Zez Confrey's popular piano solo Kitten on the Keys. Gershwin made a player piano roll of Novelette for the Welte-Mignon Company in 1919 that includes a third unpublished section of music that further exploits the fourths melody and takes a surprising harmonic turn. It is likely that Gershwin simply improvised it on the spot. I have transcribed this extra section (sixteen measures) and play the work as Gershwin recorded it. Rubato is a sixteen-measure work dating from 1923 that evokes Chopin with a jazz twist. Sleepless Night is listed in the Gershwin Archive as "Melody No. 17" and although it appears as a sketch in Gershwin's hand in a 1925 notebook, it was not completed until 1936. The final version was actually written out by Gershwin's girlfriend and composer-pianist, Kay Swift (to whom the Song Book is dedicated). She transcribed it from his impromptu renditions heard at home. He must have approved of her transcription for he himself wrote out the last three measures and titled it "Prelude" underneath (perhaps referring to its 1926-27 debut?). I have incorporated features of both versions in this recording.
Rhapsody in Blue was an instant success at its debut in New York on February 12, 1924 at Aeolian Hall (and again at Carnegie Hall on April 21, 1924) and propelled the twenty-five year-old Gershwin into the musical spotlight as one of America's top composers. He was immediately engaged to perform the work on tour across the United States. The Rhapsody also quickly became popular in London and Paris and it is not surprising that Columbia would have wanted a recording of the work along with his song improvisations. In order to accommodate the time limitation of the 78 rpm disc, Gershwin decided that the Andantino moderato theme would make a good excerpt for the recording. I have transcribed Gershwin's own arrangement from this recording dated June 8, 1928. To my knowledge, Gershwin did not write down the arrangement; there is no published score. As with the song improvisations, I have tried to imitate Gershwin's own style of playing as closely as possible. This is the first modern recording of this important and unique Gershwin arrangement.
Piano Roll Transcriptions
Artis Wodehouse and George Litterst have also transcribed into sheet music six of Gershwin's performances of his own songs on player piano rolls. (Included on this CD are Swanee, Drifting Along with the Tide, So Am I, and Kickin' the Clouds Away.) Despite marketing promotions to the contrary, reproducing player piano roll performances were not necessarily true representations of a pianist's real playing. Rolls were frequently manipulated to include "extra" notes unplayable by a two-handed pianist, and dynamic and expressive effects were normally added after the recording process. It was also possible to make additional passes during the roll making process, which permitted a pianist to play duets with himself. Both Drifting Along with the Tide and Kickin' the Clouds Away are "four-handed" Gershwin. He deserves credit for elevating the typically mechanical sound of player piano duets to a higher artistic level than that of other contemporary roll pianists. As with his disc improvisations, he adds unique introductions and codas, jazzes up harmonies, adds inner voice melodies and obbligato counterpoint to bring simple sheet music song publications to a level where they become wholly new compositions. I have recorded these two selections using a modern overdubbing recording process, in effect playing duets with myself.
In searching for Gershwin's authentic performance style, both Swanee and So Am I are good examples to study since they appear to be only slightly altered two-handed rolls. Swanee was the song that first brought Gershwin widespread acclaim. According to the lyricist Irving Caesar, they composed the song in less than fifteen minutes after first conceiving the subject material over dinner and a bus ride home. It was premiered in 1919 in a show called The Capitol Revue but unfortunately did not make much of an impression. Soon afterward, Gershwin attended a party for vaudevillian Al Jolson where he played it for the star showman. Jolson immediately recognized its potential and decided on the spot to include it in his touring revue in January 1920. It was an overnight success and took the country by storm. Over a million copies of sheet music and records were sold and both Gershwin (age 21) and Caesar received $10,000 in royalties the first year alone. Sensing a prime sales opportunity, the Aeolian Company immediately engaged Gershwin to make a two-handed Duo-Art reproducing roll in February 1920. It reveals Gershwin in all his youthful exuberance. So Am I, a ballad tribute to Gershwin's mentor Jerome Kern, is notable for being one of the very few recorded examples of Gershwin playing in a slow, contemplative style. It is a freely improvised slow ballad with plenty of rubato, ritardandos, accelerandos, and fermatas. Fred and Adele Astaire premiered the work in the hit Gershwin show of 1924-25, Lady, Be Good! It proved so popular that Gershwin recorded a Duo-Art piano roll of it in September 1925.
Other Solo Piano Works by Gershwin
This recording includes almost all of Gershwin's published original solo piano works (with the exception of Rialto Ripples Rag, Two Waltzes in C, Merry Andrew and the above-mentioned Song Book). Most of the heralded "new discoveries" recorded in the past few years by a variety of Gershwin specialists are short Broadway show songs from the Gershwin Archive at the Library of Congress and are still unpublished. Those works are also not included here.
The charming little work Promenade was originally composed for an orchestral dance sequence called "Walking the Dog" for the 1937 film Shall We Dance which starred Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Ira Gershwin published it as a piano solo in 1960. Three-Quarter Blues, described by Ira Gershwin as an "Irish Waltz," is listed in the Gershwin Archive as "Melody No. 32" and was probably composed in the mid-1920s. It was first published in 1967 and is also a charming piece of Gershwiniana. Many of the songs Gershwin wrote for Broadway shows were abandoned for one reason or another. Impromptu in Two Keys was originally intended as a song for a 1929 Ziegfeld musical called East Is West which never materialized. The title of the song refers to the fact that each hand plays simultaneously in a different key. It was first titled Yellow Blues and is listed in the Gershwin Archive as "Melody No. 42." Two versions were published in 1973, ironically in two different keys (D-flat Major and E-flat Major). On this recording I have connected the two slightly different renditions with a short one-measure modulation composed in Gershwin's style.
Earl Wild's Seven Virtuoso Etudes on Themes by Gershwin
American concert pianist Earl Wild (1915-2010) has long been considered one of the foremost interpreters of Gershwin's piano music. In 1942 he performed the Rhapsody in Blue with the NBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini and was instantly hailed as a Gershwin specialist for his definitive interpretation of that work. In the 1950s, Mr. Wild composed six piano etudes based on themes by Gershwin. (Later in 1976, he revised the six and composed a seventh etude based on Fascinatin' Rhythm.) These are stylistically inventive and technically challenging etudes in the late nineteenth-century virtuoso manner of Liszt and Rachmaninoff but incorporate mid twentieth-century jazz harmonies. They are as much a delight to perform as to hear, and not surprisingly have found a place in the repertoire of many concert pianists today.
I Got Rhythm was obviously one of Gershwin's favorite works. He not only included a fairly substantial solo improvisation of it in his Song Book (one of the two longest arrangements in the collection), but also used it as the basis for a concert work called Variations on "I Got Rhythm" for piano and orchestra. Mr. Wild's black-key arrangement jazzes up an already jazzy song with an infusion of spiky, chromatic dissonances. I Got Rhythm and Embraceable You are two of several hit songs from the 1930 Gershwin show Girl Crazy which introduced Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers to Broadway. Cascades of arpeggios evoke a warm, harp-like sound in Wild's romantic version of Embraceable You.
Oh, Lady Be Good! and Fascinatin' Rhythm both come from the 1924 Gershwin show Lady, Be Good! which starred Fred and Adele Astaire. Wild's arrangement of Lady is a sultry blues infused with a section of jazz-inspired Rachmaninoff; his Fascinatin' Rhythm is a virtuoso tour-de-force that turns the tune into a Lisztian Mephisto Waltz. Gershwin particularly enjoyed the "misplaced accents" of Fascinatin' Rhythm, but his lyricist-brother Ira complained, "For God's sake George, what kind of lyric do you write to a rhythm like that?" Their sister Frances was with them when George played it for Ira the first time and recalled that Ira diplomatically critiqued the work by saying, "Well, it's a fascinating rhythm..." and thus was born the title!
Gershwin was frequently engaged to contribute songs to an annual Broadway revue called George White's Scandals. The beautiful hit song Somebody Loves Me comes from the Scandals of 1924. (Drifting Along with the Tide was written for the Scandals of 1921.) Like Swanee, the hit song Liza was inextricably linked to the popular vaudevillian Al Jolson. Jolson's new wife at the time, Ruby Keeler, was one of the stars of the 1929 Ziegfeld musical Show Girl for which Gershwin composed this song. On opening night, Jolson, who was seated in the audience during the performance, jumped up on stage and sang a chorus of Liza to Keeler and caused a "sensation" according to Gershwin. It turned out to be the sole hit of the show and became one of Gershwin's favorite songs to play. (It is the longest of his Song Book improvisations.) Its popularity even inspired Judy Garland and Vincent Minnelli to name their daughter Liza! Earl Wild must like this tune a lot too. His arrangement takes the pianist on a technical and harmonic whirlwind tour across the keyboard.
The Man I Love today ranks at the top of Gershwin's instantly recognizable tunes, however ironically it did not gain quick acclaim. Originally composed for Lady, Be Good!, it was eventually dropped from that show before the first performance in New York. Later it was reworked as The Girl I Love for the 1927 Gershwin show Strike Up the Band, but even then did not make much of an impression. Soon afterward it was adopted by female vocalists in London and Paris and became a very popular song there on its own. Over the years it has become probably the best-known and most oft-requested song by Gershwin. Mr. Wild begins simply, then adds an invisible "third" hand obbligato high in the treble while the left hand takes on both melody and accompaniment. His arrangement concludes with an expanded version of Gershwin's own Song Book improvisation--a personal tribute and fitting close to the group of etudes.
SWEET AND LOW-DOWN: RICHARD DOWLING PLAYS GEORGE GERSHWIN