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
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
, 'S Wonderful/Funny Face, Maybe, Clap Yo' Hands, and My One and
.) 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
, 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
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.
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
(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
. 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
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
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

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
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
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
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
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
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

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
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
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.

Klavier CD 11117
Copyright ©2017 Richard Dowling. All Rights Reserved.