A Century After His Birth, George Gershwin's Music--From "Summertime" to "Embraceable You," Rhapsody in Blue to Porgy and Bess--is Attracting New Generations of Fans
From the Print Edition:
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When he completed the work in June 1931, Gershwin hired an orchestra of more than 50 to play it for him. After the session, he informed Isaac Goldberg that "in many respects, such as orchestration and form, it is the best thing I've ever written."
The Gershwins returned to New York to produce their acerbic study of American politics, titled Of Thee I Sing. Partly inspired by Strike Up the Band, it was a huge hit and, with 441 performances, their most enduring show. With the book and lyrics by George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind and Ira Gershwin, Of Thee I Sing won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for drama. But then came three financial flops in succession, Pardon My English and Let 'Em Eat Cake (the Of Thee I Sing sequel) both in 1933, and yes, Porgy and Bess, in spite of 11 months devoted to the composition and nine to orchestration.
Considering that Porgy and Bess is now the most acclaimed of American operas, it is difficult to believe that the public stayed away from the show. But theatergoers had not expected an opera from George Gershwin; they had hoped for another Girl Crazy or a production that reminded them of one of his other popular musicals, such as Tip-Toes (1925) or Funny Face (1927). The critics, some antagonistic, did not believe he could write an opera, saying that he was a mere songwriter and that he should stick to Broadway musicals. Porgy and Bess closed after 124 New York performances, a financial failure. A brief road tour then took it to Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The strength of its songs kept the score alive until revivals and the restoration of original music (which had been removed from the score during its Boston previews before the New York premiere) revealed Porgy and Bess to be the masterpiece it is.
After the public's reaction to Porgy, the Gershwins decided to return to writing lighter musicals. By this time Hollywood was having greater success with the form, reaching its acme with the sophisticated and now classic films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. First teamed in 1933's Flying Down to Rio, with music by Vincent Youmans, Astaire and Rogers had become RKO Radio's leading stars by 1936, with scores provided by such legends as Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.
Hollywood was suspicious of the operatic Gershwins, fearing that the duo would write only "highbrow" songs. George retorted with "...rumors about highbrow music ridiculous. Am out to write hits."
The brothers wrote two complete scores for Astaire--Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress (without Rogers)--as well as the tragically unfinished The Goldwyn Follies, out of which flowed such songs as "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "A Foggy Day," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," and George Gershwin's last song, "Love is Here to Stay."
Once contracts had been worked out, the Gershwins--George, Ira and Ira's wife, Leonore--flew to California in August 1936. Hollywood did not keep George occupied as he might have been on Broadway, a fact that after some weeks irritated him. Between work sessions with Ira, he flew to concert appearances in Seattle, San Francisco and Detroit. In early February 1937, while rehearsing a Porgy and Bess medley with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, George lost his balance and nearly fell from the podium, but he recovered immediately. The next evening, he lost his way in a simple solo piano passage of the Concerto in F, complaining later of a headache and the smell of burning rubber.
These were the first manifestations of the brain tumor that would take his life five months later. He had several physicals during that time and saw a battery of doctors, including an analyst (some of his friends believed his dizzy spells and headaches were psychosomatic, caused by his unhappiness in Hollywood). The analyst, however, concluded that the symptoms were physical, not emotional.
In June 1937, Gershwin spent four days in Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles, undergoing tests. The doctors offered no diagnoses except the opinion that it was "most likely hysteria." Two weeks later, Gershwin was back at Cedars in a coma. The tumor's effects were readily apparent by then, and an immediate "energetic surgical intervention" was begun. It was much too late; the tumor may have been present long before the Concerto in F incident back in February. Gershwin died on a Sunday morning, July 11, 1937. Mourned worldwide, he left behind an unequaled musical legacy.
Gershwin's had been a celebrated life, but he always retained his social equilibrium. Nanette Kutner, who years earlier had successfully applied for a job as his secretary before going on to become a noted producer, had approached the renowned composer (at the time still in his 20s) with apprehensive awe. She recalled their first encounter:
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