Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: A Concerto, by George!

George Gershwin ca. 1925
George Gershwin ca. 1925

On December 3, 1925 – 93 years ago today – George Gershwin’s Concerto in F for piano and orchestra received its world premiere at Carnegie Hall, with Gershwin at the piano and the New York Symphony Society Orchestra under the baton of Walter Damrosch. 

Statement: George Gershwin is among the handful of greatest composers the United States has ever produced, and his death at the age of 38 (of a brain tumor) should be considered an artistic tragedy equal to the premature deaths of Schubert (at 31), Mozart (at 35), and Chopin (at 39). 

Gershwin’s brother Arthur and sister Frances unveil a plaque
1963: Gershwin’s brother Arthur and sister Frances unveil a plaque marking Gershwin’s birth at 242 Snediker Avenue, Brooklyn

He was born Jacob Gershovitz (though his birth certificate reads “Jacob Gershwine”), the child of Russian Jewish immigrants, on September 26 1898 at 242 Snediker Avenue in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (For our information: in 1963, a bronze plaque commemorating Gershwin’s birth was affixed to the building. By the 1970s, the neighborhood had fallen on very hard times: the plaque was stolen – it is still MIA – and the building vandalized. It burned down in 1987, and all that remains of the neighborhood today is a blighted area of warehouses and junkyards.)

242 Snediker Avenue today
242 Snediker Avenue today

Rarely has a major composer begun his life in an artistically less promising manner. Tall, athletic, and charismatic, Gershwin was the leader of his various tenement gangs, playing street ball, roller skating everywhere, and engaging in petty crime. By his own admission, he cared nothing for music until he was ten, when George’s parents Morris and Rose bought his elder brother Ira a piano. But it was George who attacked the piano, with an intensity and precocity that shocked everyone. 

While his piano studies included the “classics”, Gershwin was, from the beginning, drawn to ragtime. 

Photo of Gershwin at the age of 10
Gershwin at the age of 10

He quickly developed into a formidable ragtime piano player. At the age of 15, he nailed down his first job: as a song “plugger” for the New York music publishing house of Jerome H. Remick for $15.00 a week. A “plugger” was a sort of human jukebox, who played a firm’s songs for prospective sheet music buyers. To be a decent plugger you needed stamina, and the ability to improvise and play in as many different styles as there were songs. The house of Remick was located, along with most of the other sheet music publishers, on East 14th Street in lower Manhattan. The street was nicknamed “Tin Pan Alley” by the journalist Monroe Rosenfeld (1861-1918) because of the cacophony created by hundreds of pluggers simultaneously beating the boogers out of hundreds of beat-up upright pianos! 

Rialto Ripples Cover Image
Rialto Ripples

It was natural that Gershwin would try his own hand at writing ragtime and songs, and he scored his first success with a rag entitled Rialto Ripples in 1917. In 1920, the 22 year-old Gershwin hit the top of the charts when the great vaudevillian Al Jolson (1886-1950) performed his song Swanee (which was written with the lyricist Irving Caesar in 1919); Jolson inserted the songinto a musical review entitled Sinbad and subsequently recorded it. 

Cropped photo of George and Ira Gershwin
George and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983)

In 1924, Gershwin began what turned out to be one of the great collaborations in the history of Western music. With his brother Ira (1896-1983) as lyricist, he composed the music for a Broadway musical entitled Lady Be Good. The number of great songs produced by the Gershwin brothers between 1924 and 1937 boggles the ear. As a songwriter, George Gershwin was American’s Franz Schubert, and his songs capture the jazzy, exuberant, and sophisticated spirit of urban America between the wars better than any other music.

Photograph of George Gershwin at the piano. Left to right: Ferde Grofé, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, and Paul Whiteman
George Gershwin at the piano. Left to right: Ferde Grofé, Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, and Paul Whiteman

In 1923, Gershwin was approached by the society bandleader Paul Whiteman to “compose” a “serious” concert work in the “jazz idiom” for piano and jazz band. Gershwin hesitated: writing songs was one things, but having had no training in composition, counterpoint, or orchestration, there was no reason to believe he could compose such a work. He had put the offer out of his mind entirely when, to his horror, a notice appeared in the New York papers that announced he was composing just such a piece. His back to the wall, Gershwin quickly wrote Rhapsody in Blue, which was arranged for piano and jazz band by Whiteman’s orchestrator, Ferde Grofé. It received its premiere with Paul Whiteman conducting his band and Gershwin at the piano at New York’s Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924.

Rhapsody in Blue is a medley of great tunes linked by some shockingly pedestrian transitions. Don’t get me wrong; we should all love the Rhapsody, but from a purely technical point of view, it might very well be the shoddiest piece of music in the concert repertoire, making even Tchaikovsky’s compositionally appalling 1812 Overture look slick by comparison. 

Its flaws aside (Gershwin himself later admitted that at the time he wrote Rhapsody in Blue he hardly knew more about composition than one could find “in a ten-cent manual”), Gershwin was bitten by the “concert composing bug” at exactly the time when the American arts community was coming to believe that ragtime and jazz were “America’s Classical Music”.

Photograph of Walter Damrosch
Walter Damrosch (1862-1950)

Among the audience at the Rhapsody’s premiere was the conductor Walter Damrosch. Damrosch instantly recognized Gershwin’s genius and potential as a composer.  And so on February 13, 1924 – the day after the Rhapsody received its premiere – Damrosch offered Gershwin a commission to compose a full-scale, multi-movement piano concerto.

Gershwin knew he had a lot to learn and he had to learn it all fast. He took as many orchestration lessons as he could squeeze into his schedule, and began sketching out ideas for the concerto in May of 1925. Originally entitled “New York Concerto”, he completed his fully orchestrated draft on November 10, 1925. (Yes: he orchestrated it himself, which is something anyone who calls himself a “composer” must be able to do!)

Black and white photograph of the outside of The Globe Theater in New York City
The Globe Theater in New York City; today the Lunt-Fontanne

Regarding the orchestration of the concerto. The 27 year-old Gershwin had his doubts, so a couple of weeks after having completed his score – in late November, 1925 – he hired a 55-piece orchestra at his own expense and ran through the piece at New York’s “Globe Theater”. (The theater, at 205 West 46th Street, is still there. In 1958 it was renamed the Lunt-Fontanne Theater after the husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.)

The conductor Walter Damrosch sat in on Gershwin’s reading. Advice was proffered, and cuts and revisions were made. All in all though, Gershwin must have been thrilled with the results because his concerto was, and remains, thrilling. It received its premiere – with Damrosch on the podium and Gershwin at the piano – 93 years ago today. 

From a technical point of view, Gershwin’s Concerto in F is only about a gazillion times better than the Rhapsody in Blue, although there are still a few orchestrational rough spots. We pay them little mind, though, because more than anything else, the concerto is “about” its glorious melodies; its syncopated ragtime and jazz rhythms; its propulsive and percussive piano writing; and a singular and joyful energy that brilliantly represents New York in the 1920s.

For more on George Gershwin I would humbly direct your attention to my Great Courses survey, “The Great Music of the 20th Century”.

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