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The Music of Gershwin

By Magda Romanska

As a child, George Gershwin would constantly get in trouble; he was well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. It was sheer luck that saved him when his mother decided the family needed a piano for Ira to start music lessons. However, as soon as the piano was pulled up through the window into their living room, it became obvious that it was George, not Ira, who had found his calling.

Gershwin was the musical genius of the Jazz Age, with wide ranging skills, equally at ease composing show tunes and symphonies, a man responsible for some of the most haunting, romantic and timeless songs in the American songbook, often credited for inventing the Hollywood and Broadway music of its early years. Like Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and a few others, Gershwin balanced between so-called “high” and “low” brow art. Today, more than a century after his birth, Gershwin is still one of the most revered American composers. His songs are constantly reinvented, re-imagined and re-recorded by artists from all walks of life and across music genres, from Elton John to Sting and Cher.George Martin, a record producer, once noted philosophically that, “Many groups of today will say that they wouldn’t have existed without the Beatles. Well, the Beatles couldn’t have existed without the Gershwins.”

Amy Henderson, a cultural historian at the Smithsonian Institution, once said that Gershwin “provided the voice for what he saw and heard around him every day. It’s this vitality, this raw energy.”  Scott Wheeler, award-winning composer and co-director of the Emerson College BFA program in Musical Theatre notes that “Gershwin is one of those natural talents who make all other composers despair. Like Mozart, it all seems completely effortless, full of surprises without ever being forced. Also like Mozart, he was a magpie, combining musical techniques from various sources with immense originality and charm.”  Gershwin’s music was eclectic, drawing on numerous traditions from across the globe. Michael Tilson-Thomas, conductor at the San Francisco Symphony points out that  Gershwin “took the Jewish tradition, the African-American tradition and the symphonic tradition, and he made a language out of that which was accessible and understandable to all kinds of people.”

Gershwin listened to the sound of the city and captured that sense of the moment in his songs. As Tilson-Thomas notes, Gershwin “expressed what it was to be alive at that moment as an American… to let people know what it feels like to stand right here on this street.”Stephen Terrel, the Head of Musical Theatre at Emerson College notes that Gershwin’s music is complex, with melody and rhythm playing off of each other. Terrell says: “What always thrills me most about Gershwin is his sense of rhythm.Even more than with melody, he used rhythm to define character, create conflict, express emotion, and even reveal the beating heart of a city.  And if you want to dance…why look anywhere else?”

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