Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music, by Richard Crawford

Benjamin Ivry is disappointed by an uncritically enthusiastic account of the great Broadway composer

October 31, 2019
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One of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s more outlandish claims was that Mozart, whom he despised, “died too late” instead of too young. Despite George Gershwin’s early death at age 38, no one would dare assert the same of him. Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote the ever-delightful Fascinating Rhythm, They Can’t Take That Away from Me and Love Is Here to Stay, but a legitimate question may be raised of what musical genres he might have embraced, had he been granted an average lifespan.

Discontented with Tin Pan Alley and Broadway, Gershwin longed for acceptance as a classical composer, partly because he admired highbrow music by Brahms and others, and also had social ambition.

Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (1924) remains a concert favourite, although its much-vaunted clarinet solo can pall after the umpteenth hearing, and his opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is frequently revived for its melodic delights, despite a problematic text and musical dramaturgy. He also produced a good number of inferior attempts in the classical idiom, such as the ungainly Second Rhapsody for orchestra with piano (1931) and Blue Monday (1922), a crude so-called “jazz opera” originally performed in blackface.

Discernment is essential about such an uneven output, and Howard Pollack’s empathetic George Gershwin: His Life and Work (2007) was consistently helpful in this regard. By contrast, Summertime does not set out to separate wheat from chaff; everything, even the Second Rhapsody and Blue Monday, is consistently lauded.

This is not from a lack of documentation. Richard Crawford, its author, is professor emeritus of music at the University of Michigan, an institution that announced in 2013 its partnership with the estates of George and Ira Gershwin to provide University of Michigan researchers with full access to the Gershwins’ papers, compositional drafts and original scores in order to create a planned critical edition of their works.

Crawford also wrote America’s Musical Life: A History (2001), a compendium of interesting observations and debatable opinions, such as that implying that Gershwin ranks above Aaron Copland as a composer, an early sign of the uninterrupted encomiums in this new book.

Uniform boosterism, although heartening, does not acquaint the reader with Gershwin as a person or differentiate his output analytically. Instead, sometimes surprising juxtaposition is offered, such as a self-portrait of Crawford in a dozen pages of the book’s introduction. Readers are informed about his education and career as an American musicologist, much of it unrelated to Gershwin. Eventually, the narrative settles down to become a dutiful, middle-of-the-road account of Gershwin’s works.

There are overextended plot descriptions of musicals aplenty and lengthy quotes from books and articles by different writers, as if Crawford is relying on others to tell the tale, even at key moments, such as a surgical operation that proves fatal.

Readers might have expected more, given the precedents of Pollack and others. Arnold Schoenberg, who played weekly tennis games with Gershwin in 1930s Hollywood, wrote after the latter’s shocking demise that he would not say “whether history will consider Gershwin a kind of Johann Strauss or Debussy, Offenbach or Brahms, Lehar or Puccini”. We are still waiting to find out.

Benjamin Ivry is university expert in English language and international exchange at Thammasat University in Thailand. He is also the author of biographies of the composers Maurice Ravel and Francis Poulenc.


Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music
By Richard Crawford
Norton, 560pp, £30.00
ISBN 9780393052152
Published 1 October 2019

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: It ain’t necessarily so

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