George Gershwin: 'Still Fairer Hopes'

George Gershwin (photo: Alamy)George Gershwin (photo: Alamy)

During the 13 years of their almost exclusive collaboration, George and Ira Gershwin produced nearly 1000 songs, for a dozen shows and four films. Imagine the fruits of that partnership if George had been granted even 10 more years – let alone 40.

Someone once told me – and even if it’s not true, I’d like to believe it is – that the total royalties accrued from performances of ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess are equivalent to the Argentine national debt. It is said that somewhere in the world a Gershwin melody is played in one form or another every 35 seconds.  

When I first met the Gershwin family in New York a year before Ira’s death in 1983, George’s presence was still very much in evidence. The elegant apartment of his sister Francis (‘Frankie’) Gershwin Godowsky was almost casually decorated with his pictures (along with a healthy collection of works by Gaugin, Chagall and the like), sculptures and other artefacts. Sitting next to her and her extended family, as I did over the following decade and more during performances of Porgy and Bess and other Gershwin shows, was the equivalent of watching The Marriage of Figaro with Constanze. The Gershwins were and are musical royalty. At the interval of one Gershwin concert at the Royal Albert Hall, George’s nephew turned to me in the box and said, ‘Come and have a drink – I want to introduce you to your Prime Minister.’ 

Not that the snootier elements of the musical establishment would have entertained the idea of Gershwin being spoken of in the same breath as Mozart. Only a year before his death, Porgy and Bess had divided critical opinion. It is sometimes forgotten that it was not the first opera to play in a Broadway theatre rather than an opera house nor the first to be cast only with black performers. Those particular boundaries had been crossed by Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s Four Saints in Three Acts written in 1927-8 and first staged in 1934. Perhaps it was the attention accorded Gershwin’s work that persuaded Thomson, with a parallel career as a music critic, to lay into Porgy as ‘falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed...[with a]...libretto that should never have been accepted, on a subject that should never have been chosen, by a man who should never have attempted it.’

Methinks the lady did protest too much, though Thomson was not the only one – Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein were others – who failed to accept Gershwin on his own terms. No composer had so successfully married classical and popular musical genres, yet to the ‘classical’ composers he was inept, and his miraculous ability to write memorable melodies merely contaminated his concert works. Was ever a major composer as patronised as Gershwin? Did the likes of Thomson, Copland and Bernstein think him insufficiently intelligent or self-aware not to know his strengths and weaknesses? He was a far cannier operator than they thought him.

Though Porgy achieved a respectable run of 124 performances, it was a financial disaster. Gershwin’s immediate priority was to return to his musical roots. ‘Once the fever of absorption in Porgy had been dispelled,’ wrote his friend Oscar Levant in one of his autobiographies, A Smattering of Ignorance, ‘George Gershwin became aware that such men as Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers had made considerable advances into the territory once indisputably his. There was, of course, a considerable problem of adjustment, after the freedom of Porgy, to the more precise definitions of the popular song, but when Porgy was at length out of his hands the old desire to work in his first vein reasserted itself.’ 

George and Ira headed for Hollywood. Yet Hollywood, it transpired, thought his concert works too highbrow, too sophisticated. One of Gershwin’s friends warned him of this and suggested sending a wire. He would then conveniently pass it on in order to reassure the men in suits. Gershwin concurred. ‘RUMOURS ABOUT HIGHBROW MUSIC RIDICULOUS. STOP,’ he replied. ‘AM OUT TO WRITE HITS.’ And hits he wrote: ‘They all laughed’, ‘They can’t take that away from me’, ‘A foggy day’, ‘Let’s call the whole thing off’, ‘Nice work if you can get it’, ‘Love walked in’, and ‘Our love is here to stay’ are perhaps the best of the bunch. Any one of them alone would have set up a song writer for life. ‘What was wonderful to me,’ said Ira in 1943, ‘was that after writing “the Great American Opera” George wrote some of the best hits he ever did in his life. He met the boys at their own game. He went back to his first love and did that better than ever before.’

Ira and George worked like demons to complete (five) songs for the film Goldwyn Follies so as ‘to allow the composer to have the following six or eight weeks free to write a ballet for [Vera] Zorina,’ explained Ira in Lyrics on Several Occasions. (The Norwegian-born dancer and choreographer did indeed appear in Goldwyn Follies, though Jablonski and Stewart in The Gershwin Years say George intended to create ‘a full-scale [ballet], “The Swing Symphony”, for the Goldwyn Follies, and that it was to be composed for Balanchine and his American ballet.) 

‘As it turned out, our first six weeks [on Goldwyn Follies] were George’s last six weeks of work; and "[Our] Love is here to stay" the last song he composed.’ (In fact, ‘I Love to Rhyme’ was the last completed – i.e. verse and refrain – Gershwin song; it was the refrain of ‘Our love is here to stay’ that was the last piece the brothers wrote together.) From the late spring of 1937, Gershwin began complaining of dizzy spells and excruciatingly painful headaches. He became easily irritated, uncharacteristically despondent and suffered from gross fatigue.

A lumbar puncture would have diagnosed a brain tumour, but Gershwin vehemently refused to undergo the test at the end of June. On July 10 he lapsed into a coma and underwent an emergency operation for the removal of a tumour nearly the size of a grapefruit. Gershwin did not survive the surgery. He was only 38 when he died at 10.35am on July 11, 1937. Writing in The New York Times seven days later, Olin Downes held that ‘No other American composer had such a funeral service as that held last Thursday for George Gershwin. Not a McDowell [sic], not a Chadwick, not a Stephen Foster or Dan Emmett or John Philip Sousa received such parting honors.’ His death was, in one sense, a blessing. Had he survived the brain surgery, the left side of his body would have been paralyzed, he would never have been able to play the piano again, and the nature of the tumour meant that it would have quickly recurred. ‘For a man as brilliant as he,’ wrote one of America’s leading neurosurgeons, Walter E Dandy, ‘it would have been terrible; it would have been a slow death.’

So what might have been, what ‘the still fairer hopes’, apart from the planned ballet (his first) for Zorina / Balanchine? Is it possible to speculate with any certainty? Personally, I don’t think Gershwin would have remained in Hollywood longer than necessary. He was a man of the theatre and never felt as comfortable artistically or personally in Hollywood as he did on Broadway. Ira, on the other hand, had fallen in love with the climate and lifestyle. He built a home in Beverly Hills (with a studio cottage for George) which remained his base for the rest of his life. Would the brothers have worked together as frequently and closely as they had done in the past? My guess is not. 

‘Several times [George] said to us “I don’t feel I’ve scratched the surface”,’ Francis Gershwin Godowsky recalled of her visit in 1936/7 to her brothers in Hollywood, ‘“I’m out here to make enough money with movies so I don’t have to think money anymore. Because I just want to work on American music: symphonies, chamber music, opera. This is really what I want to do. I don’t feel I’ve even scratched the surface.”’ This has a ring of veracity about it. During those last 11 months in California, George socialised a great deal with the likes of Stravinsky, Schoenberg and other European émigré composers who had settled on the West Coast. His admiration for and understanding of their music had a significant effect on his thinking and future plans. Oscar Levant, in A Smattering of Ignorance, remembered an occasion when he, George and Ira had enjoyed a performance sponsored by Mrs Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge of ‘the four Schoenberg quartets and the last group of Beethoven, played by the Kolisch ensemble’. The three of them with Schoenberg gathered on the tennis court next morning. ‘I’d like to write a quartet some day,’ said George. ‘But it will be something simple, like Mozart.’ 

To the book designer, publisher and impresario Merle Armitage, he talked of the form the quartet would take: ‘a fast opening movement, followed by a very slow second movement, based on themes he had heard when visiting Folly Island off Carolina coast with DuBose Heyward. The sounds of the dominant themes were so insistent he had not bothered to write them down. ‘It’s going through my head all the time,’ George said, ‘and as soon as I have finished scoring the next picture, I’m going to rent me a little cabin up in Coldwater Canyon, away from Hollywood, and get the damn thing on paper. It’s about to drive me crazy, it’s so damned full of ideas.’ (Merle Armitage, George Gershwin – Man and Legend, New York, 1958).

The penultimate page in George’s Hollywood ‘Tune Book’ contains this entry:

Suite comments: working class; Idle rich; intolerance; children; Fear; Nature

Was this to be a tonal portrait of his Hollywood experience? To various other friends he confided his plans to write a symphony, and to set the Gettysburg address to music. The most tantalizing unrealised project, however, was the idea of producing another opera with DuBose Heyward. Gershwin wrote to his Porgy collaborator in January 1937, ‘How about planning another opera or operetta for the future?...I am very anxious to start thinking about a serious musicale.’ He had been attracted to a story called The Lights of Lamy (Lamy is a town in New Mexico) which dealt with the clash between Mexican and American cultures. It was written by (Rollie) Lynn Riggs whose 1931 play Green Grow the Lilacs would be adapted in 1943 as the musical Oklahoma! 

As far as Broadway was concerned, there was talk of a collaboration with Robert E Sherwood on a musical ‘cavalcade of American history’; this would have a Rip Van Winkle prologue, followed by a succession of scenes of historical moments, in each of which Rip would awake to experience highlights of the past. More specifically, a musical about creating a musical was in the planning stages. It was to be written with Ira, George S Kaufman, and Moss Hart. The twist was that George, Hart and Kaufman would play themselves; the shy Ira, who had no stage ambitions, would be allowed to be an off-stage voice. Gershwin once said that he had more tunes in his head than he could ever put down on paper. There was no danger of him running out of ideas. 

The ironic thing is that with all his fame, wealth and talent, Gershwin confessed to being ‘profoundly unhappy’. ‘Why?’ he asked his friend Alexander Seinert. A passionate affair with Paulette Goddard (the wife of Charlie Chaplin) left him bereft when she refused to leave Chaplin. ‘Did you know about the awful loneliness he had?’ queried his cousin, the painter Henry Botkin. ‘I remember once he came right out with it and said “Harry, this year [1937] I’ve GOT to get married.” Just like that. Like saying he had to write a new opera or something.’  

It is always a tragedy when someone dies before their time. That tragedy is intensified when a musical genius is snatched from us before they have ‘scratched the surface’. When the world has fed off the fruits of that genius it is hungry for more. Whatever the world has been deprived of in the way of music, we can be sure that Gershwin would have continued to experiment and push the boundaries in both musical theatre and in the concert hall – without ever losing his public. ‘There is no political mission and no crisis of style,’ observed Robin Holloway in an essay marking the 50th anniversary of Gershwin’s death and attempting to evaluate the 20th century’s most popular composer. ‘For low commercial purposes he copiously yields high calibre music, which, immensely appealing to enormous numbers of people immediately and ever since, is problematic only in the attempt to define and evaluate it.’ There is no reason to suppose that Gershwin’s vision, audacity and imagination, unfettered by formal training, would have faltered had he lived. 

Though the copyright of George Gershwin’s purely instrumental works is a somewhat grey area, the Gershwin song catalogue remains an immensely valuable property, even though George died more than 70 years ago, the standard length of copyright. The situation may be different in other countries, but a 2011 amendment to the EU copyright directive (yet to be incorporated into UK law) means that, for copyright purposes in the UK and Europe, works written jointly will not now become public domain until 70 years after the death of the last surviving co-author. Ira outlived his brother by nearly half a century. The Gershwin estate will continue harvesting the song royalties until 2053.

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