Gershwin (1898-1937) - Piano Concerto
Allegro: A percussion “fanfare” and Charleston-style syncopations combine
orchestral introduction and first subject, while the soloist takes the
blues-like second subject. Gershwin tempers the profligate confusion of
in Blue by formality, but by favouring strictly alternating variation-form
over sonata-form, he creates “playgrounds” where he can wax lyrical - and
cut loose. The fanfare both “closes” the form and fires off the firecracker
Adagio, andante con moto: “In the still of the steamy night, a sad
and lonely blues drifts out of a third-floor tenement window” is the near-inescapable
image evoked at the outset of this single-theme variations movement. The
soloist's up-tempo variation breaks the spell by casting another, entirely
different spell, just one of a string of astonishingly imaginative “takes”
that culminates in an almost inevitable “big tune” treatment, before melting
away into nocturnal haze.
Allegro agitato: Hot Jazz grabs centre-stage in what sounds like a
rondo, feels like a rondo - but “ain't no rondo”! Roughly, it's an “alternating
variations with interpolated reminiscences”: [A-X1-A]-B-A-[B-Y1-B]-A-[Y2]-B-[A-X1-A]-X2,
where [A] and [B] are the main subjects, X1 and X2 are the first movement's
“big tune” and percussion “fanfare”, and Y1 and Y2 are the second's romantic
and up-beat “takes”. Save figuring out the logic (if any there be) for
afterwards, - I'm just using it to emphasize the dazzling, dizzy succession
of events that flash by in a mere six minutes of hyperactive invention:
this is Gershwin on the razzle!
that as prima facie evidence, let's consider a report in the New
York Musical Crimes, dated 4/12/1925:
following the premiere of his Piano Concerto in F, George Gershwin
was arrested, charged with wilful corruption of a classical form. Walter
Damrosch, the NYPSO's conductor, was arraigned for complicity as commissioner
of the work. The DA's office said that Gershwin had knowingly insulted
the classical audience's sensitivities by serving up rehashed jazz, and
it didn't help that he had also bugged his Broadway and Tin Pan Alley buddies
by selling out to the snobs.
last year, Gershwin evaded a similar charge on a technicality - Rhapsody
in Blue was performed at a Jazz, rather than Classical, concert. The
DA is confident that this time his case is pretty watertight - Gershwin
has actually called his piece a 'concerto', scoring it himself for full
symphony orchestra. Allegedly, Gershwin flouted the rules, according to
testimony from ear-witnesses saying that structure-wise he was flying by
the seat of his pants, and couldn't 'carry an argument'. Even Gershwin's
lawyer admits that the movements are just variations with no symphonic
logic, but adds defensively, ‘Hey, they're goddamned fine tunes, is all’.
The DA agrees that, sure, the tunes are OK - for Broadway - but Charleston,
Blues and Jazz have no place on American concert platforms.
one looks set to run, so the lawyers here at NYC are keeping close tabs.
Because classical composers over in Europe are using jazz already, they
reckon the case won't ride on 'good taste' but be down to the increasingly
loose legal definitions: following that hosiery case, they say these days
anything goes, so it's possible the judge will throw out the case on the
grounds that if the guy says his piece is a concerto then hey, if it's
got a soloist, that's what it is and it's up to the audiences to decide
if it's a good one. Our on-the-spot reporter reckons it's a bum rap - Gershwin
is being picked on just because he's a Brooklyn jazz-man, adding, ‘Shucks
fellas, this guy knocked me sideways. He was terrific, his music was terrific.
This has gotta be the American Way; get some real pezazz in there
to liven it up. Ya know, I'd bet in 75 years' time it'll be wowing 'em,
even in Huddersfield, England.’ We'd also bet on that, bud, but say, where
the hell is Huddersfield, anyway?”
was well aware of his limitations, and (I think) cannily chose these simple
variational forms precisely because they suited his strengths - especially
his innate melodic fertility and the improvisatory skills he honed in his
youth as a piano player at Remick's Music Store. Even with the odd original
twist, the formal bones were really just a convenient hook on which to
hang the good, red meat that assured the Piano Concerto's place
in the repertoire, even in li'l ole Huddersfield, England.
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
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