Masterworks 1George Gershwin 1898-1937

George Gershwin (1898-1937)
An American in Paris

Although jazz evolved in New Orleans in the early part of the last century from ragtime and the blues, it was in Europe, where American dance bands were popular, that classical composers first incorporated the new idiom into their concert works. Among the best known are Claude Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk (1908); Igor Stravinsky's Ragtime (1918); and especially Darius Milhaud's ballet La création du monde (The Creation of the World) (1923).

The son of poor Jewish immigrants in lower Manhattan, George Gershwin was a natural-born pianist and left school at 16 to become a pianist with a Tin-Pan Alley firm, plugging their new songs. He soon commenced writing songs himself, eventually teaming up with his brother Ira as lyricist to become one of the most successful teams of song and musical comedy writers on Broadway. They created a string of immensely successful musicals from Lady be Good in December 1924 to Let ‘em Eat Cake in October 1933. The opening night of a George Gershwin musical comedy was a social and media event with Gershwin himself usually leading the orchestra. Gershwin was the first American composer to make jazz acceptable to American classical music audience.

The performance of his Rhapsody in Blue at the concerts of band leader Paul Whiteman in 1924 made history as a groundbreaker. It was however his Concerto in F, commissioned by Walter Damrosch for the New York Symphony and premiered in December 1925 that was the first large-scale jazz composition in a traditionally classical form.

Gershwin composed An American in Paris in 1928 on a commission from the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York. It is a jazz-based tone poem inspired by the composer’s trip to France where he attempted to study with, among others, Maurice Ravel and Stravinsky. Both declined. Ravel was supposed to have said: “Why be a second-rate Ravel when you are a first-rate Gershwin?” The work captures the sound and spirit of post-World-War-I Paris where such American bohemians as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway – and their fictional characters – went to lose (and rediscover) themselves.

According to the composer, “The piece is really a rhapsodic ballet, written very portray the impressions of an American visitor as he strolls around the city. ” But Gershwin added, “...the individual listener can read into the music such episodes as his imagination pictures for him.” But then for the program book at the premiere, composer Deems Taylor wrote with Gershwin’s approval a different scenario, involving a detailed description of the tourist’s day adrift in the City of Light; which comes to prove that the music came first, explanation later.

An American in Paris has had a strong influence on a certain type of American music. Leonard Bernstein’s musical On the Town, is an expanded version chronicling a day in the lives of two American sailors on leave in New York during World War II. But even more persistent has been Gershwin’s hustle-bustle evocation of busy Parisian life that has been used in so many film scores as to become iconic “city” music.

Ironically, the best way to approach this lighthearted piece is by identifying little motives – almost like Wagnerian Leitmotivs – and observe how Gershwin weaves them in and out of the larger musical fabric. An American in Paris opens with a busy "city" motive. Example 1 Then we get the "honking" motive, for which the composer imported real Paris taxi horns for the premiere. Example 2 The next bit may have a French origin but; Example 3 the words became a classic summer camp song in the 50s: "My mom gave me a nickel/ to buy a pickle/ I didn't buy no pickle/I bought some choo'n gum." After a little clarinet theme, Example 4 a snaky transition passage also keeps cropping up. Example 5 Gershwin had a kind of musical sleight of hand that allowed him to make a 20-minute piece out of just a handful of musical ideas; consider the way he morphs the chewing gum motive Example 6

While An American in Paris had no pretensions to be a classic symphonic statement, it still needed a "big theme" à la Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. When it finally shows up halfway through the piece, we realize that everything before was just a frenetic lead-in to this sexy trumpet solo. Example 7 After this "romantic" interlude, which takes up most of the second part, things get a bit raunchier with this little two-step. Example 8 Gershwin develops these two themes, although with somewhat less flexibility than the short motives from the first part, largely because he was dealing with full-fledged themes. In a coda/recapitulation, Gershwin brings everything back on stage for one last juggle.

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)
Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand

Called up for military service at the outbreak of World War I, Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) was immediately sent to the Russian front. He was soon wounded, lost his right arm, and became a prisoner of war in Siberia.

Wittgenstein was one of eight children of a wealthy steel manufacturer (his youngest brother was the famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), and after his repatriation in 1916, he decided to continue his solo career despite the loss of his right arm. Since the available literature for piano left hand was limited, he commissioned some of the best-known composers of the period to write works adapted to his disability. Among them were Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Sergey Prokofiev, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Richard Strauss and Ravel. Some of the commissions he found too modern and refused to play – although he did pay the composers; he hid the score for Hindemith’s work in his study where it lay until after his widow’s death in 2002.

Ravel began work on the concerto in the spring of 1929 and finished it in December 1930. Wittgenstein premiered it in Vienna in 1932. The concerto, in one movement, is a virtuosic piece, somewhat Lisztian in character, but softened by Ravel's innate feeling for elegance, restraint and proportion. As in the Piano Concerto in G major, Ravel's love of jazz is discernable throughout and reflects the popularity of jazz in the Paris of the 1920s.

In the Concerto, Ravel exploits the full range of the piano. The single movement also reflects the tripartite tradition of the genre with clear-cut tempo changes (Lento-Allegro-Lento). It opens with an orchestral introduction in which Ravel uses a technique that he had employed to great effect in La Valse and Bolero: beginning pianissimo with only a few instruments, he builds tension by increasing volume and gradually adding the instruments to culminate in a massive orchestral climax.

Although the themes are brief, the buildup is extensive. The Concerto opens in the grumbling depths of the cellos, basses accompanying the contrabassoon, which – almost indiscernibly – introduces the first of the themes. Example 1 Next to be added are the horns with another theme, a repetition of a descending minor third. Example 2 The piano entry is a cadenza, a virtuosic demonstration of the pianist’s prowess with what is usually the non-dominant hand, as well as a clear statement of the first theme. Example 3 Among the most amazing aspects of the concerto as a whole is Ravel’s writing for the piano so that an uninformed listener would hear it as if played by both hands, as here in the third theme. Example 4 The effect is similar to that employed by Bach in the solo violin partitas, where broken chords fill out the harmony and the listener retains the sound of the fade of one note as if it were present to accompany the next.

The middle section of the Concerto represents a complete change of mood and, frankly, less of a technical challenge for the soloist. Structured like a true movement with multiple themes, it begins as a lively jazzy 6/8 march introduced by the piano. Example 5 A contrasting theme belongs to the upper winds. Example 6 The climax of this section combines the march with the descending third horn theme from the opening section. Example 7

After another orchestral climax, Ravel begins his third section with the horn theme and a varied recapitulation of themes from the preceding sections, although excluding the opening theme, which he had already developed at length. If the jazz elements throughout the body of the Concerto seem fleeting and elusive, Ravel morphs into Gershwin as his parting shot. Example 8

To Ravel's chagrin, Wittgenstein took many liberties with the score, maintaining that "performers should not be slaves." Ravel's petulant retort: "Performers are slaves".

Sergey Prokofiev 1891-1953Sergey Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat major, Op. 100

Following the German invasion of Russia in 1941, prominent Soviet artists, including Sergey Prokofiev, were evacuated from Moscow. They were relocated first to the Caucasus and later, when that area became endangered, further east into Central Asia and Siberia. All these wanderings, however, did not hinder Prokofiev from accomplishing a prodigious amount of work: Music for the film Ivan the Terrible and four other films, the opera War and Peace, the Second String Quartet, the Seventh and Eighth Piano Sonatas, the ballet Cinderella, and the Flute Sonata.

With the turn in the fortunes of the war in the winter 1943-44, Prokofiev was able to return to Moscow and immediately set about composing his Symphony No.5, conducting the premiere in Moscow in January 1945. It was a time of national elation as the Soviet Union anticipated the impending victory over Nazi Germany. The composer considered the work a milestone: “I was returning to the symphonic form after a break of sixteen years. The Fifth Symphony is the culmination of an entire period in my work. I conceived it as a symphony on the greatness of the human soul.” Whether this comment represents his true intent or a statement for official consumption we will never know.

Mindful of the Soviet authorities, Prokofiev used in the Symphony the patriotic, “officially-sanctioned” language that he had used in the dramatic works of the late 1930s and early 1940s, such as Alexander Nevsky. His model was Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5, in which traditional symphonic structure, broad dramatic themes and conservative harmonies – the “Soviet reality” demanded by the authorities – still allowed for a strong personal expression.

Prokofiev conducted the premiere of the Symphony in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatory on January 13, 1945, in what turned out to be his last appearance as a conductor and one of the most dramatic premieres ever. Everybody who was anybody was in the audience. The event is best described in the words of pianist Sviatoslav Richter: “The Great Hall was illuminated, no doubt, as it always was, but when Prokofiev stood up, the light seemed to pour straight down on him from somewhere up above. He stood like a monument on a pedestal. And then, when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned in the hall, artillery salvos suddenly thundered forth. His baton was raised. He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something very significant in this – something symbolic.” The salvo was a tribute to the Red Army which that day crossed the Vistula in its march into Germany. A few days later Prokofiev suffered a fall and concussion never to regain his full health.

Like Shostakovich, Prokofiev’s stock declined in the West during the period of the Cold War, not so much with music directors and the public, but rather in the music academies, where strict atonality and the austere twelve-tone works of Schoenberg and his disciples reigned supreme. The issue was less one of political ideology than musical; the trend setting composers of the West regarded the tonal, melodic style of the Russians passé in the relentless onward progression of “serious” music.

The eminently singable themes of the Fifth Symphony have made it, along with the First, the most popular of Prokofiev’s instrumental works. It is one of the symphonic repertory’s most dazzlingly orchestrated works with wonderful solos, section solos and brilliant percussion writing. As befitted the occasion, the Symphony opens with a grand Andante movement with a sweeping main theme Example 1 introduced by a solo flute but gradually supported by the timpani and brass. True to convention, the most important secondary theme provides a more flowing, less majestic contrast. Example 2

The second movement provides a sharp contrast, a Scherzo marked Allegro marcato consisting of two main themes that are passed around the orchestra. Example 3 & Example 4 The Trio featuring the upper winds temporarily slows the pace, Example 5 but a new theme brings in more lively orchestral solos. Example 6 The transition back to the Scherzo begins slowly, gradually accelerating and building up momentum.

Like Mozart and his own colleague Shostakovich, Prokofiev was a master of the gut wrenching slow movement. But the Adagio of the Fifth Symphony is not an intimate expression; in its formality it is more funereal, perhaps recalling the millions of Russian fallen. It is in conventional ABA form, the first part a gentle, sinuous extended phrase over pianissimo triplets in the violins with cellos and basses bowed to sound like deep Russian cathedral bells. Example 7 The second section includes the first instance in this work of typically Russian folk-like themes and builds to a climax marked now more clearly with the sound of the tolling bells. Example 8 The return to the first theme is varied but recaptures the contemplative mood of the opening.

A quiet reprise, a variation on the opening of the Symphony serves as an introduction to the Finale, Example 9 an exultant celebration. Three principal themes are introduced in the upper winds, the clarinet for the first, Example 10 the oboe the second Example 11 and the flute for the third. Example 12 A fourth “Russian” theme, closely related to the middle section of the Adagio movement, belongs to the lower strings and becomes an important figure in the climatic conclusion of the Symphony. Example 13 While the first part of the movement is fairly subdued, it is clear that the composer had deliberately saved the biggest sound for last. The coda alone lasts a full two minutes, a buildup of tension using a gradual crescendo that adds more and more instruments, delayed harmonic resolution and an unexpected final pianissimo – all over an ostinato in the violins and upper winds – leading up to the final “big bang.” Example 14

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn