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March 28, 2007

William D. Rubinstein asks, should anyone be surprised that a genius such as George Gershwin was a flawed human being? The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin - Joan Peyser

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin
by Joan Peyser
Originally published - New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993
Revised edition - Pp. 320. Milwaukee: Hall-Leonard, 2006
Paperback, 12.95

George Gershwin (1898-1937) is probably the most famous American composer; he was also, perhaps, the greatest. Previous biographies of Gershwin have generally depicted him as a hero who could do no wrong, who, of course, died tragically of a brain tumour as the age of only thirty-eight when he was still at the height of his powers. Joan Peyser's interesting and valuable biography has been described as "iconoclastic", and it certainly reveals a very different picture of the man. First published in 1993, it has now reappeared in a revised edition.

Gershwin, it seems, was a chronic melancholic plagued by perpetual self-doubt that deeply affected his self-esteem. But he was also an extreme narcissist whose profound and disturbing egomania, and obliviousness to the feelings of others, were probably engendered by his domineering and equally selfish mother. Gershwin was an ever-vigorous womanizer who, though never married, had innumerable affairs and fathered at least one and probably two illegitimate children when that was considered profoundly scandalous. Characteristically, he treated his illegitimate son shockingly, in a manner totally devoid of warmth. He was also probably a sexual masochist who enjoyed being whipped.

Gershwin's profound self-doubts stemmed in large measure from the fact that America's leading "serious" composers, while acknowledging his innovative energy, regarded him as a crude, uncouth Tin Pan Alley songwriter rather than as a composer of concert music. Seldom far away, Gershwin's over-protective family threw a barrier around him and his image rewriting his early history and even failing to acknowledge the symptoms of his fatal brain tumour, which were apparently quite evident years before his death, ignored and misdiagnosed.

One of the more shocking themes in Peyser's book is the near-contempt with which Gershwin was regarded by well-known serious American composers, even long after his death. Perhaps the most disturbing of all was Aaron Copland (1900-90), probably Gershwin's main rival, along with Samuel Barber, as the greatest twentieth-century American composer. Gershwin and Copland came from virtually identical backgrounds: both were born to recent Russian Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, and neither attended a university. Because Copland wrote his best-known works fifteen or twenty years after Gershwin, it is easy to forget that they were almost exact contemporaries, Copland being only two years younger than Gershwin.

But there were also significant differences: while Gershwin was largely self-taught, Copland studied in Paris under Nadia Boulanger. The two men met only once, when they were introduced by a mutual friend. "Little was said", he later recalled. Copland always avoided mentioning Gershwin. When asked point-blank in the 1970s what he thought of him, Copland replied that "He was a good Broadway composer". Other American composers, like Virgil Thompson, apparently held him in low esteem, and the premiers of his famous works always received surprisingly mixed reviews. Oddly, major European composers were much friendlier, and many of the twentieth-century greats, including Ravel, Stravinsky, and Schoenberg (who all knew him personally) were his fans. Schoenberg, strangely, became a close friend when they both lived in California.

Obviously, jealousy underpinned the attitude of many American composers to their local Golden Boy, who was world-famous by the time he was twenty-seven or so. In this, as in much else, Gershwin is strongly reminiscent of Mozart, and the parallels between the two are apparent.

Gershwin not only wrote his famous concert pieces like Rhapsody In Blue but dozens of popular Tin Pan Alley and Broadway hits. With Richard Rogers, Gershwin was certainly the very greatest composer of standard hit songs of the first half of the twentieth century, both the quality and quantity exceeding the many other very great popular American songwriters of the 1920-55 golden age, most notably Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, Vincent Youmans, Hoagy Carmichael, and Frank Loesser. (About half of these greats were immigrant American Jews from New York, all born between about 1885 and 1910, truly a brilliant wellspring of popular musical talent.)

There was no falling off in Gershwin's songwriting ability even at the very end: the last songs he wrote, just before his death, such as They Can't Take That Away From Me, Love Walked In, and Our Love Is Here to Stay, were among his very greatest.

With his serious compositions, however, Gershwin arguably did experience a decline. He spent in my view excessive time and energy working, in the 1930s, on Porgy and Bess, his famous opera. I have personally never cared for it very much, although, to be fair, it is probably the only American opera in the standard repertoire. To me, however, its music does seem to have marked something of a decline. Gershwin, in fact, never wrote a genuinely important and serious concert piece during the last six or seven years of his life. His last serious concert work, his Second Rhapsody of 1931, was virtually unknown and unrecorded for many years. In the past, I have discussed this piece with knowledgeable musicologists who had literally never heard of it, although it is a very good and neglected work, now much more readily available than in the past.

Gershwin's songs during the last part of his life also became increasingly serious, even stately, lacking the abandoned optimism of his songs written in the 1920s. Whether this change was because of personal factors, especially the loss of self-esteem or intuition of declining health, or was a reflection of wider events, particularly the Depression and, perhaps, the rise of Nazism, is unclear. It is interesting to note that this change to a slower, statelier style is also noticeable in the popular songs of many other songwriters of the 1920s and 1930s who composed in both decades.

Many have speculated, of course, on what Gershwin would have done had he lived. He apparently planned to write a string quartet and, it is said, had become interested in Polynesian music. Rather bizarrely, he was also studying atonal music with Arnold Schoenberg. No one knows. It seems certain that the War would have affected him very greatly had he lived, as would no doubt the post-war era of conformism and the emergence of rock-n-roll. (Had Gershwin lived to be eighty, he would have died only in 1978.) How many memorable works were lost forever when Gershwin collapsed and died of a brain tumour it is impossible to say. Again, the parallels with Mozart are clear.

Peyser's book is not easily forgotten, although it has some negatives. She is not always a particularly good writer, and what she writes is sometimes confusing. There are a good many questionable statements in her book - for instance (p. 104) that Gershwin, in 1925, was the first American to appear on the cover of Time magazine - and many places where one would have wanted to read more detailed information. Nevertheless, it is an important portrait of a genius who, as is almost always the case, turns out to have been a flawed human being. Should anyone be surprised?

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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A most interesting article. Moreover, the fact that such different composers as Gershwin and Copland both come over as quintessentially American serves to highlight how America really is a BI-I-IG country.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at March 28, 2007 05:01 PM
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Surely it's already clear that Gershwin towers over Copeland.

Posted by: dearieme at March 29, 2007 08:40 PM
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Proof positive of his minor status: people even mis-spell his name.

Posted by: dearieme at March 30, 2007 02:28 PM
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