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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

May 3, 2016: Classical Music Icons: The Gershwins

[On May 5th, 1891, Carnegie Hall—first known as Music Hall—opened in New York City. In the 125 years since, the hall has become synonymous with classical music in America. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five iconic figures from that tradition, leading to a special weekend tribute to some 21st century classical musicians and composers!]
On the lesser-known careers and works of the other two Gershwin siblings.
If yesterday’s subject Aaron Copland has competition for the title of the most influential American classical composer, it’d have to be the talented brothers Ira (1896-1983) and George (1898-1937) Gershwin. Although each produced significant and enduring works on his own (with George’s Rhapsody in Blue [1924) a particular stand out), between 1924 and George’s untimely death in 1937 the brothers collaborated on almost all their projects. The results of this incredibly fruitful period include the greatest American opera (Porgy and Bess [1934], on the lyrics for which Ira collaborated with novelist DuBose Heyward) and many works that remain on the short list of most influential American songs (such as “I Got Rhythm” and “Someone to Watch over Me”). I’m not here to dispute the seminal importance of these two most famous Gershwin siblings—but it’s worth noting that their younger brother and sister were also a composer and dancer/performer (respectively), with careers that offer their own additions to our narratives of American classical and popular music.
The second sentence in the Wikipedia page on Arthur Gershwin (1900-1981) nicely illustrates the challenging expectations faced by Ira and George’s younger brother: “Although he was a composer, he was not a professional musician, and made his living as a stockbroker.” In fact, as his New York Times obituary noted, Arthur retired from stockbroking in 1938 to try for a full-time composing career, and he did achieve a few significant 1940s successes before health forced his early retirement in the 50s. The most notable of these was the comic musical A Lady Says Yes (1945), which features sequences in both 1545 and 1945, wedding a contemporary wartime setting with imagined sequences in Renaissance Venice to consider romance, relationships, and gender roles in both worlds. It seems to me no coincidence that for his one produced musical Arthur strayed far afield, in both topic and form, from the popular hits his brothers had penned over the prior two decades. Indeed, while his brothers’ collaborative works are deeply ingrained in American settings and communities, Arthur’s musical focuses on an American officer abroad (in the war’s Pacific theater) who then imagines himself in an even more dramatically distant sphere. I doubt very much Arthur ever felt himself out of Ira and George’s shadow, but Lady certainly occupies its own territory.
As you mght expect, that dynamic of expectations and shadows seems to have weighed even heavier on the trio’s sister, Frances Gershwin Godowsky (1906-1999). Frances was actually the first sibling to perform professionally, touring as a dancer with the children’s musical Daintyland when she was only 11 years old. But by the 1920s she was mostly utilizing her talents as a test singer and dancer for her brothers’ songs and musicals in production, and when she married family friend and future Kodachrome inventor Leopold Godowsky Jr. (himself a violinist and the son of an acclaimed pianist) in 1930 her own musical career was relegated even further down on the list of priorities. In later years she took up painting and sculpture with a good deal of success (one more reflection of her own artistic talents), only returning to the world of music for the 1975 tribute album Frances Sings for George and Ira and performances thereafter. Yet in all those areas—dancing and singing, painting and sculpture—it’s perhaps most accurate to say that Frances, like Arthur, complemented the careers and genres of her more famous brothers, reflecting the genuine musical and artistic diversity of this supremely talented American family.
Next icon tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other classical music greats you’d highlight?

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