Compact Discoveries
a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2003 by Fred Flaxman

Program 31
"A Gershwin Tribute"

MUSIC: Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue (excerpt), Paul Whiteman Orchestra, Gershwin, piano [RCA Victor 09026 63276-2, track 1] down and under:

FLAXMAN: Hello and welcome to Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman, and I have a very special treat for you this hour. We are going to go back in time to July 10th, 1938, and listen to a memorial broadcast honoring George Gershwin on the eve of the first anniversary of the composer's premature death on July 11, 1937.

The broadcast starred Jane Froman, Felix Knight, Sonny Schuyler and the Victor Salon Group, conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret. The concert was later released on 78 rpm records, and now it is available on an RCA Victor, BMG Classics compact disc. We'll hear the entire CD in a moment, but first a few words about George Gershwin.

MUSIC: out

FLAXMAN: Gershwin succeeded in everything he attempted, from piano playing to composing music for Broadway musicals, Hollywood films, and the world's concert halls and opera houses.

I think it's safe to say that his music appeals to more people than any other American composer, before or since. The popular music he wrote in the 1920s and 30s is still popular today. The concert music he wrote during his all-too-brief lifetime still attracts large concert audiences.

His popular music has joined the classics; his classical music is very popular. He has bridged any gap between the two. And he has combined musical styles and influences - including African-American jazz and blues, French, Russian, Latin-American, and Jewish folk music - into something that is, paradoxically, truly unique and original. He was, in my view at least, the greatest tune writer since Schubert.

MUSIC: excerpt from Gershwin: Embraceable You, arranged by Earl Wild, performed by Richard Glazier [Centaur CRC 2271, track 1] [down and under]

FLAXMAN: Just think about some of the melodies he wrote: The Man I Love, Embraceable You, I Got Rhythm, Bidin, My Time, Summertime, Swanee, Somebody Loves Me, Someone to Watch Over Me, Do Do Do, Fascinatin' Rhythm, S'Wonderful, Strike Up the Band, Bess You Is My Woman Now, and Ain't Necessarily So. And that's just mentioning some of the songs you'll hear in this hour.

Or think about the great melodies found throughout George Gershwin's concert works: Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, Concerto in F, his Preludes for Piano.

MUSIC: out

FLAXMAN: George Gershwin was born Jacob Gershowitz on September 26, 1898, in Brooklyn, New York. He was the son of Jewish immigrants. His parents purchased a piano for his brother, Ira, who was two years older and who was later to become the lyricist for most of George's songs.

MUSIC: Gershwin playing excerpt from Someone to Watch Over Me [Naxos 8.120510, track 7]

FLAXMAN: George took to the piano right away, teaching himself how to play by ear. His parents later got him a piano teacher and he began to study the instrument seriously when he was 12.

By the time he was 18 he was a good enough pianist and site-reader of sheet music to get a job as a "song plugger," in "Tin Pan Alley," a street in Manhattan where aspiring composers and song writers would bring their scores to a publisher in hopes of selling the tunes for cash. George would play the sheet music to promote its sale to buyers.

MUSIC: out

FLAXMAN: Two years after he started work for the Jerome Remick Company, his first original song was published. But that song, When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em was not an instant hit.
MUSIC: excerpt from Gershwin playing When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em [Elektra Nonesuch 9 79287-2]

FLAXMAN: An excerpt from George Gershwin's piano roll recording of his first published piece, When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em, When You've Got 'Em, You Don't Want 'Em.

Gershwin's first big hit was a tune which got incorporated into a Broadway musical called Sinbad and sung by a famous singer of the period, Al Jolson. It was called Swanee. Here's how that sounded as sung by Al Jolson himself.

MUSIC: Gershwin: Swanee as sung by Al Jolson [Naxos 8.120635, track 3]

FLAXMAN: Al Jolson singing Swanne, George Gershwin's first big hit.

In 1919, Gershwin composed the music for his first full musical: La, La Lucille, and from 1920 to 1924 he supplied several songs for the George White Scandals musical reviews.

As part of one of the Scandals, Gershwin wrote a brief operetta called Blue Monday. That music caught the ear of Paul Whiteman, one of the most famous bandleaders of the period. Whiteman commissioned Gershwin to write a symphonic jazz piece to be played at the opening of Aeolian Hall along with other new works under his direction. That work turned out to be Rhapsody in Blue. It was written in less than three weeks.

Here's an excerpt from the 1924 recording made by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra with George Gershwin himself as the piano soloist.

MUSIC: excerpt from Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra and George Gershwin at the piano [RCA Victor 09026 63276-2, track 1] down and under:

FLAXMAN: An excerpt from George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra and the composer at the piano, originally recorded in 1924, and released much more recently on an RCA Victor BMG Classics compact disc.

It was only after the immediate success of Rhapsody in Blue that the full-scale collaboration of George and Ira Gershwin as composer and lyricist began with the musical Lady Be Good! Tip-Toes, Oh Kay!, Strike Up the Band, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, and Of Thee I Sing followed. These musicals include some of Gershwin's most well-known songs.

MUSIC: Gershwin: Prelude No. 1 for Piano played by George Gershwin [Naxos 8.120510, track 13] down and under:

FLAXMAN: A lover of classical music, Gershwin decided to try his hand at some more long-form pieces. The Concerto in F emerged in 1925, the Three Preludes for Piano in 1926, and An American in Paris in 1928.

George and Ira Gershwin moved to Hollywood in 1930, where they composed songs for the movies. The first of their films was called The King of Jazz. It starred Bing Crosby and included the Rhapsody in Blue. Then came Delicious, a film version of Girl Crazy, and Shall We Dance.

MUSIC: excerpt from opening of Gershwin: Porgy and Bess with Simon Rattle conducting the Glyndebourne Festival Opera and the London Philharmonic [EMI Classics 7243 5 56220 2, CD1, track 1] down and under:

FLAXMAN: During the Hollywood years George Gershwin wrote his Second Rhapsody, which premiered in 1931, and the Cuban Overture, which premiered the next year. Neither were great successes. But the greatest disappointment of his career was yet to come: his American opera, Porgy and Bess. It opened in 1935 and closed shortly afterwards when box office sales couldn't support the show's costs. The opera only became popular after Gershwin's death, and has since become the most successful opera ever written by an American composer.

MUSIC: out

FLAXMAN: By 1937 Gershwin was suffering from more and more severe headaches and dizzy spells. When he started to forget portions of his piano pieces while performing them, friends and family encouraged him to see a doctor. On July 9, after being weak and dazed for days, he fell into a coma. A spinal tap performed the following day established the presence of a brain tumor, and it was decided that an emergency operation was the only hope.

Early on July 11 he had part of the tumor removed. But about five hours after the operation, Gershwin died without regaining consciousness, two months short of his 39th birthday anniversary. Two gigantic funeral ceremonies, one in Hollywood, the other in New York, on July 15,1937, demonstrated the loss felt by Americans at his passing.

A year later, on July 10, 1938, this memorial concert with Jane Froman, Nathaniel Shilkret and the Victor Salon Group, was broadcast nationwide.

MUSIC: Magic Key Program: Gems from Gershwin [RCA Victor 09026-63275-2, tracks 1-10] [42:22]

FLAXMAN: A memorial broadcast honoring George Gershwin on the eve of the first anniversary of the composer's premature death on July 11, 1937. The July 10, 1938 broadcast starred Jane Froman, Felix Knight, Sonny Schuyler and the Victor Salon Group, conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret. The concert was later released on 78 rpm records, and now it is available on an RCA Victor, BMG Classics compact disc.

MUSIC: excerpt from Gershwin playing his Prelude No. 2 [Naxos 8.120510, track 14] down and under:

FLAXMAN: This is Fred Flaxman thanking you for listening to Compact Discoveries. Please let me have your comments on this program or the Compact Discoveries series in general. You can contact me by e-mail at compactdiscoveries@fredflaxman.com. That's all one word and Flaxman is spelled f-l-a-x-m-a-n: compactdiscoveries@fredflaxman.com. You might also enjoy the Compact Discoveries website at www.fredflaxman.com. There you'll find lots of Compact Discoveries articles.

Compact Discoveries is written, produced, recorded and edited by your guide, Fred Flaxman. It is a production of WXEL-FM, West Palm Beach, Florida.

MUSIC: up, then out at 58:00.

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