“Times have changed” is the apt, if clichéd phrase regarding Gershwin’s music. While it appears to have always been praised and vilified in equal measure, the basis for these opposing positions has mutated. In a musical world where eclecticism is celebrated, Gershwin’s wide range of largely unassimilated influences feels more “normal.”
His shifts from a little bit of this to a little bit of that are no longer seen as liabilities that signal a lack of discipline or of the ability to sustain a coherent esthetic. Likewise, any composer who wants to take pride in creating a “third stream” of musical discourse, has to get in line behind the Brooklyn-born composer, originally of rapid-fire Broadway hits.
Yet paradoxically, Gershwin’s gleeful adoption of “vernacular styles” may also chafe against this century’s concept of cultural appropriation. Although I’d argue that, in many ways, Gershwin’s tuneful send-ups of popular styles are fairly sanitized and superficial, you need look no farther than “Porgy and Bess” to find a thorny patch of ethical and esthetic issues I doubt will ever be resolved.
After all, if Gershwin wanted to raise social consciousness, he could as easily have written an opera about the very real underclass of poor white Americans in Appalachia. This alternative “Appalachian Spring” would have offered plenty of folk music traditions of its own to borrow, if borrow he must.
But, of course, appropriation is appropriation, and the real issue is this: If you prize your source material, why choose to adulterate it with oboes, divided strings and Wagner tubas? It’s a question addressable to hundreds of pieces entitled “____ian Dances,” “____ian Rhapsody” or “Suite ____ian.”
And yet, some of these pieces have musical merit. I’m certainly not ready to throw out all of Dvořák on that basis. So where do responsible listeners draw the line? Is it enough to acknowledge that any composers we appreciate were inhabitants of their own time? In a case like Gershwin’s “Cuban Overture” of 1934, (https://tinyurl.com/osppdpzh) need I cringe, just so I can excuse myself for admitting that the piece is often captivating?
True to form, the Overture’s perspective on what’s “Cuban” is riddled with stereotypes. We’re served, I’m sure, a mere patina of mismatched Cuban folk, dance and pop elements, skillfully applied to many of Gershwin’s signature moves. On one level. there’s something unintentionally comic about the composer’s insouciance.
But it would be a mistake to substitute easy cynicism for a nuanced hearing of this lighthearted work. Because beneath the Overture’s slightly silly surface, you can hear Gershwin’s imagination stretching a little farther than perhaps it had before, in terms of sonority and rhythm.
After the first few measures its clear that this is no facile transcription of Xavier Cugat, not to mention Ricky Riccardo. From his awkward beginnings in “Rhapsody in Blue,” a work he didn’t orchestrate, Gershwin now shades over into the outskirts of Debussyville, on the way to fulfilling completely unrelated musical goals.
Regardless, in the unstoppable flow of his inspiration, Gershwin’s talent is unmistakable. It’s easy for jaded elders from a later time to opine about the gifts that greater maturity might have brought to his sense of form. But the wealth of ideas and the sure handling of sonority on a moment-to-moment basis are as startling now as they were 87 years ago. Like the tablecloth of Italian folklore that supplies its owner with abundant meals on command, Gershwin produces textures, melodies and rhythms like magic.
Yes, the result sometimes reminds me of a child’s fascination with soap bubbles. But what Gershwin’s output lacks in seriousness, it makes up for in authenticity, musicality and originality. The word “inimitable” is overused, but I defy anyone to come up with convincing ersatz Gershwin. That’s because, undergirding the fireworks, wisecracking, sentimentality and giddy tunefulness is a rare type of intellectual rigor.
Understanding the origin of the work requires us to reconstruct the short-lived “pan-Americanism” that thrived in the 1930s, though it strangely never encompassed Canada. For a time, a small minority of cultural leaders looked to an infusion of “authentic” culture to do wonders for the pasty-faced USA.
And in that context, a comparison of the “Cuban Overture” to Copland’s “El Salón México” is telling. Keeping in mind that the two composers are reasonably close to polar opposites, it’s no surprise that Copland’s approach to his appropriated material is utterly different from Gershwin’s. Even so, the definition of “Mexican” or “Cuban” in either composer’s mind was likely far out of line with that of an actual resident of either country.
On more familiar ground for Gershwin was his “Variations on ‘I Got Rhythm’,” another in his series of pieces for solo piano and orchestra. Ironically, a recording of the work introduced by the composer shows how his limited worldview infiltrated even such an innocuous work. A little way into his spoken introduction to the piece, you can hear him allude to his “Chinese Variation,” including a passage that imitates “out of tune” Chinese flutes “as they always are.” What can you do? (For better sound quality, you might prefer to listen to the piece here.)
Regardless, here is the composer’s trademark playful sliding in and out of tonality that seems to draw back the curtain on an acoustical illusion more often revered than understood. I’m sure that many classical musicians see this as “stylistic disunity.” But to misunderstand this is to miss the central aspect of Gershwin’s musical language — the systematic avoidance of a fixed point of reference to his thematic materials.
I’d argue that, this avoidance strategy is itself more central to anyone of Gershwin’s instrumental works than any particular theme. It’s the intellectual underpinning that keeps even his more exuberant music from being a shallow showcase of flashy effects.
Or is it just the soul of the bright boy who never fell out of love with shocking his elders? Trouble is, the intensity of the composer’s response to his musical ideas and their progress is too intense, too driven, too sensual for that. Of course, underlying all the second-guessing that goes into most discussion of Gershwin is his dual citizenship in classical space and musical theatre. Would liking Gershwin’s antics knock us off the pedestal of purity forever?
Times have changed, but I still see the asterisk after his name. Never mind. The only question I have is whether, given just a few more years, he might have veered away from writing music “based on” other music and simply opened up the floodgates of his imagination. Or would he have remained, essentially, like a potter, always seeking a good supply of “clay”?
Mark Laporta is a musician, composer and novelist. His new novel, Entropy Refraction, published by Chickadee Prince Books, is available in paperback at a bookstore near you, from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or on Kindle. Or listen to his musical compositions here.