Pops Night: The Music of George Gershwin

Saturday, August 17, 2019 , 6:30 PM

Hayman: Armed Forces Medley

Gershwin: Various Selections, Including Rhapsody in Blue

Arranged by Richard Hayman (1920-2014) and Jim Kessler

Armed Services Medley

Following tradition, this evening opens with a tribute to the five divisions of the United States military with this medley of the official songs of each. When the familiar Air Force Song (“Off We Go, Into the Wild, Blue Yonder”) was written by amateur pilot Robert Crawford in 1939, the lyrics established the new, poetic use of the word “yonder.” The oldest of the military songs, The Marines’ Hymn (“From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli”) borrows its theme from Jacques Offenbach’s opera Genvieve de Brabant. The Coast Guard’s 1927 song, “Semper Paratus,” was written by the Captain Francis Saltus van Boskerck, commander of the Bering Sea Forces, on a dilapidated piano, the only such instrument on the Aleutian Islands at the time. Edmund Gruber, lieutenant in the Fifth Field Artillery stationed in the Philippines in 1908, wrote the Army’s march, “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” while waiting for the caissons with ammunition to arrive over hill, over dale. The tribute ends with the Navy’s 1906 march, “Anchors Aweigh.” In 1906, Lieutenant Charles Zimmerman, leader of the Naval Academy band, wrote “Anchors Aweigh” as graduating senior Alfred Miles came up with the lyrics to what became a favorite at the Army-Navy game showdowns over the years.


George Gershwin (1898-1937)

Porgy and Bess (1933-35): Music by George Gershwin, Libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Rhapsody in Blue (1924): Music by George Gershwin, Arranged by Ferde Grofé

“’S Wonderful” (1927): Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin

“I’ve Got a Crush on You” (1928): Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Arranged by Nelson Riddle

“Nice Work If You Can Get It” (1937): Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Arranged by Nelson Riddle

“Embraceable You” from Girl Crazy (1928): Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Arranged by Robert Russell Bennett

Of Thee I Sing Overture (1931): Music by George Gershwin, Arranged by Don Rose

“I Got Rhythm” from Girl Crazy (1928): Music by George Gershwin, Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, Arranged by Robert Russell Bennett


True music must repeat the thought and inspirations of the people and the time. My people are Americans and my time is today.

– George Gershwin


Born in Brooklyn to non-musical Russian immigrants, Gershwin could hardly have imagined early in his life that he would end up feeling equally at home at so many different venues across the bridge: Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and the great concert halls around the city.  His parents originally believed that his brother Ira would be the musical one in the family, but after acquiring a piano for Ira, George took to it immediately and it soon became his focus. While he was still quite young, George Gershwin became a Tin Pan Alley “song-plugger”, demonstrating songs for publishers to sell sheet music. Coming in contact with thousands of songs, he soon began composing his own. His endless gift for melody served him throughout his career. After achieving great success on Broadway, Gershwin began setting his sights on the concert hall, fusing classical and jazz idioms in a wholly original fashion. Towards the end of his life, he pushed into the genre of opera with his masterpiece Porgy and Bess, and he also made an impact in Hollywood with a number of film scores. Though his life was cut short by a brain tumor, Gershwin remains among the most beloved of American composers. Tonight, we hear selections from his vocal and orchestral works, many of which have become ingrained in the American musical vernacular.

Porgy and Bess was Gershwin’s crowning achievement. Boldly adapting DuBose Heyward’s novel and play Porgy, Gershwin produced what he called an American folk opera depicting a slice of life from Catfish Row, a down-and-out African American community in Charleston, South Carolina (based on the actual Cabbage Row in the same town). Completely daring for the time, Gershwin insisted on a cast of African American singers, trained both in jazz and classical singing. While undoubtedly an opera (premiering as such at Carnegie Hall in 1935), Gershwin pared down the work for a Broadway run in 1935-36, where it saw over 100 performances. This first great American opera has since been produced countless times on opera and musical stages, and in movies, recordings and on TV.

We begin with the opening of the Overture featuring the dramatic introduction and a snippet of Jazzbo Brown Piano Blues (which Gershwin had removed from the Broadway production). This is followed by a lush arrangement of the famous lullaby aria “Summertime” which appears throughout the score of Porgy and Bess. To this day, the song is routinely covered by artists from around the world, having been adapted in over 25,000 recordings.

“It Ain’t Necessarily So” was originally sung by Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer in the opera. The song is meant to cast doubt on the veracity of elements of the Bible, to the shock of the Catfish Row residents. Heyward left these lyrics—and in fact all of the crafty Sportin’ Life’s lyrics—to Ira (the unlikely rhyming pair of “liable” and “Bible” is classic Ira!). Heyward did contribute the lyrics to the moving, chromatic lament “My Man’s Gone Now,” sung by Serena after her husband Robbins has been killed by Crown following a craps game gone bad. The music here owes an obvious debt to the African American spiritual.

Gershwin attained widespread popularity early in his career with the Tin Pan Alley genre, but he always aspired to write “art” music. Therefore, when Paul Whiteman approached him with the request to compose a new work, perhaps a “jazz concerto”, for his concert hall program entitled “An Experiment in Modern Music,” Gershwin was intrigued by the idea. Gershwin was busy with a number of other projects at the time, and put the suggestion on the back burner.  The composer was a bit shocked in early January 1924 when he read a newspaper announcement for the concert stating that Gershwin was at work on a new composition that would be featured at the performance in a month. Gershwin contacted Whiteman insisting that there was not enough time for him to complete the work, especially with his limited experience in orchestration. Whiteman offered the services of his own orchestrator Ferde Grofé and Gershwin agreed to give it a try, and the iconic Rhapsody in Blue was born.

Inspiration hit during a train ride from Boston back to New York. Gershwin later explained how the piece came to him:

It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattlety-bang that is often so stimulating to a composer.…  And there I suddenly heard—and even saw on paper—the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end.…  I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America—of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.

Gershwin rushed through the sketch for Grofé, leaving gaps in the solo piano part that he would improvise at the premiere. On February 12, the concert went off without a hitch, launching Gershwin’s concert hall career.

The musical content of the piece is so familiar today that it hardly needs comment. The inspired clarinet bending glissando that opens the piece was Whiteman’s clarinetist Ross Gorman’s idea, and it stuck. The bluesy melodies and jazz rhythms are downright infectious, but we can also hear the 25-year-old composer beginning to find ways of interweaving these elements with the conceptions of thematic development and contrast and formal construction characteristic of a classical score.

“’S Wonderful” was originally composed for the 1927 Broadway hit Funny Face. Ira Gershwin provided the lyrics, giddy with the thrill of new love. The Gershwins worked with another star sibling duo on the show, Fred and Adele Astaire, with Adele singing “’S Wonderful” with co-star Allen Kearns. Thirty years later, Fred Astaire starred alongside Audrey Hepburn in the film adaptation of Funny Face, which saw the two singing “’S Wonderful” as a duet, though the plot of the update was entirely different from the original.

Like “’S Wonderful,” “I’ve Got a Crush on You” began its journey towards iconic status as a jazz standard in a Broadway show, the short-lived Treasure Girl. Salvaging the song from the flop in service of a different flop from the year before, the Gershwins reused “I’ve Got a Crush on You” in their rewrite of Strike Up the Band in 1930, a show that was part romance and part satire (America starts a war with Switzerland over chocolate). The song has been recorded countless times by artists from Sarah Vaughn to Brian Wilson. The warm version on this evening’s program was arranged by Nelson Riddle specifically for Ella Fitzgerald, as was the next number, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”.

The Gershwin standard “Nice Work If You Can Get It” was composed, with lyricist Ira, for the film A Damsel In Distress. Fred Astaire sang the song and also danced one of his most impressive numbers to an instrumental arrangement of it in the film, completing a long, single-shot tap number while simultaneously playing a large drum kit with all four limbs.

Fred Astaire had a connection to “Embraceable You” as well. Gershwin had written the song for an unfinished 1928 musical East is West and decided to refashion it for the 1930 show Girl Crazy. The essentially unknown 19-year-old actor/singer/dancer Ginger Rogers was tasked with singing the song in the show (with Allen Kearns of “’S Wonderful”), choreographed by Astaire. The performance was electric and catapulted Rogers and the song to instant popularity.

Strike Up The Band’s satire was cushioned in the 1930 rewrite, but the Gershwins and the book writers George Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind fully embraced biting political commentary in the 1931 musical Of Thee I Sing, with its story of love between the President-elect and a bride-to-be who happens to bake incredible corn muffins, good enough to sway the Supreme Court to rule in their favor when a beauty queen claims the President for her own. All ends well when the beauty queen ends up with Vice President Throttlebottom. The musical was a box office and critical success, becoming the first musical to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932.

The quintessentially peppy “I’ve Got Rhythm” closes tonight’s program. Like “I’ve Got a Crush”, “I’ve Got Rhythm” began as a song in the flop Treasure Girl, and like “Embraceable You,” it was slotted for a number in the aborted East is West before being brought in for Girl Crazy. The show not only launched the career of Ginger Rogers, but introduced the wider musical community to the 23-year-old Ethel Merman, making her stage debut. Her powerfully upbeat version of “I’ve Got Rhythm” won her the role and made her a star.


Program notes by Jon Kochavi