Brian Wilson’s album is a new take on favorite Gersh-win songs, as arranged and sung by the great Beach Boys songwriter, and includes two brand-new songs that Wilson assembled from Gersh-win’s uncompleted manuscripts. Larry Starr teaches music history at the University of Washington, and George Gersh-win is a volume in the Yale Broadway Masters Series. As such, and despite its title, it focuses on Gershwin’s Broadway hits, especially Of Thee I Sing, Porgy and Bess, and Lady, Be Good! Porgy and Bess, as Starr admits, defies categorization but is included in the Broadway set as representing the pinnacle of Gershwin’s musical/dramatic development. Starr’s book shows a deep and passionate knowledge of George Gersh-win; Brian Wilson’s album does not.
This reviewer first encountered Starr’s Gershwin work in the 1999 essay collection The Gershwin Style. I wished, at the time, that Starr had written the whole book. His essay was a brief but brilliant defense of Gersh-win’s “classical” compositions (Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, etc.) against the common academic criticism that they’re too unsophisticated and pop music-like to be taken seriously. That point of view, championed by self-conscious and less fluent composers—Starr takes on Leonard Bernstein, especially—has long prevailed in the world of “art” music, where Gershwin is seen as a talented tunesmith. Starr begins with a case in point: He recalls his first keyboard audition as a college music major. The student who played before him had performed Gershwin’s second piano prelude; the instructor said, “Well, that’s very nice. Now can you play something serious?”
Which reminds me of my own experience as a music major at Yale. The required history course on 20th-century music didn’t include a single Gersh-win piece, and Gershwin was mentioned only once—as one of Arnold Schoenberg’s tennis partners in Los Angeles. American scholars’ disdain for Gersh-win makes a remarkable contrast to his “dominating, persistent presence . . . in American musical culture,” Starr writes: Gershwin wanted to be “a musical spokesman for his country,” and he succeeded. None of his contemporaries so thoroughly embodied the spirit of America between the wars, and none has remained so popular today. Gershwin himself described American life (and, implicitly, his own music) as “nervous, hurried, syncopated, ever accelerando, and slightly vulgar.” Starr writes that “there is a terrific feeling of healthiness to Gershwin’s art.” Gershwin’s music is always vibrant, the perfect accompaniment for, say, bounding down the streets of Manhattan.
Academics, however, don’t just ignore Gershwin’s popular success; they hold it against him. Gershwin didn’t have the classical European training of Aaron Copland, for example. (Copland studied with Nadia Boulanger, who refused to take on Gershwin, observing that she had nothing to teach him.) Gershwin’s music is unconventional and follows no abstract doctrine. Even his purely popular music cannot be classed as swing or ragtime or jazz or blues; he is unique. That ordinary people like him is the final nail in the coffin: Whatever merit might attach to his “classical” works is spoiled for the profs by huge popular success.
Starr’s book elevates, perhaps even inaugurates, discussion of Gershwin as a serious composer deserving serious study, and the author explains that he has aimed to produce a book for the general reader as well as the student or scholar. The pace is as brisk as Gersh-win’s music and nicely balances forward movement and in-depth focus. The scholarship is vigorous and original and gives a clear account of the development of Gershwin’s artistic vision. This is for people who want to understand the music: its originality, lasting appeal, and power. It is not a biography. Starr opens with sketches of important events in Gershwin’s life, but those who want more detail are referred to the standard biographers: Isaac Goldberg, Edward Jablonski, Robert Kimball, Alfred Simon.
George Gershwin hinges on careful studies of three definitive Broadway scores, each representing a different style of musical theater. Lady, Be Good! was a 1920s show, above all a vehicle for Fred and Adele Astaire. It had lots of vaudeville elements, and many numbers were only marginally connected to plot or character. Accordingly, the songs were free of entangling plot references and, in many cases, stood on their own as hits (“Oh, Lady Be Good!” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “So Am I,” and “The Man I Love,” which was dropped from the show). Of Thee I Sing was an even greater box-office success, and a new kind of musical: Songs and book were interwoven to make a cohesive whole. Starr emphasizes its integrity as a “work”—a satirical show about 1930s politics—whose musical elements are more like movements in a symphony than scattered hits. Its tight construction helped it become the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize—George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind for the book, Ira Gershwin for the lyrics—but the Pulitzer was for writing, not composing.
Starr regards Porgy and Bess as the pinnacle of Gershwin’s genius, and his analysis of the music is engaging, particularly in the way he explains that songs reveal subtleties of character. But he also seems to believe that a song’s greatness depends on its inseparable relationship to the play, so he views Gershwin’s final years in Hollywood as something of a falling-off in his talent, even though they yielded some of Gersh-win’s greatest numbers. An interesting thesis, but wrong.
The best of many good things about George Gershwin is that Starr finds the essence of Gershwin in rhythm and harmony as much as melody: There’s more to Gershwin than his famous tunes. But Brian Wilson seems to know only the tunes. Starr is intimately familiar with Gershwin’s own recordings and notes on performance; the style of Wilson’s arrangements, and his unimaginative selection of songs, suggests that he may know little more about Gershwin than can be got from 1950s recordings by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald—or from hotel lobbies and elevators. “Well, I learned that Gershwin couldn’t only write Rhapsody in Blue,” Wilson said in a recent interview, “but he can write actual songs.”
Accordingly, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin is more Wilson than Gersh-win. Wilson has said that he recorded the songs in a way he thought Gershwin would like, but seems to have little idea what that means. If you like classic Beach Boys and have never heard of George Gershwin, you will like this album—and those who would compare Gershwin and Wilson as composers will find Wilson vastly out of his depth. The Beach Boys were famous for their harmonies, but what they were really good at was harmonizing, especially their trademark bunched-up falsetto chords. Their actual harmonies (that is, chord progressions) were notably less imaginative than Gershwin’s, and many of their best songs adhere closely to 12-bar blues or the one-six-four-five “pop progression.” Gershwin was far more restless in his movement from chord to chord and from key to key. “He Loves and She Loves,” for instance, modulates twice (and with extraordinary subtlety) in the 16 bars of the verse, and then enters a fourth key for the chorus. When Wilson finally modulates up a semi-tone near the end of his version of “I Got Rhythm,” it sounds like an accident.
Wilson’s “I Got Rhythm” is a good example of the pitfalls of fiddling around with rhythm and meter. Gershwin wrote it in “cut time”—his favorite running-pace time-signature—to emphasize two beats per bar; in Wilson’s arrangement, the rhythm section continuously gushes eighth notes, which slows the song down and steals all its vigor and urgency. And the biggest disappointment is the pair of songs Wilson “completed” from Gersh-win’s notes: “The Like in I Love You” and “Nothing but Love.” There are few greater honors for a contemporary musician than to be allowed access to Gershwin’s notebooks and complete Gershwin’s own ideas. But the result here is unspeakably bland, and nothing close even to Brian Wilson’s best work.
Daniel Gelernter is collaborating with Bernd Dinter and the Scharoun Ensemble of Berlin on a new series of Gershwin performances and recordings.