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.