4/15/08 - gershwin and berg

In today's excerpt - the influence of Alban Berg (1885-1935) on the American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937):

"In the spring of 1928, George Gershwin [born in the Lower East Side slums of Manhattan and now the acclaimed] creator of 'Rhapsody in Blue', toured Europe and met the leading composers of the day. In Vienna, he called at the home of Alban Berg, whose blood-soaked, dissonant, sublimely dark opera 'Wozzeck' had had its premiere in Berlin three years earlier. To welcome his American visitor, Berg arranged for a string quartet to perform his Lyric Suite, in which Viennese lyricism was refined into something like a dangerous narcotic.

"Gershwin then went to the piano to play some of his own songs. He hesitated. Berg's work had left him awestruck. Were his own pieces worthy of these murky, opulent surroundings? Berg, looked at him sternly and said, 'Mr. Gershwin, music is music.' ... Berg's Wozzeck is, for some, one of the most gripping operas ever written; Gershwin thought so, and emulated it in [his masterwork] Porgy and Bess, not least in the hazy chords that float through 'Summerime.' For others, Wozzeck is a welter of ugliness.

"DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy had long interested Gershwin as a subject. ... Gershwin later said that he liked the story because of its mix of humor and drama; it allowed him to shift between Broadway-style song-and-dance numbers and vocal-symphonic writing in the style of Wozzeck.

" Porgy begins with an introductory orchestral and choral explosion in which Gershwin shows off what he has learned from his experiments in modern music. ... The texture then subsides toward a summery, humid kind of stillness. A new ostinato gets under way, one of alternating half-diminished sevenths, recalling Wozzeck again—Marie's song of 'Eia popeia' to her child. Gershwin even uses his chords for the same scenic purpose, to accompany a mother's soothing lullaby. If the kid from the Lower East Side seems in danger of losing himself in European arcana, there is no reason to worry. We are listening to one of the best-loved melodies of the twentieth century: 'Summertime, and the living is easy ..."


Alex Ross


The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century


Farrar, Strauss and Giroux


Copyright 2007 by Alex Ross


xi-xii, 148-149
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