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“The Joy of Music”: Gershwin & Bernstein

Posted by Jessica Tobacman on

In Leonard Bernstein’s The Joy of Music, the author’s wide-ranging roles, including those of composer, inform his opinions. One of the topics he writes about is George Gershwin, even having one of his characters, the Professional Manager (P.M.) ask lightly, “What other George is there?” (55). Bernstein and the P.M. compare and contrast Bernstein’s and Gershwin’s works. “After all, George was just like you,” the P.M. says, “highbrow, one foot in Carnegie Hall and the other in Tin Pan Alley. He wrote concert music, too, and was all wound up in fancy harmony and counterpoint and orchestration” (56). Bernstein replied that Gershwin’s progression as a composer was a more natural progression than his own, “starting with small forms and blossoming out from there. My way is more confused: I wrote a symphony before I ever wrote a popular song” (57). The comparison between the two men continues, with Bernstein largely lauding Gershwin, calling him a “great, great theater composer,” even to Gershwin’s detriment: “Perhaps that’s what was wrong with his concert music: it was really theater music thrust into a concert hall” (62).

Bernstein wrote that he thought that each of Gershwin’s works was better than the previous one. Although Bernstein greatly admired the melodies of Rhapsody in Blue (1924), which United Airlines has determinedly made famous through their advertising, he wrote that the later musical An American in Paris (1951) is also a study in tunes, but an improvement upon Gershwin’s earlier works. “[Gershwin] had by that time discovered certain tricks of composition, ways of linking themes up, of combining and developing motives, of making an orchestral fabric” (59). However, it’s the opera Porgy and Bess (1935), famous for melodies including  “Summertime,” that has caused Bernstein to ask, “Doesn’t it point the way to a kind of Gershwin music that would have reached its own perfection eventually?” (61). This huge compliment leads to Bernstein lamenting Gershwin’s death. “What he would have done in the theater in another ten or twenty years!” (62) “Will America ever realize what a loss it was?”

The imaginary conversation comes back to Bernstein’s own composing. Despite knowing the general formula for a hit musical, the Professional Manager wraps up with one of his original thoughts about one of Bernstein’s shows: “Very strange. It’s a big success, the public enjoys it, it’s been running for five months, and there’s not a hit in it. How do you explain it?” he asks (53, 62).

Why is a piece of music successful? Although there may be a formula for much of it, we may never fully know.

Tune in next time for a further exploration of Bernstein’s The Joy of Music.