Adagio; Andante con moto
In the year 1925, in addition to continuing to satisfy large public clamoring for more of his sweet and tender, buoyant and rambunctious songs that could be sung, whistled, and hummed, George Gershwin (1898-1937) took another foray into the classics. This one, the Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra, was an even more ambitious venture than the previous year’s Rhapsody in Blue: a full-fledged concerto in time-honored three-movement form, and a work that was all Gershwin, down to his own orchestration, which had not been the case with Rhapsody in Blue.
Those who thought Tin Pan Alley’s super-composer had gotten the “serious” bug out of his system with Rhapsody were wrong – in a way. Although the phenomenally talented and successful songwriter turned in earnest to the serious musical forms of concerto, symphonic poem (American in Paris), and opera (Porgy and Bess), he didn’t change his musical persona for the concert hall – no split personality for Gershwin. Whereas most American composers of his era, many with a far more highly developed traditional background than he had, were writing in the fashionable European styles, Gershwin cultivated his mother tongue – the one truly original American vernacular: jazz.
It may be true that Gershwin’s jazz has a highly polished commercial veneer, and that what is considered the real – that is, improvisational – jazz burned brightly for only a relatively small audience. Still there is no denying the strength and originality of the Gershwin product, in whatever form it appears. As for the Concerto in F, it is jazz all the way, and a remarkable achievement for a 27-year-old tunesmith. Yes, the Gershwin wine has been poured into a Liszt bottle, i.e., thematic transformation is rampant throughout (slow tunes become fast ones and vice versa, etc.); the melodies are heart-on-sleeve soulful; and the pianistics are brilliant and thoroughly concerto-like. No matter. It is still a heady varietal that is deeply satisfying.
In 1928, Gershwin heard the very successful European premiere of the Concerto in Paris, with Vladimir Golschmann conducting the orchestra and Dimitri Tiomkin (later of Hollywood film score fame) the soloist. The critics wrote of the work’s “inexhaustible verve,” the “fascination of its flowing melodies,” and the composer’s “keen feeling for the orchestra.” One perceptive journalist observed that “this very characteristic work made even the most distrustful musicians realize that jazz might perfectly well exert a deep and beneficent influence in the most exalted spheres.” [Amen!] However, dissenting voices were also heard: the Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev called the Concerto “good jazz but bad Liszt”; and Prokofiev said it was not much more than a succession of many 32-bar choruses. [A case of pianistic envy?] At a party later in Gershwin’s stay in Paris, Prokofiev predicted a successful future for Gershwin as a serious composer, if he was prepared to “leave dollars and dinners alone.”
The Paris connection was for Gershwin extremely important. His admiration for French music is certainly made tangible in the Concerto’s Adagio second movement. There, an extended (46-bar) introduction confined almost exclusively to winds and brass (no piano at all) conjures an ambiance that goes directly to the heart of Debussy and, somewhat, of Ravel. Thematically, the main tune that finally emerges in the piano is hinted at early in the introduction by a muted trumpet. The fascinating manipulations of this theme by piano and orchestra and the figurations and filigree that evolve from it show Gershwin at his most inventive and bracing. The construction of the movement is highly original, what with the reappearance of the introduction prefacing a piano cadenza which in turn leads into the “big” tune of the movement – a Gershwin song that is, well, irresistibly Gershwin. The melody is given the grand concerto treatment, and holds up very well until it is cut off abruptly for a nostalgic, abbreviated return of the motif from the introduction, this time intriguingly scored for piano and flute.
The outer movements are, expectedly, fast ones that the composer, in a brief analytical note, described as follows:
“The first movement employs the Charleston rhythm. It is quick and pulsating, representing the young, enthusiastic spirit of American life. It begins with a rhythmic motif given out by the kettle drums, supported by the other percussion instruments and with a Charleston motif introduced by bassoon, horns, clarinets, and violas. The principal theme is announced by the bassoon. Later, a second theme is introduced by the piano.
“The second movement has a poetic, nocturnal atmosphere which has come to be referred to as the American blues, but in a purer form than that in which they are usually treated.
“The final movement reverts to the style of the first. It is an orgy of rhythms, starting violently and keeping the same pace throughout.”
- Note by Orrin Howard
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, gong, orchestral bells, snare drum, wood block, slapstick, xylophone), strings, and solo piano
First performance by the Los Angeles Philharmonic: September 8, 1937, with soloist Oscar Levant, Charles Previn conducting