When he was 11, Gershwin taught himself to play his first song on the piano by watching the keys on a player piano. It seems appropriate then, that four years later the teenaged Gershwin dropped out of school and started earning a living making piano rolls for player pianos. He also gigged in New York clubs and worked as a “plugger” – playing songs for potential sheet-music customers at the Jerome Remick music publishing company. The work improved the young composer’s improvisation skills, as well as his playing facility, and at age 17 Gershwin published his first song and his first solo piano composition. By the time he wrote the Three Preludes in 1926, he was an international sensation, having premiered the wildly successful Rhapsody in Blue two years prior.
Gershwin’s style, which combined ragtime, blues, jazz, and classical music, now sounds quintessentially “American” but in his own time, the chords and scales he used were nothing short of bizarre. The first prelude, a short, jazzy exclamation, opens with piano brightly and straightforwardly stating a bluesy phrase. The violin answers in a sly drawl, as if giving a wink. The piano retorts with a low, loud ostinato. The violin joins the party with pizzicato, elaborating on the five-note intro. The Latin feel of the music comes from the Brazilian baião rhythms in the piano.
The second prelude is “a sort of blues lullaby” according to Gershwin. Beginning with a pensive, solitary piano, violin then adds a sliding, bluesy melody, continuing the melancholy mood in a higher register. The piano moves up in register, playing alongside violin. A short middle section brings brighter material in, then falls back to the pensive piano ostinato and ends quiet and unassuming.
The third prelude, Agitato, jumps in immediately with a short introduction before beginning question-and-answer melodic phrases. The instruments weave and hop back and forth around each other and the texture is thick with flourishes. The restatement of the theme at the end of the movement is ostentatious, with the tempo and rhythm bringing the violin to an enormous slide up to a sky-scraping height.
Jascha Heifetz transcribed the Three Preludes (originally written for solo piano) for violin and piano in 1942. That version showcases both instruments, and the music shines with the violin’s new sonorities. The Three Preludes are the only concert work for solo piano to be published during Gershwin’s lifetime. They were premiered by the composer at the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City on December 4, 1926. The music was also performed at the Hollywood Bowl on September 8, 1937 in a tribute to Gershwin after his death in July of that year.
It is interesting to note that the final three works we hear tonight were all written in the same four years during which Ravel wrote his Sonata – between 1923-1927. Of course, each composer wrote from a different place, and each had his individual training, experience and style, but these pieces reflect the time period in which they were written, exhibiting the artistic diversity of the 1920s; much like composers today, Ravel, Ysaÿe, and Gershwin incorporated myriad influences, each creating his own – often groundbreaking – musical stamp.
-Jessie Rothwell is a Los Angeles based writer, composer, and curator who also bakes pies and constantly considers what foods pair with what wines.