With huge fame and fortune firmly in his grip, George Gershwin (1898-1937), he of the song hits past counting and the successful musical shows, had self-improvement on his mind. With Rhapsody in Blue, the Concerto in F, Rhapsody No. 2, and An American in Paris under his belt, he sought to cover his tracks in terms of the technical skill he knew was lacking in his creative arsenal. Enter Joseph Schillinger. Russian-born and trained, Schillinger emigrated to America in 1928, settling in New York as a teacher of music, mathematics, and art history, but notably of his own system of composition based on rigid mathematical principles. It was recommended to Gershwin that he study with Schillinger, and deadly in earnest about improving his orchestration and counterpoint, he put himself in Schillinger’s hands from 1932 to 1936, when he left for California and the movies.
The Schillinger System was strong on technique but weak on originality. Clearly a good deal for Gershwin, who lacked the technique but was overwhelmingly original. The lessons were done on graph paper with such titles as “Rhythmic Groups Resulting from the Interference of Several Synchronized Periodicities” and “Groups With The Fractioning Around the Axis of Symmetry.” (It’s a testament to Gershwin’s genius that such a curriculum didn’t kill his inspiration.) In fact Schillinger counted many successful musicians among his students, in addition to Gershwin, there were Tommy Dorsey, Vernon Duke, Benny Goodman, and Oscar Levant. (And they remained successful even AS, after Schillinger.)
The first work Gershwin composed under the Schillinger influence was the Cuban Overture, which was first titled Rumba. As Rumba, it was premiered in August 1932 at the first all-Gershwin concert at New York’s Lewisohn Stadium for a cheering crowd of 18,000 people, with a reported 5,000 turned away. “It was,” Gershwin later said, “the most exciting night I have ever had.”
Gershwin prepared a short analysis of Rumba, in which he said, The composition was inspired by a short visit to Havana…and I endeavored to combine the Cuban rhythms with my original thematic material. The result is a symphonic overture which embodies the essence of the Cuban dance. On the title page he indicated that the players of the four Cuban instruments claves, maracas, guiro, and bongos -- should be placed right in front of the conductor’s stand.
Had Gershwin lived longer than the 38 years he was allotted, the Cuban Overture might have become a signpost on the way to a greatly advanced compositional style. The piece is both characteristic Gershwin and Gershwin in transit. No one hearing it would question who the author is, yet it is apparent that the familiar fingerprints the infectious rhythms, this time rumba, and distinctive bluesy melodic strains are guided by a considerably more sophisticated and learned hand than the one that had etched the early symphonic/jazz works.
- Program Notes by Orrin Howard