Although he was a brilliant writer of melody, George Gershwin composed in full harmony at the piano. It’s not surprising then, that his Lullaby of 1919 was conceived at the keyboard. The one-movement work was then scored for string quartet and became a favorite at the private musicales held by Gershwin’s friends. The melody of the piece took on a second life as an aria in his opera Blue Monday. For the next four decades, revivals of Blue Monday provided the melody’s only appearance. It wasn’t until 1967 that the original string quartet received its first public performance in the hands of the Juilliard String Quartet.
A unison “tuning” note begins the work, followed by high gestures in the violin. The cello then carries the main melody, a tranquil yet swinging tune. In the central section the mood shifts, becoming more inquisitive. Soon the music winds back down and begins the comfortable, bluesy main melody again. At the close, the violins take the melody up into high harmonics and Lullaby comes to an end with a short tremolo, a sigh on the cello, and a unison pizzicato “plup.” When Lullaby was finally published in 1968, Ira Gershwin wrote, “It may not be the Gershwin of Rhapsody in Blue, Concerto in F, and his other concert works, but I find it charming and kind.”
- Jesse Rothwell