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Summertime: George Gershwin's Life in Music

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New York City native and gifted pianist George Gershwin blossomed as an accompanist before his talent as a songwriter opened the way to Broadway, where he fashioned his own brand of American music. He composed a long run of musical comedies, many with his brother Ira as lyricist, but his aspirations reached beyond commercial success. A lifetime learner, Gershwin was able t New York City native and gifted pianist George Gershwin blossomed as an accompanist before his talent as a songwriter opened the way to Broadway, where he fashioned his own brand of American music. He composed a long run of musical comedies, many with his brother Ira as lyricist, but his aspirations reached beyond commercial success. A lifetime learner, Gershwin was able to appeal to listeners on both sides of the purported popular-classical divide. In 1924--when he was just twenty-five--he bridged that gap with his first instrumental composition, Rhapsody in Blue, an instant classic. From that time forward his work as a composer, pianist, and citizen of the Jazz Age made him in some circles a leader on America's musical scene. In the late 1920s Gershwin extended the range of the shows he scored to include the United Kingdom. Moreover, having polished his skills as an orchestrator, he pushed boundaries again in 1935 with the groundbreaking folk opera Porgy and Bess--his magnum opus. Acclaimed music historian Richard Crawford traces the arc of Gershwin's remarkable life, seamlessly blending colorful anecdotes with a discussion of Gershwin's unforgettable oeuvre.


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New York City native and gifted pianist George Gershwin blossomed as an accompanist before his talent as a songwriter opened the way to Broadway, where he fashioned his own brand of American music. He composed a long run of musical comedies, many with his brother Ira as lyricist, but his aspirations reached beyond commercial success. A lifetime learner, Gershwin was able t New York City native and gifted pianist George Gershwin blossomed as an accompanist before his talent as a songwriter opened the way to Broadway, where he fashioned his own brand of American music. He composed a long run of musical comedies, many with his brother Ira as lyricist, but his aspirations reached beyond commercial success. A lifetime learner, Gershwin was able to appeal to listeners on both sides of the purported popular-classical divide. In 1924--when he was just twenty-five--he bridged that gap with his first instrumental composition, Rhapsody in Blue, an instant classic. From that time forward his work as a composer, pianist, and citizen of the Jazz Age made him in some circles a leader on America's musical scene. In the late 1920s Gershwin extended the range of the shows he scored to include the United Kingdom. Moreover, having polished his skills as an orchestrator, he pushed boundaries again in 1935 with the groundbreaking folk opera Porgy and Bess--his magnum opus. Acclaimed music historian Richard Crawford traces the arc of Gershwin's remarkable life, seamlessly blending colorful anecdotes with a discussion of Gershwin's unforgettable oeuvre.

56 review for Summertime: George Gershwin's Life in Music

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jim Razinha

    I requested a review copy of this a couple of years ago but was denied for unspecified reasons. It happens. And, as I tend to only request books I am interested in (some people just like to get free books and shotgun a plethora of requests...), I try to get to denied books sometime after they are published. So ... it's later. I finished this last week and had to sift though my notes for a bit before drafting this. Crawford says in his introductionBut what justifies the appearance of a new Gershwi I requested a review copy of this a couple of years ago but was denied for unspecified reasons. It happens. And, as I tend to only request books I am interested in (some people just like to get free books and shotgun a plethora of requests...), I try to get to denied books sometime after they are published. So ... it's later. I finished this last week and had to sift though my notes for a bit before drafting this. Crawford says in his introductionBut what justifies the appearance of a new Gershwin biography now, eighty-two years after his death? The answer lies in the perspective of the story told here: an academic scholar’s account of Gershwin’s life in music during the composer’s own time. For an academic, Crawford has written a quite readable, extensively sourced, biography. He writes of the Gershwin family - more than a bit, as would be expected, about Ira - both the relationship and the collaboration. I liked two quotes from Ira's Foreword and Afterword to his own Lyrics on Many Occasions:[Fore]P.S. Since most of the lyrics in this lodgment were arrived at by fitting words mosaically to music already composed, any resemblance to actual poetry, living or dead, is highly improbable. [...] [After...and this definition was used by the Encyclopedia Britannica]SONG is the joint art of words and music, two arts under emotional pressure coalescing into a third. The relation and balance of the two arts is a problem that has to be resolved anew in every song that is composed.Succinct. Crawford chronicles the development of George as a songwriter and then, a composer; his stage and film career; his successes and his tragic early death. About 20% of the book is devoted to Porgy and Bess. And Crawford provides analyses of the different sections, acts, compositions. I admit I found those parts a bit tedious. Example: The new song, for which DeSylva shared credit with “Arthur Francis,” is a celebration of modern dance, and the sanctified spirit achieved through disciplined practice, the right footwear, and the will to battle life’s discouragements. The verse, in the manner of blues music, unfolds over the orchestra’s repeated quarter notes. But Gershwin complicates the harmony’s trajectory and quickens the pace of its modulations. His novel harmonic “steps” support a vocal line that rises over fifteen bars, a semitone at a time, from G to D-flat. The tonal territory traveled is huge, yet each step receives solid underpinning in whole notes. The verse’s tonal complexity exceeds that of any song Gershwin had written to date; it is easy to imagine Gershwin’s delight in sharing it with Kilenyi. I like to listen to Dr. Robert Greenberg's Great Courses lectures on music and he gets into the compositional details quite a bit, but in general, Crawford's were a bit dry. Still, the overall reading was quite easy, if detailed, and made even easier in that I listened to various recordings of Gershwin pieces while reading it. (I recommend this box set - some recordings are Gershwin himself playing and speaking. But for the majesty of Rhapsody in Blue, nothing beats Bernstein's powerful arrangements!) I should also admit that I am not enthralled with a soprano singing the titular song; I much prefer an instrumental version, or less piercing vocals. On my favorite of his, Rhapsody, of course, I never knew this:Will any one who heard him forget the astonishment he created in that first measure, when, halfway up the seventeen-note run, he suddenly stopped playing separate notes and slid for home on a long portamento that nobody knew could be done on a clarinet? It’s a physical impossibility; it’s not in any of the books; but Ross [Gorman] knew it could be done with a special kind of reed and he spent days and days hunting around till he found one.That note is best heard with eyes closed, chin down, breathing in while tilting the head up to its peak. But that's me. Your mileage may vary. Gershwin's composition sketches lent themselves to orchestration with countermelodies "especially where melodic pauses need filling."In 1929 Gershwin told an interviewer that, deeming “ordinary harmonies, rhythms, sequences, intervals, and so on” fundamental to his compositional vocabulary, he experimented at the piano with ways to enliven these elements. “I would spend hour upon hour trying to change them around so that they would satisfy me.”On his Concerto in FCritic Charles L. Buchanan, having panned the Concerto in F in December of 1925, now awarded it “an increasingly clear title to be ranked the one composition of indubitable vitality, and authentic progressiveness, that this country has produced.”With fame comes acceptance? Well, Bach wasn't recognized for the genius he was until long after his death. On the craft:To Gershwin, the study of musical technique was indispensable. “Many people say that too much study kills spontaneity in music, but I claim that, although study may kill a small talent, it must develop a big talent.” He advises the aspiring composer to “write something every day, regardless of its length or quality.” Failure is the norm, and facing failure down is part of the songwriter’s daily lot. “Perhaps the tenth—or the hundredth—song will do the trick.”Jerry Pournelle's advice to budding writers was along the lines of "write, write, write, and then write some more." DuBose Heyward was the author of the book "Porgy" from which the play and opera were adapted. DuBose dropped out of school at fifteen to help his impoverished family with various jobs, some of which "brought him in contact with South Carolina's black population." Crawford makes an insightful observation:Each of these jobs gave the young man a vantage point for observing a people who remained separate from, and imperfectly known by, the white population of Charleston. The racial imbalance of power never claimed much of his attention; what fascinated him was the mystery of cultural difference."...separate from, and imperfectly known by..." American understanding is not much different today from any non-white culture. I like that speculation, however educated a guess, is couched with “suggested” or “likely” or similar, such as "Two songs Gershwin wrote with Irving Caesar in early 1919 suggest the range of professional opportunity now open to the young songwriter." I dislike pronouncements of fact that cannot be know, which amounts to creative fictionalizing nonfiction, and Crawford does not allow himself to fall into that trap. A good, non-romanticized, certainly not fictionalized like the 1945 film "Rhapsody in Blue", biography.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

    I have, for most of my life, loved Gershwin. If you want to read a book that goes into detail about the construction of his music--this is the book for you. And, the list of famous personages that knew Gershwin intimately, was fascinating: STRAVINSKY, JASCHA HEIFETZ (who transcribed and recorded songs from "Porgy and Bess" and played them, as only he can, on the violin), OSCAR LEVANT, DIMITRI TIOMKIN, FRED & ADELE ASTAIRE, BENNETT CERF, JOHN CORIGLIANO (father to the composer of "The Red Violin" I have, for most of my life, loved Gershwin. If you want to read a book that goes into detail about the construction of his music--this is the book for you. And, the list of famous personages that knew Gershwin intimately, was fascinating: STRAVINSKY, JASCHA HEIFETZ (who transcribed and recorded songs from "Porgy and Bess" and played them, as only he can, on the violin), OSCAR LEVANT, DIMITRI TIOMKIN, FRED & ADELE ASTAIRE, BENNETT CERF, JOHN CORIGLIANO (father to the composer of "The Red Violin"), and the list goes on and on. I would have enjoyed this book more, if the author had humanized Gershwin. For this author, Gershwin was only notes on a sheet to be interpreted.

  3. 4 out of 5

    John Blumenthal

    Although I love Gershwin’s music, I couldn’t finish this. I was hoping the book would provide personal details of the composer’s life but it is no more than a stunningly boring chronological accounting of every minor show Gershwin ever wrote the music for and there were hundreds, all prior to his breakthrough with his more memorable songs and of course, his classical compositions, starting with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Moreover, the book is endless and I found myself skipping so many pages that finis Although I love Gershwin’s music, I couldn’t finish this. I was hoping the book would provide personal details of the composer’s life but it is no more than a stunningly boring chronological accounting of every minor show Gershwin ever wrote the music for and there were hundreds, all prior to his breakthrough with his more memorable songs and of course, his classical compositions, starting with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Moreover, the book is endless and I found myself skipping so many pages that finishing the book seemed pointless. Don’t waste your time.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Glenyss

    This was the first book that arrived for me when our library re-opened. I thought, “Do I really want to read a 500-page biography of Gershwin?” The answer was, “Yes!” It really gave me an insight to his genius and I found it a great read. It gives me a greater appreciation of songs I have always loved, but what choked me up was he only finished 9 bars of Our Love is Here to Stay which was finished, per George’s wishes, by Ira and good friend Oscar Levant. I will think of that every time I hear i This was the first book that arrived for me when our library re-opened. I thought, “Do I really want to read a 500-page biography of Gershwin?” The answer was, “Yes!” It really gave me an insight to his genius and I found it a great read. It gives me a greater appreciation of songs I have always loved, but what choked me up was he only finished 9 bars of Our Love is Here to Stay which was finished, per George’s wishes, by Ira and good friend Oscar Levant. I will think of that every time I hear it.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Janie Gibson

    Absolutely fascination look at the life of George and Ira Gershwin, their family, and the music George composed and Ira wrote lyrics for. The wide range of George's music and his apparent thirst for knowledge to improve himself and To satisfy his curiosity, was fascinating. Ira, the quieter and more studious older brother, was a force in his own right. The illustrious company they kept and lifestyle they led was also fascinating, It was an interesting and illuminating read. Absolutely fascination look at the life of George and Ira Gershwin, their family, and the music George composed and Ira wrote lyrics for. The wide range of George's music and his apparent thirst for knowledge to improve himself and To satisfy his curiosity, was fascinating. Ira, the quieter and more studious older brother, was a force in his own right. The illustrious company they kept and lifestyle they led was also fascinating, It was an interesting and illuminating read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Tubbs

    As per the title, it was a bit dry at times.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Boston64329

    Very well written. Reading a biography can sometimes be challenging. Summertime was not. Makes me want to go out and get his music. Recommend

  8. 4 out of 5

    PottWab Regional Library

    SM

  9. 4 out of 5

    Gerald Greene

    So many thrilling scenes in this book detailing the life and work of Gershwin.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Francis

  11. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin

  12. 5 out of 5

    David Hogue

  13. 5 out of 5

    John Lamiell

  14. 5 out of 5

    Laird

  15. 5 out of 5

    Alejandro

  16. 5 out of 5

    Adrian

  17. 4 out of 5

    Joel Fishbane

  18. 4 out of 5

    Joseph Oddy

  19. 4 out of 5

    John

  20. 4 out of 5

    Michael Pollock

  21. 5 out of 5

    Chris D.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Watt

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    Janey

  24. 5 out of 5

    Caleb Boyd

  25. 4 out of 5

    Diane

  26. 5 out of 5

    Lissy Beatman

  27. 4 out of 5

    Joe

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  29. 5 out of 5

    Laura Harrison

  30. 5 out of 5

    libraryfacts

  31. 5 out of 5

    Jandy

  32. 4 out of 5

    Flaubertian

  33. 4 out of 5

    Cody

  34. 4 out of 5

    Chelsea

  35. 5 out of 5

    Frank

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    John Sharko

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    Patrick Murtha

  38. 5 out of 5

    Ann

  39. 4 out of 5

    Beth

  40. 5 out of 5

    Rui

  41. 4 out of 5

    Paul

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    Marcus Zelenski

  43. 5 out of 5

    Christina

  44. 4 out of 5

    Tyler Raymie

  45. 5 out of 5

    Brad V

  46. 4 out of 5

    Peter Longworth

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    Kris Hilburn Williams

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    Casey Liston

  49. 5 out of 5

    Gary

  50. 4 out of 5

    Brian Tremaine

  51. 4 out of 5

    Susie

  52. 4 out of 5

    Natalie H.

  53. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

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    Jonathan

  55. 4 out of 5

    Brady

  56. 4 out of 5

    Cam Ayers

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