Given the recent exhortation from the Holy Father concerning our dealings with immigration, I thought it would be fitting to publish a series honoring American composers whose families were but one or two generations from the status of “immigrant”. Recently an American diplomat made the statement in an interview on the PBS news hour that historically immigration has proved to be overall a great positive to our country and not the great negative is has been portrayed to be by recent politicians seeking votes. Those portraying it in that way have fallen into a form of hate mongering reminiscent of segregation times and they need to be asked the question an old mentor, J. William Fulbright, asked of Joseph P. McCarthy during his communist witch hunts, “Have you no decency, sir?”
Tonight my Pandora station surrounded me with the chords of a Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin. The piece opens with a daunting clarinet solo in the form of what musicians refer to as a glissando. It is hard to describe the sound of a glissando but as a former tympanist I can say it is similar to the sound made by the tympani when the tympanist engages the pedal to stretch the heads of the tympani to elevate the pitch from something in the range of a base cleft B flat to a D or F. The effect is rather dramatic and gains your immediate attention. Interestingly Gershwin did not originally intend to have the opening passage of Rhapsody in Blue played as a glissando but rather as a “clarinet trill followed by a legato 17-note rising diatonic scale.” But during a rehearsal Paul Whiteman’s virtuoso clarinetist, Ross Gorman, rendered the upper portion of the scale as a captivating (and fully trombone-like) glissando: Gershwin heard it and insisted that it be repeated in the performance. Paul Whiteman was a famous jazz band leader who had commissioned the work .
George Gershwin was born of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish descent. His grandfather, Jakov Gershowitz, had served for 25 years as a mechanic for the Imperial Russian Army to earn the right of free travel and residence as a Jew. He retired near Saint Petersburg. A detailed account of his background can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gershwin.
The music of George Gershwin , the descendant of immigrants, has come to exemplify American music through pieces like Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris , and the opera Porgy and Bess which was based on a story by South Carolina’s own DuBose Heyward.
At one point in his highly successful career Gershwin approached Maurice Ravel the famous French composer and asked Ravel to teach him the classical style of composition. Ravel rejected Gershwin’s request and in the rejection letter he stated “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?” Ravel and many of the prominent classical composers of the day truly appreciated Gershwin’s jazz-like style and wished they could themselves emulate it.
In a future post we will explore Maurice Ravel, the quintessential Frenchman, and in my opinion the French musical Picasso, in connection with his work titled “Bolero’.
Ponder what we would have missed had Gershwin’s family been barred from admission to the United States.