The Duo Campion-Vachon has performed throughout the world in countries such as South Africa, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Great Britain, Italy, Switzerland, and Canada. They have been invited to [...]
They spoke about it
The 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of American popular song, when composers and lyricists like Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, Vincent Youmans, and George and Ira Gershwin were writing some of their best songs, mostly for Broadway and Hollywood. Although, in the twenties, operetta with an historical or exotic setting still flourished in the works of composers such as Rudolf Frimi (The Vagabond King) and Sigmund Romberg (The Desert Song), young American composers were beginning to write shows with a contemporary urban, indeed specifically Manhattan setting (which could be extended to the summer resorts of Long Island). Their libretti were replete with topical references (prohibition, society, even sex) and their songs reflected the rhythms of contemporary life.
Early Broadway shows tended to follow a semi-vaudeville format in which irrelevant interpolations were tolerated and plots were farcical at best. An important exception was the series of intimate shows composed in the teens of this century by Jerome Kern, with lyrics usually by the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse, for the small Princess Theatre in New York. Kern had often supplied additional songs for American versions of Viennese operettas by Emmerich Kálmán, but his own shows, such as Oh, Boy! and Oh, Lady! Lady!!, had a peculiarly American sophistication, and already the songs served to further the plot, not interrupting it. (This development led to Kern’s finest achievement, the near-operatic Show Boat of 1927, with its serious dramatic content.)
The brothers Gershwin, Ira (1896-1983) and George (1898-1937), were members of a typically upwardly mobile Jewish immigrant family (their names were originally Israel and Jacob Gershwine), born respectively on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in Brooklyn; they became members of the no less typical Upper West Side cultural elite. As early as 1918 they began to contribute songs to Broadway musicals (the first was The Real American Folk Song Is a Rag) and in 1922 they worked for the first time with Fred Astaire, who appeared with his sister Adele in For Goodness Sake (called in London Stop Flirting), which had several songs by the Gershwins (Ira writing under the pseudonym Arthur Francis).
By 1924 George Gershwin was achieving equal success in both musical comedy and “serious” music: in February of that year Rhapsody in Blue was given its world premiere by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra, with Gershwin at the piano; in November Lady, Be Good!, the Gershwins’ first complete show for the Astaires, opened. At the end of 1925 George’s Piano Concerto in F was performed by the New York Symphony Society, again with the composer as soloist. Lady, Be Good! was followed by Tip-Toes, Oh, Kay!, with Gertrude Lawrence, and Funny Face, again with the Astaires. All these shows played in London as well as New York.
In the meantime, the Gershwins began to move in a new direction with Strike Up the Band, whose first version closed out of town in 1927; a revised version came to New York in 1930. This attempt at political satire in a manner derived from Gilbert and Sullivan led the way to Of Thee I Sing, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1932, and the less successful Let’ Em Eat Cake in 1934. These shows occupy a middle ground between the earlier musicals and the serious work, of which the greatest manifestation is the folk opera Porgy and Bess, with lyrics by Ira and DuBose Heyward, author of the original novel, which opened in 1935.
With the advent of the sound film Broadway composers were in demand in Hollywood — as were authors who could supply literate screenplays — which meant that some elements of the New York intelligentsia found their way to Hollywood. Even at the height of the depression the movies that provided a means of escapism were often witty and elegant, notably the comedies of Ernst Lubitsch and the great series of musicals starring Fred Astaire and his new partner, Ginger Rogers. The Gershwins were among those who went to Hollywood, first for the charming Delicious (1930), starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, whose score included an excerpt from what was to become George’s second Rhapsody. In 1936, they flew to Hollywood to write Shall We Dance and A Damsel in Distress, both starring Fred Astaire — the first with, the second without Ginger Rogers. But by the time A Damsel in Distress was released at the end of 1937, George was dead, the victim of a brain tumor.
With Gershwin, the distinction between his popular and “serious” music seems singularly pointless. In fact, his show tunes are in some ways greater evidence of his genius, often conveying deeper feelings than were implied in the musicals’ plots: they are the American equivalent of European art-song. This is true even though Gershwin wrote almost exclusively in the dance rhythms of the time — charleston, fox-trot. (He wrote few, if any waltzes, except as parody, as in “By Strauss”; “My man’s gone now,” from Porgy and Bess, is in three-quarter time, but that of a saraband).
The worth of this music has been recognized by such critics as Wilfred Mellers, whose Music in a New Found Island (1964) includes a serious analysis of the Gershwin’s ballad “The Man I love,” and Alec Wilder, whose seminal work American Popular Song was published in 1972.
Just as in recent years there has been an important movement to perform early classical music in authentic editions on period instruments, so there has been an equivalent trend to restore, perform, and record Broadway musicals in their orginal form and orchestration; the Gershwin shows are part of such a recording project sponsored jointly by Ira’s widow Lenore (who died in 1991) and the Library of Congress. It is especially appropriate, too, that this music should be recorded by the piano duo Guy Campion and Mario Vachon.
Gershwin himself was a piano virtuoso who recorded both his own transcriptions of some of his songs, published in George Gershwin’s Songbook, 1932, and the Three Preludes; he also cut piano rolls which have been transferred to compact disc. And a two-piano team was a brilliant feature of the pit bands of many of these shows.
© David Vaughan