Premiered at Symphony Hall, Boston, on 29 January 1932, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Serge Koussevitzky, Conductor and George Gershwin, Piano.
In November 1930, George and Ira Gershwin arrived in Hollywood to write the score for their first movie, Delicious. Besides the songs, George was asked to compose an instrumental piece to underscore a sequence where the film’s immigrant heroine wanders through a somewhat menacing Manhattan. In the end, only six minutes of what was originally entitled “Rhapsody In Rivets” was used but George, never wanting good work to go to waste, believed that his score deserved an additional life as his next work for the concert hall. Upon his return to New York, while also working on the score for Of Thee I Sing (which was to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932) he completed the Second Rhapsody and prepared it for its Boston debut under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky (Leonard Bernstein’s mentor and first lover).
Pictured above is Lancashire-born conductor/organist/pianist Wayne Marshall, 57—with credits as Chief Conductor of WDR Funkhausorchester; Organist and Associate Artist of the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; Principal Guest Conductor of Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi; and as an acclaimed interpreter of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein.
The form most commonly heard today is a re-orchestrated version created fourteen years after Gershwin’s death. Since this version is the only one offered by the publisher, it has been almost impossible for orchestras to perform the piece as Gershwin envisioned it. However, the 1931 recording (above) of a run-through of the music, with Gershwin playing the solos and conducting the orchestra, gives some idea of the original version. Michael Tilson Thomas has been a promulgator of Gershwin’s original 1931 version. He sought out the original manuscript in the library as the basis of his 1985 recording and for his later performances.
My bonny John Wilson‘s latest CD release, The Best of The John Wilson Orchestra, recycles some of the song hits from his BBC Proms shows—but it also includes his never-heard-before version of Gershwin’s Second (here called “New York”) Rhapsody. A bit heavy-handed.
“For those who are familiar with the score, the very opening will seem slower. It is clear from Gershwin’s metronome markings and from the articulations in the orchestral parts that he intended the opening to be moderately fast (marked ‘Risoluto e Ben Marcato’ in the composer’s hand), exposing its inner syncopation and then accelerating. ‘Summertime’ is faster than we are accustomed. It is not a sad song, after all, and ‘A Woman is a Sometime Thing’ is slower. In fact, these two ‘lullabies’ by the mother and the father of their nameless child, are at the same metronome marking. In other words, Gershwin wanted to link the daddy and the mommy to each other by the speed of their music, even if their words and styles are quite (humorously) different.” On Porgy & Bess ©John Mauceri
Anthony Tommasini in his New York Times review of the English National Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess described my bonny as the “excellent John Wilson, who led a performance that had sweep, shape and vitality, as well as rarer qualities: precision and restraint”. Here’s our John from this past summer rehearsing “Summertime“. Performances of ENO’s Porgy and Bess run to 17 November.
…being wildly applauded in this photo of opening night. Lest we forget, it was The Old Man who directed the very first production of P&B. (Oh, he never let me forget it.) That’s him behind Gershwin in the goggle glasses.
Of Porgy and Bess’s premiere, composer-critic Virgil Thomson wrote: “Gershwin’s lack of understanding of all the major problems of form, of continuity, and of serious or direct expression is not surprising in view of the impurity of his musical sources and his frank acceptance of the same. The material is straight from the melting pot. At best it is a piquant but highly unsavory stirring-up together of Israel, Africa and the Gaelic Isles… I do not like fake folklore, nor bittersweet harmony, nor six-part choruses, nor fidgety accompaniments, nor gefilte-fish orchestration.” The 1934 production ran for 124 performances–for opera, a huge success, but by Broadway standards, a flop.
Castles were crumbling
And daydreams were tumbling
December was battling with June
But on this bright afternoon
Guess I’ll be changing my tune
We can thank composer/arranger Kay Swift, George Gershwin’s married secret lover, for making sure this song found its perfect setting in this 1947 20th Century Fox musical after his untimely death ten years earlier.
“When someone in the story is famous, every moment of his existence has, for people who care, an aura of significance, and there will always be people with a quasi-authority who think they know things they could not possibly know, simply because they have a lot of information and curiosity and a sense of entitlement to “the truth” about George Gershwin, as if sufficient obsession and possession of a lot of verifiable facts can earn both entitlement to and knowledge of the unknowable.”
from The Memory of All That (Broadway Books, 2012)
by Katharine Weber, Kay Swift’s granddaughter
I don’t think a clip exists, but 3 Preludes was on the program of The John Wilson Orchestra’s 2015 BBC Proms show Salute to Sinatra—yes I swear, that was the theme of that show which featured Seth MacFarlane, on account of he can sing like Brian the Dog. The connection is that the version my clever John and his orchestra played is the Nelson Riddle arrangement of Gershwin’s 3 Preludes, Nelson Riddle having been one of Frank Sinatra’s most important musical collaborators. Such a stretch, pet.
- “The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson”
- “The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits”
In an episode of this television series, originally broadcast exclusively in New York City, Sondheim speaks before a workshop of NYC high school students, discussing the genesis of such songs as “Small World”, “I Feel Pretty”, and “One Hand, One Heart,” which are performed by Martha Wright and Ralph Curtis.
This show also includes question and answer period with Irwin Kostal, arranger and conductor for West Side Story. Hosted by Earl Wrightson. Produced by Ned Cramer. Directed by Neal Finn.
- Everything’s Coming Up Roses – The CBS Orchestra
- Small World – Martha Wright
- Maria – Ralph Curtis
- I Feel Pretty – Martha Wright
- Tonight (Balcony Scene) – Ralph Curtis and Martha Wright
- One Hand, One Heart – Ralph Curtis and Martha Wright
- Mambo – The CBS Orchestra
- Cool (Fugue) – The CBS Orchestra
- Everything’s Coming Up Roses (reprise) – The CBS Orchestra
Lyricist-Composer Stephen Sondheim, Baritone/Host Earl Wrightson, Orchestrator-Conductor Irwin Kostal.
Here’s an excerpt:
Mr Kostal, what is the difference between an orchestrator and an arranger?
It refers specifically to what you find on the music. When a composer composes a piece of music, we hope that it’s a complete piece of music, and when a man like Mr Bernstein composes the music (short laugh) it is. So all you do, you just discuss with him what he’d like to hear, flutes, violins…and you follow exactly what is written on the paper. This is what I call orchestration. Now, I get to do very little of that kind of work…because nowadays composers don’t bother with too much detail…
Steve [Sondheim] here is the kind of man we need because he’s studying music, and believe me that is a rarity on Broadway, because most composers don’t… At one time in history, composers actually did their own orchestration. They had the time in those days…but also, they could do it. For instance, Victor Herbert was a tremendous orchestrator. On one television show I did recently I actually used Mr Herbert’s scores as he wrote them in 1916—I couldn’t do ‘em any better. He knew what he was doing. Kurt Weill was the last one to do this. George Gershwin never did it on Broadway, but he—after he became a successful songwriter—studied music and learned how to orchestrate so that by the time he did Porgy and Bess he was able to do a very good job on the orchestrations.
Now, in arranging—if the composer does not do his job properly, the orchestrator has to come in and finish the job for him. Now, you’d be surprised how many times I do Broadway shows where I get roughly a one-line melody, a lead sheet, and I have to add the bass line, the harmony, the chords, and if it goes on for four minutes or a routine I have to think of things for the flutes to play and the violins to play etcetera, and it becomes a hefty job and I really feel like I am a composer’s partner when I do this… You know, the more you do of this sort of work, the less the composer likes it. Because he’s kind of mad at you because he didn’t do it himself, I think anyway. And it serves him right. He should do it himself. I think he should go to school himself and learn. We have too many lead sheets—sure, the melody is the most important thing in music, but too many of our composers have decided to write only the melody. They have separated melody from music. Now, the art of melody writing is not a separate art from music, it’s a part of music. And when they have written this top line and leave the rest to me, they’ve got to be dissatisfied because they didn’t do it themselves. Let them get down to their business and go to school and learn to write!
Just so you don’t go on thinking this is some kind of fanblog (it’s not, because I’m not a fan*, just crazy in love with the bloke) I thought I’d spend a posting to tell you all how I got my first gig in pictures…
Immaculate white full dress shirt with detachable wing collar, white dickey, white bow tie, white waistcoat, studs, cufflinks, striped trousers, and a spare tailcoat in the dressing room—my bonny lad is set
This happened in San Francisco—in the 70s a paradise for the sexually adventurous—and coming after the time I worked as Rouben Mamoulian‘s amanuensis, which was after the time I posed nude for a blind sculptor in St-Paul-de-Vence, which was after the time I danced topless in a mob-run bar in Red Hook, which was after the time I was the night solfeggist at ASCAP…
So anyway. One lovely summer evening about six weeks after I hit the city I went with a (legit) actress friend to a house party up on Potrero Hill, mostly because she enticed me with the information that the party would be featuring a hot tub. (Am such a pushover for hot tubs.) Well, at the party there was this cute but obvious older guy from London (trimmed ginger beard, open shirt, bead bracelet—no one goes California like the English) named Peter, who owned the house and who invited me seulement for a session of coke+quaaludes and a nice soak later, after all the other guests have left. Then he gave me his card. (This was the first time a man ever gave me his business card before we had sex, but it wouldn’t be the last)…
*No, really, I’m in love with John but he plows through Gershwin like a bull moose and treats Bernstein like Bernstein’s Saruman and he’s Frodo. How could any red-blooded American woman countenance such effrontery to her national pride?**
Oscar Moore, guitar and Joe Comfort, double bass. The creamy Nat Cole at the piano.
If I cried a little bit
When first I learned the truth
Don’t blame it on my heart
Blame it on my youth
You wouldn’t look at him to think that Levant, the eternal loafer/boy genius, was a fine tunesmith as well, would you? But here’s his plaintive standard sung by one of the most identifiable singers in American music.
Die Trapp-Familie looks familiar to American audiences, as 20th Century Fox’s The Sound of Music shamelessly ripped off its costume and set design, its color palette, and many of its scene compositions. But what the American movie lacked was the Viennese charm and humor of the original, as well as its two immensely glamorous stars, German-born Ruth Leuwerik (1924-2016) and Austrian-born Hans Holt (1909-2001).
Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika, however, although filmed in location in the States, is wonderfully unfamiliar and well deserves a viewing: New York’s Lower East Side and the rich melting pot of immigrant life, as idealized by post-war European filmmakers. The struggle of the von Trapps as penniless political refugees isn’t ignored, but for the most part their story is told light-heartedly.
Pay attention, as well, to the music, especially in Die Trapp-Familie in Amerika. Grothe, a popular composer in Germany (he remained in Germany throughout the war, a reluctant Party member) composed a creditable Gershwin-like score for this sequel, particularly in the underscoring of a quiet scene between Georg and Maria gazing out at the Brooklyn Bridge while worrying about their family’s future (21:22). In German and English.