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"GERSHWIN & IVORY TOWERS"

BBC Music Magazine, 1998 Gershwin Centenary Issue (US edition)

Foreword by Jack Gibbons

This month’s issue celebrates the centenary of one of music’s most extraordinary geniuses: George Gershwin, a composer whose uniquely broad appeal is highlighted by the wide variety of backgrounds of this month’s contributors (from the worlds of classical music, jazz and television). Gershwin seemed to revel in crossing conventional boundaries, but in reality he never saw any contradiction in writing popular songs on the one hand and works for the concert hall on the other. Through years of self-disciplined study Gershwin the composer acquired a vast musical knowledge and technical skill that is still underestimated today because of his association with the world of popular music. Yet Gershwin himself never felt he was cheapening his art by writing popular songs. He once said to a friend and fellow composer: “Don’t be scared about going low-brow. [It] will open you up!”.

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what makes Gershwin’s music so special. One can analyze the music endlessly – the harmony is rich and original, the melodies and rhythm are distinctive and alive, the musical structure (particularly of his concert works) is masterly and superbly controlled – but in the end such analysis is futile in explaining precisely why the music speaks so eloquently. With a complicated ninth chord, or a sinewy angular melodic shape, Gershwin can move us; but then he can produce the simplest harmony and the most basic melodic shape and still move us. Gershwin seems to have been able to establish a direct line of communication between himself and his listener, and the extraordinary depth and sincerity of his musical expression has found sympathy with people all over the world. In today’s age where music has become over-compartmentalized and where ivory towers exist for the extremes of all branches of music – classical, jazz, rock, etc. – we perhaps shouldn’t forget that music is meaningless if it does not communicate. Gershwin proved that you don’t have to appeal to the lowest common denominator to satisfy the public. As he once said: “I’m one of those who honestly believe that the majority has much better taste and understanding not only of music but of any of the arts than it is credited with having. It is not the few knowing ones whose opinions make any work of art great. It is the judgement of the great mass that finally decides.” It may take another 100 years for Gershwin’s true genius to be fully appreciated by the “knowing ones”, but fortunately the public has always taken to his music, as Gershwin with his supreme confidence knew they would. But maybe even he would be a little surprised at just how much his music is loved today.

These notes 1998 Jack Gibbons

 

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