With a keen ear for the sounds and slang of Roaring Twenties’ New York City, the Gershwin brothers sparked a revolution in American music that risked aesthetic heresy. Their art crossed boundaries of black and white, popular and classical. They brought the energy and humor of the Yiddish theatre to Broadway. They put slang in poetry and jazz instruments onto the stage of Carnegie Hall.
George as composer and Ira as lyricist worked quickly, often sitting side by side at the piano, with a tireless improvisational energy that was tragically interrupted. George’s sudden death on July 11, 1927, from a brain tumor, stunned the musical world. Ira stopped writing lyrics. The fabric of the Gershwin family was torn. Music had lost a powerful creative voice.
The composer’s death also left much undone. I only wonder at the imagined sound of George Gershwin’s First Symphony or of the opera he might have composed as a follow up to Porgy and Bess. Also undone was the editorial curation of the composer’s legacy. If, like Aaron Copland, George Gershwin had lived to be 90 years old, I would not have been appointed as editor of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. Instead, the composer himself would have clarified questions like what pitches the taxi horns are supposed to sound in An American in Paris or how many first versus second violins are called for in the orchestra of Porgy and Bess?* Instead it has fallen to a team of musicians and scholars organized by the University of Michigan to address these questions.
What began with an email from Todd Gershwin, great nephew of George and Ira, has since become a reality. Announced in the fall of 2013, the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition is a unique agreement between the Gershwin families, the University of Michigan, and Schott Music International (through European American Music). The goal of the project is to create new authoritative editions of all of George and Ira Gershwin’s creative works including orchestral compositions, opera and musical theatre, chamber and solo works, independent songs and film scores. Our editorial boards include scholars from across the nation, staff from the Library of Congress, and musicians. I am especially grateful that a meeting with the ICSOM board in 2010 led to the appointment of Karen Schnackenberg, Principal Librarian of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, to the project’s editorial board and, in turn, regular consultations with members of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association.
Publications in the Gershwin Critical Edition will represent the words and music of the Gershwin brothers in the clearest and most authoritative manner possible. Each edition will include a brief historical introduction and notes on the interpretive issues uncovered by the editing process. Editorial notes will carefully describe all sources used to create the edition and any and all editorial adjustments made. We will remove decades of editorial “improvements” made to the Gershwins’ works by well-intended publishers, while footnotes will track performance traditions that have all but become part of these scores. Rather than library editions, the project seeks to publish newly engraved scores and parts that are not only reliable and professional, but are convenient to use in performance. Instrumental parts, for example, will be free of editorial brackets and dashed slurs that might obscure or clutter. Before publication, scores will be test-driven by both student musicians at the University of Michigan (U-M) and professionals at partner orchestras throughout the United States. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra is already an official partner, and conductors such as Michael Tilson Thomas, Andrew Litton, and Laura Jackson serve as members of our Advisory Board.
Fundraising allowed the U-M Gershwin Office to open in the spring of 2015 and Jessica Getman was appointed full-time Managing Editor. Progress on three initial editions is proceeding rapidly and we expect the first editions to appear early in 2017. Parts may be available for rental even earlier. The initial editions include the 1924 jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue, featuring some 40 bars of piano solo recovered from sketches, the 1928 orchestral tone poem An American in Paris, and an all-new edition of Porgy and Bess, which for the first-time will be published in an edition in which the full score and the vocal score have the same number of measures.
The critical edition of An American in Paris offers insight into our editorial work. The new score is rooted in a clean transcription of George Gershwin’s handwritten full score now held in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This archival treasure contains an original ink layer, plus several layers of revisions and changes made in ink, pencil and colored pencil. All but a handful of these revisions were made before or shortly after the New York Philharmonic’s December 1928 world premiere and are confirmed by a February 1929 recording supervised by the composer. Fortunately, Gershwin’s own painterly handwriting is clearly identifiable throughout the score.
In part, our task in editing An American in Paris is to remove corrections and adjustments made to the score to make Gershwin’s musical voice more palatable to mid-century ensembles and listeners. These changes made Gershwin’s music a bit less modernist, less jazz-inflected, and more classical. The saxophone parts of An American in Paris, for example, were simplified in the 1940s to eliminate doubling and tripling fees for the musicians. Gershwin’s original score calls for three players, but rather than perform on just alto, tenor, and baritone saxophones throughout the entire score, the original parts call for the saxophonists to pick up three soprano saxophones to sound the Charleston dance theme. Later, they conclude the piece all playing alto.
Another remarkable finding concerns the iconic taxi horns of An American in Paris. It turns out that for the past 70 years, the pitches used are not what Gershwin intended. George famously selected four taxi horns for use in the piece from more than twenty he purchased in Paris. Diaries and interviews confirm that George was searching for horns that sounded specific pitches, and thus that these acoustic souvenirs are more than just sound effects, they are melodic and harmonic components of his musical argument. Nevertheless, the composer’s score notates the taxi horns in the percussion parts on a single-line staff in a manner typical of a snare drum, triangle, or other un-pitched percussion. Gershwin then marks each taxi horn motto with a letter A, B, C, or D to indicate which taxi horn should sound. Since at least the 1940s and performances by the NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic conducted by Arturo Toscanini and Arthur Rodzinski, these letters have been interpreted as pitch names. However, the 1929 recording combined with a recently uncovered photograph (see figure) reveal that these alphabet notations are merely labels for the four taxi horns and that the original sounding pitches of the horns Gershwin had selected were A-flat and B-flat (above middle C), a high D (a third above the B-flat), and a low A (a third below middle C). The new score also corrects a small number of note errors and, most importantly, restores and clarifies Gershwin’s markings for dynamics, articulations, and bowings. I expect that musicians will make this score their own through interpretation in performance, but the new pristine edition will result in less wasted rehearsal time and more compelling and convincing performances.
It is truly an honor for me to serve as Editor-in-Chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. As a former professional bassoonist and member of Local 10-208 in Chicago, my personal goal is that these new editions will not only serve to honor the creative legacy of the Gershwin brothers by representing their music accurately, but I hope that these scores will meet and exceed the needs of professional musicians.
Note: The author is Professor of Musicology and the Editor-in-Chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition at the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre & Dance. More information is available at http://www.music.umich.edu/ami/gershwin. Questions may be sent to GershwinEdition@umich.edu.
*For Porgy and Bess there should be twice as many first violins as seconds. This explains why Gershwin so frequently divides the firsts in half, but not the seconds—he wants the result to be three equal voices.