By Tim Page
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 6:46 PM
By Larry Starr
Yale Univ. 194 pp. $45
It is a truth universally acknowledged that George Gershwin (1898-1937) wrote some irresistible melodies. After that, the debate begins.
Was Gershwin an inspired tunesmith, pure and simple, who nevertheless remained a rank amateur when he attempted to compose in larger forms, such as in his piano concertos or for the opera house? Or did his early death rob us of a distinctly American master, somebody who might have yoked all the strains that made up our wondrously polyglot musical culture of the mid-20th century - jazz, blues, popular song, European classical stylings, modernist experimentation - into a sustained and unified expression?
Larry Starr's valuable new book, titled simply "George Gershwin," makes a strong case for the latter view. This is not a traditional biography (although Starr shares some potent biographical vignettes in a section called "Snapshots") but rather an insightful, technically intricate yet easy-to-follow study of Gershwin's music, particularly as it came out of the Broadway tradition. For, whatever else he was or might have become, Gershwin was a creature of American musical theater: He wrote the music for 19 complete shows on Broadway or on film and concluded his career with the opera "Porgy and Bess."
Starr traces the evolution of Gershwin's style through an in-depth examination of two of the composer's most famous songs - "The Man I Love," written for one of his first hit shows, "Lady Be Good" (1924); and "Love Walked In" (1937), published six months after the composer's death - in loving and precise detail. He sets the scene, comparing Gershwin to two other Broadway composers, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin, without attempting to elevate one at the expense of another. "Berlin and Gershwin (and Kern, and [Richard] Rodgers, and [Cole] Porter; the list could go on and on) were constantly listening to and learning from one another in an environment that was as stimulating and nurturing as it was competitive," the author observes.
The book's tour de force is probably the 33-page chapter devoted to "Of Thee I Sing," a musical comedy about American politics, which opened at New York's Music Box Theater in December 1931 and which Starr describes, Monty Python-style, as "Something Completely Different." It was, and the overture must have mystified its first listeners. "There was no traditional curtain-raising musical gesture leading quickly into a memorable tune," Starr recounts. "Indeed, the overture and 'Wintergreen for President' could justifiably leave one wondering whether in fact this material is truly Gershwin's, or the work of some previously unknown but brilliant theater composer who had obviously learned a lot from Gershwin, while managing to forge a fresh and highly personal musical language of his own." Such insights abound throughout the book.
Which leads us inevitably to "Porgy and Bess." The composer and critic Virgil Thomson summed up Gershwin's only more-or-less traditional opera with his usual pith, calling it "an interesting example of what can be done by talent in spite of a bad set up. With a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen, a man who should never have attempted it has written a work that has some power and importance."
Thomson's qualification is a savvy one. Nobody, to my knowledge, has ever doubted the beauty and energy of the best music in "Porgy." Yet once "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and several of the other "hits" have been sung and played, what remains - for some of us, at least - is a dreary, awkward and unbearably ponderous opera that feels longer than two back-to-back performances of Wagner's "Ring" cycle.
Starr hears it differently: "It is difficult to conceive just how Gershwin might have gone beyond 'Porgy and Bess.' The work is so rich, consisting virtually of one musical and dramatic high point after another, that it can seem as if Gershwin was determined to pour every last ounce of himself into this single opus." He calls it a "special, monumental, and ultimately unclassifiable achievement in a brilliant and unclassifiable career." Many musicians and scholars will agree with him, and they will find thoughtful, passionate support in this book. And so the debate continues.
Tim Page is a professor of journalism and music at the University of Southern California. His most recent book is "Parallel Play."