Pianist Kirill Gerstein on the music of Gershwin

Eva Mackevic

We’ve all heard something by Gershwin—sometimes without even knowing it. When you’re put on hold on a call to the United Airlines in the US, you’ll hear the Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin, while “Summertime” must be one of the most covered songs in the history of music, there are tens of thousands of covers of it.

Gershwin wrote music that’s so quintessentially American, it’s identified as “the American sound,” and yet he was a first-generation American. His parents were Russian Jews who fled Eastern Europe partly because of anti-Semitism and pogroms, so they arrived as these, essentially, refugees, to the US, and then their son created this iconic American music. There’s something to think about there, especially today, because there’s this huge debate about inclusiveness, immigration, acceptance of foreign influences and what that does to the host country.

And although his biography is rich and exciting, I like to focus on the melting pot aspect of his life. The fact that he came from Lower East Side Manhattan where he heard these Yiddish radio stations, Klezmer and jazz music, Broadway and Tin Pan Alley—but also classical music. Growing up in a melting pot is what shaped him and his music. It’s an organic outcome.

The fusion of jazz and classical

Gershwin’s music is very special and interesting because it resides right on the border between so called “classical” music and jazz. He had an enormous influence on the way we see art today because in the 1920s and 30s he was quite freely manipulating these different stylistic strands. He knew Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, and admired Schoenberg and Ravel, but at the same time he was writing these incredibly popular songs for Broadway that were heavily influenced by jazz. At that point, jazz was still a very new influence—it had existed for 20 years or so—so he was freely fusing the two and because of that he remains really unique even today.

"He was not quite jazz, not quite classical, he was just himself"

It’s interesting that at the time, especially in US, Gershwin was criticised for being neither this nor that. In the classical circles he was criticised for not being enough of a “high-art” composer. And it’s interesting that now, say 70-80 years later, we look at him and think how incredibly modern and accepting of different influences he was which is a topic that’s very relevant right now; the theme of inclusion, adopting different cultural influences and moulding it into something that’s original—in that sense Gershwin is very much a composer who remains relevant today.

A lot of the songs from his Broadway shows and Porgy and Bess became jazz standards and departure reference points for improvising. He was recognised for trying to bring jazz into the concert hall which was something that jazz musicians were slowly trying to achieve anyway. We can enjoy the fruits of it now because it’s become normal, but it was a novelty at the time. But there’s a danger when you’re on the cusp of two styles—the jazz musicians didn’t think of Gershwin as entirely one of their own either. So he was not quite jazz, not quite classical, he was just himself. Which is what you want; rather than being part of a movement, you can just be yourself.

Playing jazz and classical


Image via Marco Borggreve 

There’s a general misconception about classical music being all written out and that jazz is this thing that appears out of thin air, but in fact, classical music, in an accurate comparison, is like an actor reading a Shakespeare monologue. There’s this murky confusion as to what can or should happen but one can take away something very different from another performer reading the same monologue or even the same performer reading it on a different night.

Different inflections, more of a pause there, slower line here, faster line there. Same goes for when one plays any written out classical composition. This is why we’re all just interpreters and we come to different conclusions—and not only between ourselves but also with ourselves. One day you can play something one way and then change it entirely on a different day. 

Jazz, on the other hand, is not at all "a thing out of thing air", because there’s quite a strong code of expectations as to what fits the language and the structure to which it’s organised. Also, the so called “improvised solos” are not something that’s never come to a musician’s mind before. A great analogy is that jazz is a bit like stand up comedy; when a comedian goes out to do a set, he doesn’t come out on stage without having any idea about what he’s going to talk about. He might get side-tracked and go along with that for a moment but essentially he knows what he’s going to talk about but he doesn’t repeat it word for word. That’s jazz.

The joys of Gershwin

There’s a purely visceral pleasure and joy that one derives from Gershwin’s music because it’s incredibly songful, lyrical and groovy, which is something that people don’t usually associate with classical music. Concert-hall-like stiffness is a common misconception but it’s a very prevalent one and maybe sometimes even a deserved one, but his music is not like that at all.

However, the idea of style—and this is why I think Gershwin is still so relevant today—is receding. People nowadays are much less concerned with when a piece was written or who wrote it. It’s much more about, This is giving me pleasure to listen to. And it’s not lamentable, it’s a healthy thing. Music was made to give pleasure. There’s a wonderful quote from a 16th-century English musicology book where it says, “music is a science but its goal is pleasure.” There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes expertise that’s required to craft a Gershwin concerto, a Beethoven symphony or a Bach partita but the goal is to give fellow humans pleasure and that’s quite a universal idea.

Early death and legacy

Gershwin was one of the great composers partially because of the incredible speed and ability with which he developed. For example, Rhapsody in Blue was premiered in a version that was orchestrated by Ferde Grofé, not Gershwin himself. A year later, when he wrote the Concerto in F, he did the orchestration himself, and it was then praised by many people, especially for its masterful use of the orchestra.

The fact that in a space of a year he went from not being able to orchestrate, to writing a concerto and making a masterful use of the orchestra is amazing. There’s also this mythology about people who are extremely talented, evolve really quickly and die really young, like Mozart or Schubert. If Gershwin was growing at that speed, what could have happened had he not died at the age of 38? He was just getting started.

People are attracted to this sort of beauty in the tragedy of someone so talented going so young. But I think it’s very interesting to ponder what would’ve happened to classical music in America had he lived longer. But that’s just one of those mysteries that we can only fantasise about.  

Kirill Gerstein's new album The Gershwin Moment is out on myrios classics this Friday, February 16