Tuesday 12 December 2017

Classical: George Gershwin - the Piano Man par excellence

Keyboard skills: George Gershwin
Keyboard skills: George Gershwin

Over in London for a match, I was strolling through Harrods in Knightsbridge, as you do, when I heard a piano playing. I followed my ear through the displays of iconic opulence to see just who was delivering the sweetest rendition of the old Nina Simone standard 'My Baby Just Cares For Me'. I turned into the lobby by Hans Crescent and there, in splendid isolation, was a baby grand. Of a budding Barry Douglas there was not a sign. The piano was playing itself.

It was just such an instrument that helped launch the career of one of music's greats whose birthday just happens to be today. The artist in question is none other than George Gershwin, arguably America's finest, who was born on this date in 1898.

It's a great yarn. He was just a kid when the family bought an old upright piano so the older brother Ira could learn to play. But then George sat up on the stool and rattled off a number and they were completely gobsmacked.

The story goes that he learned to play by watching the keys go up and down on one of these automatic pianos or pianolas as they were known when they were the must-have accessory in every upwardly mobile American's drawing room.

His keyboard skills left Ira far behind. He left school early and went to work as a creator of the mechanics that made the pianolas work. The notes he'd play would punch holes in a roll of special paper. With the roll in place, the pianola would start. The keys would respond to the perforations, and the old upright would sing.

George Gershwin worked as a song plugger as well. In the absence of the as yet uninvented demo disc, pluggers were the pianists who got the songs out in front of potential performers.

But for a musician as talented as he was, this was frustrating, unfulfilling work. He started writing his own material. He struck gold with a number called 'Swanee' which was taken up by Al Jolson, one of the top entertainers of the time. Gershwin was just turning 20.

What brings him into this space is a piece that came not long after, in 1924. This was his single-movement piano concerto, Rhapsody in Blue. The all-American Gershwin loved his jazz and blues, but he had a deep interest in the music of Europe's piano men like Debussy and Liszt.

He got the chance to bring all of this together when he was commissioned to write a piece for a show that was billed as "An Experiment in Modern Music".

What happened next is the stuff of fantasy. Gershwin got distracted, and forgot all about his commitment. It was only when he saw a story in the paper about the major new Gershwin piece that was going to be the highlight of this concert in a month's time that got his act together.

He worked on it furiously, but it was by no means the finished article when the big day approached. The introduction - the clarinet's sparkling slide up and down two-and-a-half octaves - was only added in rehearsal, inspired by the woodwind player's warm-up.

The piano part hadn't got out of Gershwin's head and on to a score, so it was all improvised. The solos would end with a nod of the head to the conductor, Gershwin's signal to bring the orchestra back in.

On the opening night, it brought the house down.

It was like nothing that had ever been heard before. Unique, George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is one of America's greatest contributions to the canon of classical music.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ Lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.


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