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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 11 In Search of the “Real” America
Richard Taruskin

The late recollection is tinged with patronization, typical of “literate” attitudes toward the “limitations” of an oral genre. That was hardly Copland’s point of view in the 1920s. In trying to comprehend his decision to abandon jazz, it will be useful to compare the bad reception his jazz-influenced compositions met with the altogether different reception some seemingly similar works by another American composer enjoyed around the same time. What on the surface may appear paradoxical will on investigation prove revealing.

George Gershwin (1898–1937), Copland’s near exact contemporary, had a very similar ethnic and family background. Like Copland, he was born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents who had emigrated to the United States from Russia. He even studied briefly with the same teacher, Rubin Goldmark, though at a later stage of life than Copland. Both Copland and Gershwin left school to pursue their musical careers before attending college. But where Copland made the decision voluntarily after graduating from high school, and pursued a full-time musical education at Fontainebleau, Gershwin, who came from a much poorer family, dropped out of high school at fourteen, the youngest age then legal, in order to earn a living.

A precocious pianist, gifted with a remarkable ear, Gershwin found work as a “song-plugger” for a music publisher. His job was to play items of “sheet-music” by request, so that prospective purchasers, both amateur pianists and variety-show (“vaudeville”) singers, could hear the songs the firm was offering for sale. The position required a fluent piano technique and a talent for stylish embellishment or improvisation by ear (the very skill Copland lacked and slightly scorned). It was natural that a song-plugger would turn to writing popular songs himself, in the highly standardized format that was the stock-in-trade of “Tin Pan Alley.”


fig. 11-6 George Gershwin, self-portrait in oils (1934).

Tin Pan Alley was the nickname for the songwriting and music-publishing industry that grew up in New York in the 1890s and lasted roughly until the Second World War. Evoking the sound of the weather-beaten upright pianos on which pluggers like Gershwin plied their trade in publishers’ salesrooms on East 14th Street in lower Manhattan, the name was coined by Monroe Rosenfeld (1861–1918), who worked as both a songwriter and a journalist. As a business, Tin Pan Alley was indeed heavily populated if not dominated by Jewish entrepreneurs, and it employed many Jewish songwriters as well. Its products were used not only in domestic parlors but also, and primarily, in the variety theaters on Broadway, and in their Yiddish counterparts on Second Avenue in the Lower East Side.

Within a year of his first employment as a song-plugger, Gershwin had sufficiently distinguished himself as a pianist to find work cutting player-piano rolls for home use, and became a sought-after accompanist for professional entertainers. In 1917 he moved from Tin Pan Alley to the more prestigious theater world uptown, becoming the rehearsal pianist for a “revue” or plotless song-and-dance show called Miss 1917, with music by Victor Herbert (1859–1924) and Jerome Kern (1885–1945), who with Irving Berlin (1888–1989) were then the reigning composers on Broadway. The next year, on the strength of a few published songs and piano pieces, Gershwin was put on retainer by Max Dreyfus, the head of T. B. Harms & Co., Tin Pan Alley’s biggest publishing firm; for $35 a week, Harms received the “right of first refusal” on anything the young composer might produce.

It was a good bet. In 1920, Swanee, a Gershwin song Harms had published in 1919, was recorded by the blackface singer Al Jolson (1886–1950) and became a runaway hit, earning the composer a then fantastic royalty of $10,000 in its first year. More important, it made him a bankable “name” composer for Broadway producers. During the five years 1920–1924, Gershwin wrote the scores for eleven Broadway shows, of which seven were revues, the rest “musical comedies” (later shortened to “musicals”), meaning shows with dramatic plots that emulated operettas. From these shows, seventy-two songs were harvested for publication as sheet music, in addition to sixteen songs that Gershwin wrote for insertion into shows by other composers, and seven “occasional” items that were either dropped from shows or composed directly for sheet-music sale. Added to the songs Gershwin had written up to his first year under contract to Harms, they made a total of well over a hundred songs.

Practically all of them were written according to the same “industrial” formula, a necessity for maintaining such a high commercial productivity. (In this, Tin Pan Alley resembled the Italian opera of a hundred years before, or the early “classical” symphony, other literate genres that required a high volume and that consequently relied on similarly standardized and stereotyped formal designs of a kind more often found in oral cultures.) The standard form was the 32-bar “chorus” or refrain (usually preceded by one or two introductory “verses” that were often omitted). The thirty-two bars were grouped in four eight-bar phrases or “lines” that were cast musically in age-old “fixed” patterns like AABA, ABAB, ABCA, or AABC, of which the first was by far the most prevalent. In its commonest variant, the first two lines had closed and open endings, respectively; the “B” (often called the “bridge” or “release”) comprised two 4-bar phrases like the two short lines in a limerick, and the final line repeated the “closed” version of A, thus: AA′BA. (The remotest literate ancestors of this fixed form, also associated with the cabaletta or fast concluding section of an Italian opera aria, were composed by the troubadours, Aquitanian (southern French) poet-musicians of the eleventh century.) As an example of a Tin Pan Alley chorus, “You Don’t Know the Half of It, Dearie” (Ex. 11-9), a song from Lady, Be Good! (one of four Gershwin shows to open in 1924), will be particularly useful, since it very pointedly illustrates the relationship between Tin Pan Alley and “jazz.” It is billed as a “blues” number (marketed as sheet music as “the Half of It, Dearie, Blues”) and it appropriates a number of style features from the typical African-American blues as illustrated in Ex. 11-4, by W. C. Handy. The first line, in fact, could have been from an actual blues, both because of its harmony, confined (or confinable) to the tonic triad, and because of its rhythmic structure (all the words concentrated in its first half, with the rest free for “riffing,” or for improvisation by the accompanying instrument). There is even a blue note on “Dearie.”


ex. 11-9 George Gershwin, Lady, Be Good!, “You Don’t Know the Half of It, Dearie”

But what was a “12-bar” structure in three lines has been stretched out to meet the requirements of the standard chorus in four, and the distinctive harmonic succession that makes a blues a blues has also been abandoned in favor of a freer set of harmonic “changes.” The blues, in short, has become (like all forms of “jazz”) one of many flavorings available to the Tin Pan Alley composer. The Tin Pan Alley standard was already a thoroughly hybrid, Europeanized adaptation of jazz, like the ones by Milhaud and Ravel we have already seen; only in place of the modernist insistence on originality of style and form it demanded conformity to a commercial template.

The same year in which he wrote Lady, Be Good!, Gershwin was unexpectedly given an opportunity to cross over into more “serious” terrain when Paul Whiteman (1890–1967), a popular bandleader with a classical background who was planning a big concert tour of the United States, invited the young Broadway composer, already known for his remarkable keyboard facility and extraordinary melodic gift, to compose an extended work for piano and large dance orchestra in the form of a “rhapsody.” The genre, not really a form but a title popularized by Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, was cannily chosen. It connoted at once a romantically “free” form, an opportunity for pianistic display, and a programmatically “nationalistic” statement of a sort that many American composers were then contemplating.

The piece that Gershwin came up with, Rhapsody in Blue, was first performed (in an orchestration by Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé) on Lincoln’s birthday, 12 February 1924. It came near the end of a long matinee concert called “An Experiment in Modern Music,” for which Whiteman had rented Aeolian Hall, a concert venue maintained by a player-piano manufacturing firm, where Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony gave their concerts (and where Copland’s early symphony—plus Damrosch’s preposterous comment about it—would be heard a year later). The ticket-selling gimmick was the announcement that a panel of experts—Rachmaninoff, the violinists Jascha Heifetz and Efrem Zimbalist, and the latter’s wife, the soprano Alma Gluck—would judge the compositions presented and decide which were the most authentically American.31 (The fact that three of the panelists were Russian-born and the fourth Romanian seems to have been no impediment to their expertise.)

Other big names in music who were listed as official “patrons” of the event included the Swiss-born composer Ernest Bloch, the Dutchman Willem Mengelberg (then leading the New York Philharmonic), the Vienna-born violinist Fritz Kreisler, the Lithuanian-born pianist Leopold Godowsky, and the Italian-born Metropolitan Opera soprano Amelita Galli-Curci. A prefatory note in the program book, by Whiteman’s manager, stated the purpose of the program:

The experiment is purely educational. Mr. Whiteman intends to point out, with the assistance of the orchestra and associates, the tremendous strides which have been made in popular music from the day of the discordant jazz, which sprang into existence about ten years ago from nowhere in particular, to the really melodious music of today which—for no good reason—is still being called jazz.32

“From nowhere in particular …” The program was in essence an attempt to sanitize contemporary popular music and elevate it in public esteem by divorcing it from its roots in African-American improvised music and securing endorsements from the classical music establishment. The twenty-five pieces on the program were grouped into sections with slightly pretentious titles like “The True Form of Jazz,” “Recent Compositions with Modern Score,” “In the Field of Classics,” “Flavoring a Selection with Borrowed Themes,” and “Adaptation of Standard Selections to Dance Rhythm.” Gershwin’s culminating Rhapsody and Victor Herbert’s Suite of Serenades, the most ambitious items performed, were sections unto themselves.

Rhapsody in Blue was a huge success with the audience, who had been beginning to show signs of listlessness as its turn approached. The critics were also kind. Deems Taylor (1885–1966), not only a critic but also the successful composer of two operas performed at the Metropolitan, and who had been listed in the program as a “patron” (which made his reviewing the concert a somewhat questionable proposition), allowed that Gershwin’s composition “hinted at something new, something that had not hitherto been said in music.”33 Gershwin, he predicted, would provide “a link between the jazz camp and the intellectuals.” W. J. Henderson (1855–1937), then the dean of New York critics, saw Whiteman’s concert as a milestone, achieving “the total eclipse of the other kind of moderns—all save one, Stravinsky.”34 Mengelberg went further, exclaiming that “Gershwin had succeeded in doing what Stravinsky was [only] trying to do.”35 Olin Downes, who as we know would have harsh words for Copland’s Music for the Theatre, wrote in the New York Times, a little cryptically, that in spite of a certain “technical immaturity,” Gershwin’s was “a new talent finding its voice, and likely to say something personally and racially important to the world.”36 Given the premises of the concert, as well as the controversies we have already sampled surrounding Copland’s Jewishness, Downes’s use of the word “racially” may seem dubious or even sinister; in its context, however, it probably referred not to the composer’s Jewishness or to the negritude of his models, but more innocently to his music’s distinctively New World flavor.

The music critic (and novelist and photographer) Carl Van Vechten (1880–1964), who had already made a name for himself as a proponent of modern music with, among other things, an ebullient account of The Rite of Spring premiere, declared Rhapsody in Blue “the very finest piece of serious music that had ever come out of America,”37 and in a letter to the composer he went furthest of all. “Go straight on,” he advised Gershwin, “and you will knock all Europe silly.”38 Others seemed to sense this, too: the only discordant notes in the Rhapsody’s reception came from the proponents of “high” European modernism, who reacted to the “lowbrow” threat with condescension. “You must whisper it softly,” wrote Carl Engel, a columnist for the Musical Quarterly, “when you dare suggest that at last America has a music all its own,” originating not “at the top, in the Hermetic circles of New Music Societies, Manuscript Societies, Associations for the Promotion of Native Talent, and the like, but at the bottom, in the street.”39

In the wake of Rhapsody in Blue Gershwin received a commission from Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony for a traditional three-movement piano concerto with full orchestra, a far more ambitious and in some ways more sophisticated work, which received its premiere in Carnegie Hall on 3 December 1925. The critics again were welcoming, one going so far as to remark that “of all those writing the music of today,” Gershwin “alone actually expresses us.”40 The timing makes it likely that the success of Gershwin’s Concerto in F, as he called it, was among the factors that stimulated Copland to compose his own piano concerto. As we know, Copland’s work was greeted with a hostile, insulting, and ultimately discouraging reception.

The encouragement Gershwin received, by contrast, steadily increased. Rhapsody in Blue turned out to be perhaps the most lucrative piece of concert music ever composed, earning the composer more than a quarter of a million dollars from performance and recording royalties and rental fees during the first ten years of its existence, both in its original scoring for dance band and in its 1926 “symphonic” version (also the work of Ferde Grofé). It is worth noting that much of this income was earned from sales of piano rolls and recordings, and from radio broadcasts, making Gershwin the first composer of concert music to benefit conspicuously from the new mechanized and electronic dissemination-media of the twentieth century. Gershwin readily recognized this. In an essay called “The Composer in the Machine Age,” published in 1930 in a volume titled Revolt in the Arts, he voiced the soon-to-be-controversial thesis that “the composer, in my estimation, has been helped a great deal by the mechanical reproduction of music.”41 In 1928, shortly after Ravel visited America, Gershwin made the reverse trip, and, as Carl Van Vechten predicted, “knocked all Europe silly.” He was lionized everywhere, not only by audiences but by leading modernist composers—Prokofieff, Milhaud, Poulenc, Ravel, Berg—who accepted him as a peer. (Or more than a peer: a famous anecdote has Gershwin asking Ravel for orchestration lessons; after inquiring what Gershwin had earned from his music the previous year, Ravel remarks, “Then it is I who should be taking lessons from you.”) No American creative musician ever equaled Gershwin’s European conquest, attributable partly—but only partly—to its timing at the height of the “jazz age,” when everything American was singularly in vogue in Europe.

The direct issue of Gershwin’s trip to Europe was a tone poem, An American in Paris, which had its first performance under Damrosch in December 1928. The slower middle section, which according to Gershwin’s program note expresses the title character’s homesickness, reverts to the idiom of the Rhapsody in Blue; the bustling outer sections, however, in which Gershwin worked the sound of taxi horns into his orchestration, shows him aspiring, like the composers of the Boulangerie, toward the general European modernist idiom in its Parisian “neoclassical” version as exemplified by the work of Ravel and Les Six (and, more remotely, by Stravinsky).

All through the late 1920s Gershwin continued working in the Broadway theater and, after the invention of “talkies” around 1930, in Hollywood (where he met and befriended the exiled Arnold Schoenberg). Despite his fame and financial success he continued to take sporadic composition lessons from Rubin Goldmark, Henry Cowell, and Wallingford Riegger (1885–1961), an American composer of an older generation who had studied at the Berlin Conservatory. Finally, in 1932, acting on the advice of Alexander Glazunov, a veteran Russian composer who toured America in 1929, Gershwin sought out Joseph Schillinger (1895–1943), a Russian-born composer and music theorist whose extremely schematic methods were later published in a massive two-volume treatise, The Schillinger System of Musical Composition (already sampled in Ex. 6-23).

Schillinger was then enjoying something of a vogue among musicians from the popular-music and theatrical spheres who were looking for technical grounding in serious genres; among his other pupils were the pianist-composer Oscar Levant (1906–72), the jazz clarinettist and bandleader Benny Goodman (1909–86), and the bandleader and jazz trombonist Glenn Miller (1904–44). Gershwin worked with Schillinger for four years, during which time he wrote his most ambitious score, an “American folk opera” called Porgy and Bess, after a novel-turned-play by DuBose Heyward about life among the poor black residents of Charleston, South Carolina. The libretto, in Negro-American dialect, was by the composer’s brother, Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), who had long been his chief songwriting collaborator.

The four works of Gershwin described in the foregoing sketch have joined the permanent standard concert and operatic repertory, and not only in America. They are, moreover, the only American works of “symphonic jazz” to have done so, all others, including Copland’s, having lapsed long ago into obscurity. Though occasionally revived, they now present chiefly a historical interest. In part, the lasting success of Gershwin’s contributions is attributable, of course, to their qualities as art works and the pleasure they give audiences. But the enormous discrepancy between the reception accorded Copland and that accorded Gershwin as “jazz” composers requires analysis as a historical phenomenon. That analysis must of course begin with an analysis of Gershwin’s music to match the one already given Copland’s.


(31) “Whiteman Judges Named: Committee Will Decide ‘What Is American Music?’ (New York Tribune, 4 January 1924); photo inset in Edward Jablonski and Lawrence D. Stewart, The Gershwin Years (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1973), p. 89.

(32) Hugh C. Ernst, introduction to the Whiteman program book; quoted in Thornton Hagert, “Jazz Invades Aeolian Hall,” liner insert to An Experiment in Modern Music: Paul Whiteman at Aeolian Hall (The Smithsonian Collection R 028, 1981).

(33) Quoted in Joan Peyser, The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 84.

(34) New York Herald, 13 February 1924; quoted in Carol J. Oja, “Gershwin and American Modernists of the 1920s,” Musical Quarterly LXXVIII (1994): 653.

(35) H.O. Osgood, So This Is Jazz (1926); quoted in Oja, “Gershwin and American Modernists,” p. 652.

(36) Quoted in Peyser, The Memory of All That, p. 84.

(37) Vanity Fair, March 1925; quoted in Oja, “Gershwin and American Modernists,” p. 653.

(38) Quoted in Schiff, Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, p. 89.

(39) Carl Engel, “Views and Reviews,” Muiscal Quarterly XII (1926): 306.

(40) Samuel Chotzinoff (New York World); quoted in Peyser, The Memory of All That, p. 107.

(41) George Gershwin, “The Composer in the Machine Age,” Revolt of the Arts (1930); rpt. in Gilbert Chase, The American Composer Speaks (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966), p. 144.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 18 Oct. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 In Search of the “Real” America." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 18 Oct. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-011003.xml