Arnold Schoenberg on George Gershwin

Arnold Schoenberg on George Gershwin

David Tenner
David Tenner

July 8th, 2017, 1:50 am #1

As the eightieth anniversary of George Gershwin's death (on July 11, 1937) approaches, here is Arnold Schoenberg's tribute to his friend (and Beverly Hills tennis partner):

"Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer. But they should understand that, serious or not, he is a composer – that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language. There are a number of composers, serious (as they believe) or not (as I know), who learned to add notes together. But they are only serious on account of a perfect lack of humor and soul."

"It seems to me that this difference alone is sufficient to justify calling the one a composer, but the other none. An artist is to me like an apple tree: When his time comes, whether he wants it or not, he bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. And as an apple tree neither knows nor asks about the value experts of the market will attribute to its product, so a real composer does not ask whether his products will please the experts of serious arts. He only feels he has to say something; and says it."

"It seems to me beyond doubt that Gershwin was an innovator. What he has done with rhythm, harmony and melody is not merely style. It is fundamentally different from the mannerism of many a serious composer. Such mannerism is based on artificial presumptions, which are gained by speculation and are conclusions drawn from the fashions and aims current among contemporary composers at certain times. Such a style is a superficial union of devices applied to a minimum of idea, without any inner reason or cause. Such music could be taken to pieces and put together in a different way, and the result would be the same nothingness expressed by another mannerism. One could not do this with Gershwin's music. His melodies are not products of a combination, nor of a mechanical union, but they are units and could therefore not be taken to pieces. Melody, harmony and rhythm are not welded together, but cast. I do not know it, but I imagine, he improvised them on the piano. Perhaps he gave them later the finishing touch; perhaps he spent much time to go over them again and again – I do not know. But the impression is that of an improvisation with all the merits and shortcomings appertaining to this kind of production. Their effect in this regard might be compared to that of an oration which might disappoint you when you read and examine it as with a magnifying glass – you miss what touched you so much, when you were overwhelmed by the charm of the orator's personality. One has probably to add something of one's own to reestablish the first effect. But it is always that way with art – you get from a work about as much as you are able to give to it yourself."

"I do not speak here as a musical theorist, nor am I a critic, and hence I am not forced to say whether history will consider Gershwin a kind of Johann Strauss or Debussy, Offenbach or Brahms, Lehar or Puccini."

"But I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new – as is the way in which he expressed them."

http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst ... enberg.php
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Alberta
Alberta

July 8th, 2017, 8:10 pm #2

for 2 reasons. Schoenberg and Gershwin might have discussed music in depth if they were tennis partners (which I didn't know), so he might have had some insight. Also, I loved the idea, without understanding it, that Gershwin's music was of a piece, not built from interchangeable parts. I always thought Schoenberg's music sounded precisely as though it was built from interchangeable parts, possibly by a robot, so that remark interested me. The listing of composers at the end is I think meant to be a comparison: Johann Strauss, Offenbach, and Lehar are the mechanics, while Debussy, Brahms and Puccini are the artists. Is this a correct interpretation?
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

July 8th, 2017, 8:18 pm #3

As the eightieth anniversary of George Gershwin's death (on July 11, 1937) approaches, here is Arnold Schoenberg's tribute to his friend (and Beverly Hills tennis partner):

"Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer. But they should understand that, serious or not, he is a composer – that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language. There are a number of composers, serious (as they believe) or not (as I know), who learned to add notes together. But they are only serious on account of a perfect lack of humor and soul."

"It seems to me that this difference alone is sufficient to justify calling the one a composer, but the other none. An artist is to me like an apple tree: When his time comes, whether he wants it or not, he bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. And as an apple tree neither knows nor asks about the value experts of the market will attribute to its product, so a real composer does not ask whether his products will please the experts of serious arts. He only feels he has to say something; and says it."

"It seems to me beyond doubt that Gershwin was an innovator. What he has done with rhythm, harmony and melody is not merely style. It is fundamentally different from the mannerism of many a serious composer. Such mannerism is based on artificial presumptions, which are gained by speculation and are conclusions drawn from the fashions and aims current among contemporary composers at certain times. Such a style is a superficial union of devices applied to a minimum of idea, without any inner reason or cause. Such music could be taken to pieces and put together in a different way, and the result would be the same nothingness expressed by another mannerism. One could not do this with Gershwin's music. His melodies are not products of a combination, nor of a mechanical union, but they are units and could therefore not be taken to pieces. Melody, harmony and rhythm are not welded together, but cast. I do not know it, but I imagine, he improvised them on the piano. Perhaps he gave them later the finishing touch; perhaps he spent much time to go over them again and again – I do not know. But the impression is that of an improvisation with all the merits and shortcomings appertaining to this kind of production. Their effect in this regard might be compared to that of an oration which might disappoint you when you read and examine it as with a magnifying glass – you miss what touched you so much, when you were overwhelmed by the charm of the orator's personality. One has probably to add something of one's own to reestablish the first effect. But it is always that way with art – you get from a work about as much as you are able to give to it yourself."

"I do not speak here as a musical theorist, nor am I a critic, and hence I am not forced to say whether history will consider Gershwin a kind of Johann Strauss or Debussy, Offenbach or Brahms, Lehar or Puccini."

"But I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new – as is the way in which he expressed them."

http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst ... enberg.php
"Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer." I am so fed up with this kind of crap. I am with Louis Armstrong: "I like all music that's good." I don't care if it is serious or not, as long it is good, and Gershwin's music is undoubtedly good!

Albert
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Alberta
Alberta

July 8th, 2017, 11:09 pm #4

You, as a scientist, know that I am sure. I for one don't think Gershwin's music is "good". I think it is tuneful and sometimes interesting and I like the piano renditions he did of some of his popular songs, but I don't think he is in the same class with Bix Beiderbecke, and I am sort of surprised no commentary from him seems to have been recorded regarding Bix's music. Whiteman seems to have seen Bix's value, since he gave the piano pieces a prominent place in some performances, even though they bore no resemblance at all to Gershwin, and it seems unlikely that they would have created the same type of sensation that Gershwin's orchestral music (at least Rhapsody in Blue) caused, with the fame, ticket sales, etc., even with the promotional boost Whiteman could offer.

The reason I like the Schoenberg quote is that he is giving a musician's opinion of another composer. Music so rarely benefits from a "word" interpretation, so it is interesting to hear this assessment. Without being an expert in any way, I'd go so far as to say that Schoenberg was indeed a musician, who, alas, was unable to write music. But it appears he had some interesting things to say about it. At least to me. I am grateful for the post.
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A Person With No Taste
A Person With No Taste

July 9th, 2017, 12:37 am #5

"Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer." I am so fed up with this kind of crap. I am with Louis Armstrong: "I like all music that's good." I don't care if it is serious or not, as long it is good, and Gershwin's music is undoubtedly good!

Albert
When I first began listening to early jazz and wanted to learn more about it, I read music critics (many of them musicians themselves) who explained that Louis Armstrong barely made any good records after nineteen-twenty-something, that Bix Beiderbecke never played with musicians who were as good as him, that the post-Adrian Rollini California Ramblers was not as good as the band before Rollini's departure, that the only good parts of Red Nichols's records were his sidemen i.e. not Nichols, that Charlie Johnson did not make that many good records, that the ODJB did not play good jazz, that Buster Bailey wasn't a good improviser, etc. You get the picture. "Good" meant anything from innovative to serious through technically impressive to simply making music that touched the writer on an emotional level. Yet the definitions were implied, never stated, and the underlying assumptions behind the use of the "term" were rarely treated as well-stated but ultimately subjective judgments. As an impressionable kid looking to authorities to refine my taste, it took me years to have the confidence to like what I like. Like many labels, "good" loses as much as it captures when applied to human experience. Louis Armstrong was in touch with that idea.

I've got some Boyd Senter sides to check out...
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Alberta
Alberta

July 9th, 2017, 3:21 am #6

If it's good to you, then it's good, at least in the arts. But there is something to be said for educating a person's tastes because what constitutes artistic accomplishment is lost on people who don't understand the language and have no sense of the history of a particular art form. That's not such a tragedy except that then, the artist is compelled to get a day job rather than support himself through his art, since he can't make a living at it if no one understands it.

(At least until the 20th century, when big money entered art forms and now, what is "good" is what has been promoted, but that's a separate discussion.)

Anyway, I liked hearing what Schoenberg had to say since I think it's important to know what actual musicians think of other people's music. Especially when articulated in an interesting way, as he did. I also happen to agree with him in much of what he said.
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Joined: January 1st, 1970, 12:00 am

July 9th, 2017, 1:24 pm #7

You, as a scientist, know that I am sure. I for one don't think Gershwin's music is "good". I think it is tuneful and sometimes interesting and I like the piano renditions he did of some of his popular songs, but I don't think he is in the same class with Bix Beiderbecke, and I am sort of surprised no commentary from him seems to have been recorded regarding Bix's music. Whiteman seems to have seen Bix's value, since he gave the piano pieces a prominent place in some performances, even though they bore no resemblance at all to Gershwin, and it seems unlikely that they would have created the same type of sensation that Gershwin's orchestral music (at least Rhapsody in Blue) caused, with the fame, ticket sales, etc., even with the promotional boost Whiteman could offer.

The reason I like the Schoenberg quote is that he is giving a musician's opinion of another composer. Music so rarely benefits from a "word" interpretation, so it is interesting to hear this assessment. Without being an expert in any way, I'd go so far as to say that Schoenberg was indeed a musician, who, alas, was unable to write music. But it appears he had some interesting things to say about it. At least to me. I am grateful for the post.
.... ear of the beholder. I was bringing Armstrong's quotation as an example of a musician who spoke his mind regardless of the pronunciations of pretentious critics, historians, dilettantes, etc. My posting was a cri de coeur.

Albert
Last edited by ahaim on July 9th, 2017, 1:46 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Dacid Tenner
Dacid Tenner

July 10th, 2017, 3:16 am #8

As the eightieth anniversary of George Gershwin's death (on July 11, 1937) approaches, here is Arnold Schoenberg's tribute to his friend (and Beverly Hills tennis partner):

"Many musicians do not consider George Gershwin a serious composer. But they should understand that, serious or not, he is a composer – that is, a man who lives in music and expresses everything, serious or not, sound or superficial, by means of music, because it is his native language. There are a number of composers, serious (as they believe) or not (as I know), who learned to add notes together. But they are only serious on account of a perfect lack of humor and soul."

"It seems to me that this difference alone is sufficient to justify calling the one a composer, but the other none. An artist is to me like an apple tree: When his time comes, whether he wants it or not, he bursts into bloom and starts to produce apples. And as an apple tree neither knows nor asks about the value experts of the market will attribute to its product, so a real composer does not ask whether his products will please the experts of serious arts. He only feels he has to say something; and says it."

"It seems to me beyond doubt that Gershwin was an innovator. What he has done with rhythm, harmony and melody is not merely style. It is fundamentally different from the mannerism of many a serious composer. Such mannerism is based on artificial presumptions, which are gained by speculation and are conclusions drawn from the fashions and aims current among contemporary composers at certain times. Such a style is a superficial union of devices applied to a minimum of idea, without any inner reason or cause. Such music could be taken to pieces and put together in a different way, and the result would be the same nothingness expressed by another mannerism. One could not do this with Gershwin's music. His melodies are not products of a combination, nor of a mechanical union, but they are units and could therefore not be taken to pieces. Melody, harmony and rhythm are not welded together, but cast. I do not know it, but I imagine, he improvised them on the piano. Perhaps he gave them later the finishing touch; perhaps he spent much time to go over them again and again – I do not know. But the impression is that of an improvisation with all the merits and shortcomings appertaining to this kind of production. Their effect in this regard might be compared to that of an oration which might disappoint you when you read and examine it as with a magnifying glass – you miss what touched you so much, when you were overwhelmed by the charm of the orator's personality. One has probably to add something of one's own to reestablish the first effect. But it is always that way with art – you get from a work about as much as you are able to give to it yourself."

"I do not speak here as a musical theorist, nor am I a critic, and hence I am not forced to say whether history will consider Gershwin a kind of Johann Strauss or Debussy, Offenbach or Brahms, Lehar or Puccini."

"But I know he is an artist and a composer; he expressed musical ideas; and they were new – as is the way in which he expressed them."

http://www.classical.net/music/comp.lst ... enberg.php
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Cn1L_cgHPY

At 1:38:

"George Gershwin was one of these rare kind of musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music, to him, was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel and music was the feeling he expressed. Directness of this kind is given only to great men. And there is no doubt that he was a great composer. What he has achieved was not only to the benefit of a national American music but also a contribution to the music of the whole world. In this meaning I want to express the deepest grief for the deplorable loss to music. But may I mention that I lose also a friend whose amiable personality was very dear to me."
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