RUBATOS, PRELUDES AND GEORGE GERSHWIN


From Bach to Mozart to Chopin to Debussy, the world's greatest composers have possessed the remarkable ability to create the tiniest masterpieces side by side with their most important works. This applies especially to George Gershwin, who composed over one thousand songs, but only seven tiny Preludes while composing major works like the Concerto in F, An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue, Cuban Overture, Blue Monday, Lullaby, Second Rhapsody, the I've Got Rhythm Variations and Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin's Seven Preludes offer the great opportunity to study his evolution in piano compositions from 1919 to 1926. With these small pieces, he allows us to recognize the extraordinary extent of his genius as a serious composer.

The inspiration for the Gershwin Preludes came from Chopin. His twenty-four preludes were the basis for Gershwin's project to compose twenty-four of his own, to be titled "The Melting Pot". In the same way that Chopin's Preludes are dramatically different from one another, so too are Gershwin's. However, what is not known is whether Gershwin intended to write his collection according to every key as Chopin had done. Gershwin's existing Preludes offer tantalizing speculation: Melody #17 (A flat); Prelude No. I (B flat); Prelude No. II (C# minor); Novelette in Fourths (E flat); Prelude No. III (E flat minor); Rubato (G Major); Fragment - titled Short Story (G minor). Preludes in D or F never surfaced or were possibly composed but re-routed as songs.

The mysterious fragment, Prelude, January 1925 was probably intended to be the first of the Gershwin collection, but was never utilized as a prelude. In fact, it is around this time that Gershwin began composing his Concerto in F. This Prelude, January 1925 finds its real and only incarnation as the opening and basis for the third movement of the Concerto. The Stravinsky-like, pagan pulse of its musical statement clearly required a more expansive treatment than a short prelude would allow.

With the notation and disappearance of this very first Gershwin Prelude begins the tale of Gershwin's Complete Piano Preludes and more specifically his prelude Rubato.

In 1926, three Gershwin Preludes were published; No. I in B flat), No. II in C# minor and No. III in E flat minor. According to Edward Jablonski in his book "Gershwin: A Biography"*, the pieces Gershwin performed on December 5, 1926 numbered five. They had been premiered at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York at a joint concert with noted singer Maria Alvarez. A sixth prelude was added at his Boston concert shortly thereafter. This later piece was simply titled Melody No. 17 and was one of the many numbered "melodies" which Gershwin routinely entered into his notebooks as they popped into his consciousness. Unlike others, this particular melody was fully notated and harmonized in his hand. It was without lyrics and, as with his other "melodies", it could be ultimately adapted to any project at hand. Since Gershwin intended to create a song out of this melody, he did not offer it for publication as a Prelude. His astute business mind knew that a song with catchy Ira lyrics would be far more profitable than a piano prelude. Sadly, Melody No. 17 did not survive as a Gershwin original. After his death, his long-time friend Kay Swift arranged it quite beautifully with the intention that Ira would add lyrics to it. This never occurred, and neither Melody No. 17, nor Kay Swift's version of it (which was titled Sleepless Night) were published until 1995. (Warner Bros. Publications - The Complete Gershwin Preludes #PF0895 - Arranged by Alicia Zizzo).

Still left with two missing preludes, there were clues to be found in the reviews of Gershwin's own live concerts. For example, one Prelude was described as a cakewalk with a verbal directive to be played "tempo Rubato". It had been written as a Novelette in 1919, along with his other first serious piano piece Lullaby, and his smash hit song Swanee.

The two former were "lost" and the latter made him a rich man. Another prelude simply titled Rubato, and composed in 1923 was also discussed in Gershwin's 1926 reviews and referred to by Abbe Niles as "a frank salute to Chopin". Mr. Niles went on to write that Gershwin played it with a "rolling bass". This piece also was never published in its original form until 1995.

The original manuscripts notated in Gershwin's hand for the 1925 publication of the "original" Preludes (Nos. I and II) were subsequently lost and have not been found to this day. Given this fact, it is indeed fortuitous that the original manuscripts for Rubato the Novelette in Fourths, and Prelude No. III in E flat minor (subtitled Spanish Prelude by Gershwin, were found in the Library of Congress, thanks to the devotion and foresight of Ira and Leonore Gershwin.

There is another aspect to the mystery of the "missing" preludes. The Novelette in Fourths and Rubato, although lost as piano pieces, appeared in 1925 in another form under the title Short Story. At that time Gershwin's good friend Samuel Dushkin, a well-known violinist, approached him with the idea of transcribing these two preludes for violin and piano. They take no more that a few minutes to play and are very pleasant to listen to as a duet. In his arrangement of these two pieces, Dushkin, like most of his conservatory trained European peers, imbued them with the performance style that was steeped in the late 19th Century. Short Story is lovely and sentimental, but does not resemble Gershwin's original piece in style or notation. Unfortunately for Gershwin, such liberties were taken routinely with his work. Gershwin was unperturbed by this. He was in the business of music for profit and his affable nature precluded him from complaining.

In their original piano solo form, both preludes share musical characteristics that are uniquely Gershwin's. He loosely borrows from the Baroque and Classical idea of continuos as the backdrop to the melodic working out of his material. This technique was used for centuries to accommodate the technical and dynamic limitations of keyboard instruments of the 16th and 17th centuries. Its primary function was to set the pulse and maintain the energy of the rhythm and to prevent the melodic line from meandering. Because of the limited dynamic range of these early keyboards, rather than increase or decrease tonal range by applying more pressure to the key as we do on the modern piano, early keyboard music would be manipulated dynamically by "stretching" a note within the framework of its rigid accompaniment in the bass - hence the emergence of "rubatos". By the end of the 19th Century, musicians had an enormous range of dynamic options and the playing of Rubatos became freer, passionate and sentimental.

It is my opinion that Gershwin did not set out to systematically undo 19th Century performance practices. I think he simply followed his musical instincts as a child of the 20th Century, living in New York City with access to every imaginable musical style from jazz to opera. He adopted the idea of continuos to accommodate the constancy of early jazz, the fluidity of Impressionist harmonies, and his own zeal for melody heavily grounded in solid tempi. He was, in effect, defining a distinct American performance style with no interest in the angst of preceding European generations. Even in his most poignant musical moments, his notion of despair takes on a different tonality. His operative was the Impressionist's esthetic distance, which he combined with the jazz players strict rhythms. No two small pieces show this more brilliantly than Rubato and Novelette in Fourths. Gershwin's approach to these two preludes was as complex as it was simple. Melody and rhythm were his prime considerations and appealing to the masses was his objective. Unlike other songwriters, his genius for original harmonies set him apart from other composers at all levels. As a Rubato - a piece that lasts no more than 45 seconds - one immediately recognizes it as Gershwin even though Abbe Niles was correct in describing it as a tribute to Chopin.

Although Gershwin looks to the past for confirmation and direction, he brings to his music the energy of his own era, the "roaring 20s". Compare a flapper's Charleston to a minuet and one gets an unclear picture of how two such divergent dance forms can have any commonality. But they do - and it lies in the fact that both dances have the effect of moving forward melodically and rhythmically without compromising basic tempos. This is accomplished by avoiding ritards and extensive musical phrases. Any Rubatos are placed within the framework of the metronomic setting in the bass. In this way, liberties taken in the melodic line of the treble do not alter the overall pulse of the piece.

It is interesting that in both the Novelette in Fourths and Rubato, Gershwin specifically indicates that they be played Rubato. Unlike Mozart, whose interpreters independently leaned on certain phrases, or Schubert, who used agogic accents to indicate specific Rubatos, Gershwin simply wrote the word "rubato" at the beginning. In Novelette in Fourths, "Tempo Rubato" is the directive for the whole piece whereas in Rubato, it is incorporated as the title of the Prelude.

The Novelette in Fourths, which was composed as a little story according to its title, given a Rubato tempo and described as a cakewalk by Gershwin's reviewer, also teases the pianist into playing it as a "rag". Its interpretation is very much up to the individual, except that the bass tempo must never be compromised unless specified in the printed score.

Written in the key of G, Rubato is made up of small musical phrases which continually cross over bar lines in the treble clef. On the other hand, the bass consists of separate groups of eight ascending chords, each with two-measure separations. In the middle section, there is a four measure syncopated bass while the treble utilizes the second theme. Only in this section should the player alter the tempo if they wish to do so. Here again, whether slower or faster, according to one's taste, the bass must remain at a constant, even tempo.

At the beginning of this prelude, the opening triplet in the treble clef falls or slides to the downbeat of the first measure in a jazz-like rather than classical style. The phrase then proceeds to form itself around a grouping built upon a major third. (Without the dotted eighth and sixteenth notes, and with the addition of a couple of middle register F sharps, the melody becomes the song "Mary had a Little Lamb". Could Gershwin actually have had this tune in mind? Using trite folk melodies is nothing new to a musical genius. The "e" that follows the first phrase enters independent of it and falls on the second half of the third beat. With its accent, it interrupts the flow for a tiny moment, but only in feeling. No tenuto or ritard should be played here. The next phrase ends on an "a" with a "rit" indicated in the original manuscript in Gershwin's hand.

Meanwhile, the bass moves steadily on. In the original manuscript, the chords in the bass are blocked ({). However, the stretch of the tenth is very difficult to play as one chord. Here again, the decision is up to the pianist. If the bass chords are played as a block, this Prelude takes on a clean and jazzy line with an Impressionist style. If the chords are broken when played, the piece becomes more romantic and possibly the "rolling bass" that Abbe Niles refers to finds its voice here. Since both versions are valid (a 1925 journalist's description and the original manuscript indication), it may be a good idea to incorporate both. For example, one suggestion is to play the bass chords as blocked chords until the final restatement of the theme where they can be rolled. It makes for a beautiful close to the piece.

Another interesting aspect of this Prelude is the way Gershwin doubles the rhythm of the ending of his first theme and its subsequent repetitions. (ex. second system, second measure).

This is his way of insuring that the pianist does not slow down just because a musical thought has ended. Additionally, in the middle section where Gershwin builds his second theme around a minor third, he creates the illusion of a perkier tempo (second system, first and second measures) by introducing triplets in the right hand while the bass keeps a steady pace.

This section is indeed very Chopinesque and, like Chopin, is feather-light in its presentation and does not indulge the listener with any emotional excess. The final chord of this section can be broken and played with a tenuto.

Gershwin ends Rubato with a restatement of the first theme. This Prelude has been known to leave audiences sighing, oblivious to the clever strategies he employed to create the tightly knit illusion of dreaminess, modern romance and jazz. As stated earlier, the greatest musical geniuses throughout history have been able to create complete masterpieces that take only a few seconds to play. Certainly with Rubato, at less than a minute, Gershwin finds himself at the top of the list!

Alicia Zizzo June 1998    
Originally published by Clavier Magazine 1999    

 

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