FORWARD TO 'I GOT RHYTHM VARIATIONS' BY GEORGE GERSHWIN Transcribed for Piano Solo by Dr. Alicia Zizzo

The genesis of the song 'I Got Rhythm' began with 'Treasure Girl' (1928), as a slow number and ultimately found its way into 'Girl Crazy' (1930) as the song we know today.

George Gershwin was rich and successful and two years away from his goal of finding a composition teacher who would help him to expand his compositional skills. Over a period of time he had been turned down by Nadia Boulanger, Maurice Ravel and Alexander Glazunov, respectively. According to Edward Jablonski, in his book "George Gershwin: A Biography" (Doubleday 1987), Gershwin finally connected with Josef Schillinger in 1932 and studied with him until 1936. In Mr. Jablonski's words, "In short, the (Schillinger) system was strong on technique, weak on originality (or that elusive thing, 'inspiration'; if the gift is missing, not all the mathematics in the world is a substitute.)"

George Gershwin, however, lacked neither inspiration nor originality but Schillinger's methodology of creating a mathematical 'grid' as the basis of composition seemed to satisfy Gershwin's desire to formalize his creative genius within a structured framework. He was clearly preparing himself for a future in serious modern composition. 'Cuban Overture', 'I Got Rhythm Variations', 'Second Rhapsody', 'Porgy & Bess' and his final shows, including the movie score for 'Shall we Dance' were all composed during this period.

Sometime in 1933, Gershwin had begun clearing his schedule in anticipation of his forthcoming opera 'Porgy & Bess'. He concurrently signed a contract for a weekly radio broadcast which he would host, and also arranged for a cross-country concert tour in celebration of the tenth anniversary of his 'Rhapsody in Blue'. His notion of creating for himself a window of time seems remarkable, but intense schedules were nothing new for Gershwin and this spate of activity was no exception, save a brief 'respite' in Palm Beach, Florida. It was there that he dashed off his 'I Got Rhythm Variations' (almost as an afterthought). Perhaps he had realized that there was a dearth of his own classical material for his concert tour. How fortuitous for us!

In one of his radio broadcasts, on February 19, 1934, Gershwin unassumingly describes his quite marvelous new piece. He relates to his radio audience that the work begins quietly, with the orchestra artlessly introducing the four-note theme. When the piano finally enters, it too articulates the theme simply. He goes on to say that in the first variation, the piano plays a complicated rhythmic pattern while the orchestra plays the theme. This variation is perky and quirky. Next comes 'Valse Triste' (Gershwin's title in his manuscript). It moves along at a waltz tempo, but it is devoid of the romantic elements found in most waltzes and is rather dissonant as the violins squeal with glissandos, forging a certain ersatz pathos. The third variation imitates Chinese flutes played out of tune "as they always are" according to George. In describing his fourth variation, Gershwin does not refer to it during the radio broadcast as a jazz variation.

He tells us that the melody is played upside down by the left hand while the right hand plays it straight "on the theory: never let one hand know what the other is doing". The Finale follows. It is complicated and energetic, and interestingly, within its closing moments one hears for the first time a new voice inhabiting the end of the piece. It appears twice, gently escorting the departing tune in its final iterations. This secondary theme provides a quasi-poignant goodbye to the listener before it runs away from us with a wink and a bang!

The task of transcribing a piece as complex as 'I Got Rhythm Variations' was enormous. I felt obliged to maintain the integrity of the interrelated group of variations with their individual ideas as they formed an integrated whole. In order to successfully reduce the thousands of notes an entire orchestra plays in this work to two hands, I had to develop a deep understanding of the intricate and elegant weaving of Gershwin's harmonies as he continually reworked four little notes. I determined that I would preserve as many chordal, verbal and dynamic directives as ten fingers would allow. To succeed at this, I turned to three sources; 'I Got Rhythm Variations' for two pianos, four hands, arranged in 1935 by Gregory Stone, and published in 'The Complete Gershwin Keyboard Works' (Warner Bros. Publications), and of critical importance, Gershwin's two manuscripts in his own hand, dated January 6, 1934. The first is a piano sketch of the entire piece. It contains valuable information. The second is the full orchestration of the work. My extensive study of these two manuscripts yielded harmonies and rhythmic motifs that lent themselves extremely well to the fulfillment of a richly textured piano solo transcription, in which certain tempos and dynamics had to be dealt with given the confines of the solo piano.

Alicia Zizzo

Acknowledgements: with many thanks to

  • Leopold Godowsky III for his high musical ideals which served as an inspiration to me. I am in his debt.
  • The Gershwin Estate and especially Marc George Gershwin.
  • Edward Jablonski, my mentor and dear friend without whom I could not have moved forward.
  • Avraham Sternklar, master pianist and composer, whose scholarship, comradeship and encouragement was always with me.
  • Ethan Neuberg for his professionalism and dignity throughout this project.
  • Joseph Bartelossi, Finale copyist for Alicia Zizzo's original manuscripts.
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