By Alicia Zizzo
A recent article in the New York Times announced the discovery of a statue by Michelangelo in the lobby of an embassy: Thousands of people walked past it over the years without knowing about its value or questioning its origin. Most probably assumed it had no special value or it would be in a museum. Perception can sometimes blur the truth, particularly when high visibility numbs curiosity. When musical works are over exposed, people may believe they know and hear the authentic music because it sounds familiar, so they fail to question whether this is what the composer intended.
Copyrights on George Gershwin's music have not run out, so his few works for piano are not in the public domain and cannot be published freely. There are not multiple editions of each piece, as there are with the works of so many composers.
Gershwin's publisher, Sam Harms Music Co., decided to publish Rhapsody in Blue Shortly after its premiere. At that time there were two manuscripts of the piece: Gershwin's handwritten score, which he had composed at the piano and not orchestrated, and Ferde Grofé's orchestrated manuscript. With these two sources, the editors at Harms created publications for the public that were never intended to be urtext editions but commercial successes. With his keen business sense, Gershwin gave his blessing to his publishers and piano roll manufacturers while continuing to perform many different versions of the Rhapsody, varying them to fit the occasion.
Gershwin was never asked to prepare his own manuscript for publication. According to the Library Congress, the Gershwin Estate, and Warner Bros. Publications, no such manuscript exists. Four published Rhapsodies eventually evolved: the two-piano, four-hands original version used for performances with piano and orchestra; a solo piano edition that was based on the original two-piano, four hands version in which the second piano is a reduction of Grofé's orchestration rather than Gershwin's manuscript; a piano duet. transcribed by Henry Levine: and a modified solo version by Herman Wasserman, who consulted with several pianist, teachers, and Gershwin enthusiasts for a technically easier version of the piece. At issue are the first two published scores from 1924 that are used for most piano performances of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.
The word "original" on the title page of the published scores probably implies that the 1924 edition was the first such printing and the only one available at that point. According to Gershwin scholar Edward Jablonski, George often performed his own manuscripts from memory in concerts. In a letter to Henry Levine, Gershwin acknowledges the discrepancies in the published Rhapsody and promises "to send them (the correction) on to my publisher." His busy schedule and death at a young age prevented this.
When preparing the Rhapsody in Blue for publication, editors at Harms applied their own 19th century compositional conservatory training to the piece. With good intentions and due respect to Gershwin, they discreetly altered chords, phrases, dynamics, and accents, deleting whole passages to create a more concise work. Oddly, with the exception of four bars, all the deletions were from the piano solo sections, leaving the orchestration mostly undisturbed. It is implausible that Ferde Grofé's had any input because in his own orchestrated manuscript not a single note, dynamic, or interpretive indication of Gershwin's score was altered. This seems to prove that the manuscript in Grofé's own hand was the piece Gershwin actually performed in Aeolian Hall on February 2, 1924 and at subsequent concerts. Although it is a common practice for composers to make changes in their own works after performing them, there is no record that George Gershwin did so with the Rhapsody.
In this editing, over 50 measures were deleted from the manuscript for the two- piano, four-hands publication, and the piece was shortened by several minutes. Approximately 80 measures were deleted from the original manuscript for the piano solo version and the editors used the second piano /orchestral reduction as a basis for it, further distancing the piano solo editlon from Gershwin's original intent. Because of limited technology and to increase sales, Gershwin recorded the newly shortened Rhapsody. The deleted segments originally gave the Rhapsody continuity, connecting the four main motives. Gershwin named the piece a rhapsody rather than a concerto, feeling that within a rhapsody's free form it was easier to build a continuous exchange of voices within melodic and rhythmic development. Rhapsody is a Greek word meaning "to sew together," which is exactly what Gershwin did, yet inexplicably it was the connective segments between the themes that were removed by the severe editing for the piece's original publication.
Additionally, in over 65 measures in both published scores, Gershwin's phrasing, chords, notes, dynamics and other interpretive markings were altered, bringing a romanticism to the piece that inspired future pianists to interpret it somewhere between the classicism of Chopin and the passion of Rachmaninoff. Gershwin's style and his original intent were reshaped for future generations that had no other resources available for reference. Imagine having only Paderewski's Chopin and Sigmund Liebert's Beethoven editions as the singular points of reference for the study of those composers' works.
Gershwin wrote about his work:
Our study of great Romantic composers has trained us in the method of the legato... The rhythms of American music are more or less brittle; they should be made to snap, and at times, to crackle ... Most pianists with a classical training fail lamentably in the playing of our jazz because they use the pedaling of Chopin when interpreting the blues of Handy. The Romantic touch is very good in a sentimental ballad, but in a tune of strict rhythm, it is somewhat out of place.
As with the Michelangelo statue waiting to be discovered in the embassy lobby, the Gershwin manuscript waited to be re-evaluated for over 70 years. The majesty of the complete Rhapsody in Blue as Gershwin originally conceived and performed it is finally available to future generations. Edward Jablonski concluded that the invasion of the piece by too much editing was the metaphoric equivalent of plucking petals from a rose to make it trim. In the end there would exist only a partial rose, and gardeners would find it flawed.
Reprinted with the permission of the New York Concert Review Inc.