Friday, September 20, 2013

George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition

by Mark Clague

An aesthetic that spotlights the spontaneity of performance and invites infinite arrangement might seem strange territory for a scholarly edition. The music of George and Ira Gershwin finds inspiration, for example, at the intersections of jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley, and the Broadway stage. While George’s forays into the concert hall invite the rigors of critical editing, the many versions of Gershwin works already in circulation speak to the sheer incongruity of the notion of a single, authoritative text. What would an edition of Rhapsody in Blue, “I Got Rhythm,” Of Thee I Sing, or Porgy and Bess look like? What might it accomplish? I’m pleased to report that we will soon find out.

Marc Gershwin, nephew of George and Ira Gershwin, announces the
U-M George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition, 15 September in Ann Arbor.
Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography

The families of George and Ira Gershwin have initiated a long-term collaboration with the American Music Institute at the University of Michigan to create the first-ever George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. Anticipated to include all of the brothers’ artistic collaborations, plus George Gershwin’s concert works as well as their individual collaborations with others (as need dictates and opportunity permits), the entire project is expected to take three or four decades to complete. It will include orchestral works, piano and chamber music, individual songs, complete musicals, film scores, and—of course—the opera Porgy and Bess. The opera edition, in fact, is already underway and is being edited by musicologist Wayne Shirley, formerly of the Library of Congress. It is expected to be among the first volumes published. Many factors combine to make a critical edition of the works of George and Ira Gershwin both imperative and opportune:
  1. George’s early and unanticipated death at age 38 from a brain tumor meant that few of his works were published in his lifetime and under his supervision.
  2. George’s frequently compressed creative process—often for his most iconic works—resulted in portions being realized for performance before his effort was complete. This fragmentation creates multiple versions and competing editions. The vocal score to Porgy and Bess offers a good example, as it was realized from a pre-orchestrated sketch that the composer changed throughout the realization of the full score. The creative process of Rhapsody in Blue may be even more nuanced.
  3. No single music publisher had expertise in all the genres in which the Gershwins worked, introducing errors (say, when a typesetter did not understand Broadway notation conventions). Even today many of their works continue to circulate in original, often substandard editions with numerous errors and in poor-quality reproductions. This situation, or more exactly, complex of situations, has prevented a single, authoritative edition until now. 
  4. Many—often well intentioned—arrangers, editors, and publishers have “fixed” Gershwin scores to make them more practical to perform or to resolve notational discrepancies. These fixes may incorporate anachronistic distortions that, for example, introduce the gestures of 1940s swing jazz or restore cuts Gershwin himself had decided to make. 
  5. The vast majority of Gershwin sources has finally been consolidated in the Gershwin Collection at the Library of Congress, and the Gershwin family is now determined to see a scholarly edition through to completion.   

Top of Rhapsody in Blue autograph showing original notation of the clarinet "glissando."
Library of Congress
A critical edition of George and Ira Gershwin’s work cannot resolve every ambiguity or clarify beyond doubt or criticism what the composer or lyricist intended, any more than it can realize the works which George would have written had he lived to a ripe old age. Yet, this remarkable invitation to scholars from the George and Ira Gershwin families opens the doors to what is certain to be an incredible opportunity to reconsider and refresh a powerful body of creative work. Discoveries will be made, certainly, about the brothers’ working methods as well as meanings of their work. We’ll trace, for example, the development of Gershwin’s much criticized but in fact formidable skill as an orchestrator in exhaustive detail. We’ll also come to appreciate the guidance of Ira himself in the form of the many handwritten notes he left among George’s papers to explain the inspiration and circumstances of specific works.

Most importantly, the works of George and Ira Gershwin will for the first time and at long last be available in pristine, authoritative editions that will allow musicians to focus on interpretation rather than on note identification, leading to informed performances and continued enjoyment by audiences everywhere. 

Mark Clague is Associate Professor of Music, American Culture, and African American Studies at the University of Michigan, and editor-in-chief of the Gershwin Critical Edition.

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