July 13, 2024


I Fall For Art

Gershwin, Ravel, Grofe – How Blue Can You Get?

Gershwin, Ravel, Grofe – How Blue Can You Get?

George Gershwin was a songwriter of popular music, a talented pianist and entertainer and wished to be a great classical composer. He had some success in that field with his folk opera Porgy and Bess, Rhapsody in Blue and Concerto in F.

He was something of a playboy and didn’t always tend to his assigned tasks. He didn’t finish Rhapsody in Blue till the day before it was to be premiered and there was no time to write out all the sheet music the orchestra needed. This was the job of Ferde Grofé, later to become well known for his Grand Canyon Suite. Grofé knew he would never be able to finish the copying chores so he gathered the orchestra together and asked them if they knew the names of all the chords in music. Of course they did. So instead of writing everything out, he simply wrote the names of the chords over the notes of the melody. Everybody understood and went right into rehearsal and the premiere went off beautifully. That was the start of using chord symbols such as A, Bminor, etc. A set of symbols was soon developed and standardized and now musicians frequently use what are called fake-books which have only melodies and chord symbols.

Gershwin spent a lot of time in France along with writers and painters of the time. He met the great composer Maurice Ravel, best know for his Bolero. Gershwin asked Ravel if he could study music with Ravel the master. Ravel said no. Gershwin asked why. Ravel said that Gershwin was a first-rate Gershwin; there was no point in him becoming a second-rate Ravel.

That’s a satisfying story, but it makes me wonder who Ravel would accept as a student; only someone who was not creative and unique? That would make all of his students preordained to be imitation Ravels. I wonder if Ravel was really just ducking the matter because he was afraid he would have a student on his hands he couldn’t manage.

Gershwin did just fine on his own, with a little help from his brother Ira who wrote the lyrics to most of George’s songs.