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SHALL WE DANCE? AND WALK THE DOG?

THE MUSICAL delights of George Gershwin are just as fresh today as they were in the first third of the 20th century. They encompass genres of popular music, opera, classical music, Broadway shows and film musicals.

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George Gershwin, 1898 – 1937, American composer. He and his brother Ira, 1896 – 1983, enriched the Great American Songbook.

George Gershwin started as a pianist in New York City’s Tinpan Alley, a fountainhead of popular tunes in the late 19th and early 20th century. By 1924, he provided Paul Whiteman’s “Experiment in Modern Music” with Rhapsody in Blue, one of the earliest incorporations of jazz into classic orchestral form. Darius Milhaud’s Le Création du Monde was another of this innovative genre, premiered just a year before the Gershwin work.

Gershwin studied music in Europe in the late 1920s. A tale oft told, if apocryphal, has French composer Maurice Ravel saying, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?” Learning of Gershwin’s earnings, Ravel is said to have replied, “You should give me lessons.”

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Shall We Dance (1937), starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Edward Everett Horton, RKO.

During the 1930s, George and his brother/lyricist Ira composed a trio of RKO film musicals, Shall We Dance, 1936; A Damsel in Distress, 1937; and The Goldwin Follies, 1938.  My favorite of these is Shall We Dance, because of the chemistry of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and a fetching little tune embedded in the musical’s ocean cruise, “Walking the Dog.”

“Walking the Dog,” the rest of the Shall We Dance score and, in fact, the entirety of the Gershwin repertoire make for a good tale. The sheet music for “Walking the Dog” was published only in 1960, as “Promenade” and has become a chamber orchestra favorite. There’s also a piano version, here performed by Michel Cardinaux, the straightforward nature of which I particularly enjoy.

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Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and furry friends. Image from Shall We Dance.

On September 22, 2013, plans were announced to release a musicological critical edition of the entire Gershwin catalog. This is part of a project involving the Gershwin family, the Library of Congress and the American Music Institute at the University of Michigan. The University of Michigan George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition is expected to take 30 to 40 years to complete.

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Marc Gershwin, a nephew of George and Ira, announced the Critical Edition, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 2013. Image from Musicology Now.

Assembling a definitive edition of the works is complex. George Gershwin’s death in 1937 of a brain tumor, at age 38, meant that only few of his compositions were published under his supervision. Also, many Gershwin scores evolved with their performances, not prior to them. What’s more, because of the breadth of Gershwin’s accomplishments, no single music publisher had expertise in all of his genres. For example, Broadway notation might be unfamiliar to a publisher of classical repertoire. Last, many well-intentioned followers have altered elements of Gershwin scores. Having the originals in the Gershwin Collection at the Library of Congress helped clarify matters.

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First page of the Rhapsody in Blue autograph. Image from the Library of Congress.

Gershwin wrote, “True music must reflect the thought and aspirations of the people and time. My people are Americans. My time is today.”

As it continues to this day. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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