Happy 90th Birthday, Rhapsody in Blue

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Feb. 12 2014 12:29 PM

The Lost Gershwin

What might George Gershwin have accomplished if he hadn’t died at 38?

(Continued from Page 1)

That dream was of increase and plenty: achievement unalloyed. The art of youth appears incarnate in this artist who wrote “Swanee” when not yet 21; it was recorded by Al Jolson some months later, on Jan. 8, 1920. This “first act” sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and it would prove a sturdy rung on the ladder of success. Then, by the time of Rhapsody, something somehow happened that lifted the composer from the creation of the ordinary—jazz and Dixieland and torch songs and dance tunes, no matter how inventive—to the extraordinary. It transpired at that moment in our history when the audience was ready to shift allegiance from the march-along music of the 19th century to the blues-tinged anthem of a new America. Through an alchemical process we recognize after-the-fact but can neither render formulaic nor by sheer will repeat, he was joining his own genius to the nation’s genius. From “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the blues of W.C. Handy, from klezmer music and the stride piano of Fats Waller to the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, from Tin Pan Alley to The Cotton Club in Harlem, contemporary idioms were added to the crucible; the perform-for-hire aspects of Gershwin’s early efforts became an original fusion and—to pursue the trope of alchemy—transmuted into gold. From the son of Russian immigrants, a new American art form emerged.

As songwriter, composer, performer, Gershwin has few if any equals in this nation’s history, and none who came to prominence so young. When I asked William Bolcom—himself no small musical presence—to name a great American opera, he said there were six of them. And their names were “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess,” “Porgy and Bess” and, finally, “Porgy and Bess.”

* * *


The range of Gershwin’s endeavors was wide, the scope of achievement broad. Though single-minded in his focus on a career in music, he had other interests as well. He rode and swam and golfed and boxed with omnivorous enthusiasm, he danced and played tennis with skill. The profession of composer is a sedentary one, and his athletic diversions no doubt served as physical release from long hours at the keyboard: a kind of counterpoint. He read, he liked to travel, he wrote with colloquial flair. He was a serious amateur painter and, soon enough, a collector.

No matter what Gershwin engaged in he engaged it fully. His appetites were large. Such hunger was not literal, however; he was meticulous about his diet and to the end of his brief life stayed slim. (His digestive problems and his “nervous stomach” were well known and much discussed; it’s possible, indeed, that the friends and doctors who failed to pay attention to his complaints of failing health ascribed to hypochondria and even to hysteria what was a mortal condition.) Yet the prevailing recollections of his acquaintances and friends attest to a sweetness of nature, a life-of-the-party brio and love of entertainment. All such accounts speak of his conviviality. If there were a piano in the room, he’d sit and improvise, then launch into a song. Music poured forth from Gershwin in full flood and at the slightest prompting: no hint of reticence here. His was a compulsion to perform.

Here’s a bare-bones summary of the curtain call. On the evening of July 9, 1937, George Gershwin collapsed and lapsed into a coma; he was rushed to Cedars of Lebanon hospital, where he was at long last diagnosed with a brain tumor. There were frantic efforts to secure the most accomplished surgeons and neurologists; special planes were commandeered for transcontinental flights. A medical team assembled and did what then seemed possible, but the patient never regained consciousness. On July 11, 1937, at the age of 38, and after a five-hour operation, the composer died.

There seems no outer limit to what he might have accomplished; the trajectory he dreamed of was always, only up. George Gershwin did pass through the stages of age, yet he did so much more urgently than those whose time encompasses a fifth or ninth decade. Since the desired end point is the same—a masterpiece—the creative artist whose sojourn is brief must work at a more rapid pace. The least Gershwin did was more than most, his best as good as anything the period can claim. "Art is long and life is brief," perhaps, but when the art of youth transacts its blithe transformational magic, both art and life are both.

This essay is adapted from The Art of Youth: Crane, Carrington, Gershwin, and the Nature of First Acts, by Nicholas Delbanco, out now from New Harvest.

Nicholas Delbanco is the Robert Frost Distinguished University Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Michigan.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 8:51 AM The Male-Dominated Culture of Business in Tech Is Not Great for Women
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Brow Beat
Oct. 23 2014 9:00 AM Exclusive Premiere: Key & Peele Imagines the Dark Side of the Make-A-Wish Program
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.