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ClassicsOnline Home » GERSHWIN, G.: Clarinet and Strings Music - Porgy and Bess Suite / An American in Paris / Preludes (Lethiec, Sinfonia Finlandia, Gallois)
Porgy and Bess and An American in Paris deservedly rank among George Gershwin’s most popular works, while in his Three Preludes for piano and Piano Concerto the composer’s love of jazz, popular and classical music also find spirited expression. Frank Villard’s sparkling arrangements for clarinet and strings give legendary numbers including Summertime, I got plenty o’ nuttin’ or It ain’t necessarily so a new voice, accentuate their jazz flavour or add new timbres to Gershwin’s unforgettable music for the stage and concert hall.
George Gershwin (1898–1937)
Arrangements by Franck Villard for Clarinet and Strings
George Gershwin was born in Brooklyn on 26 September 1898. His older brother Ira, born two years earlier, was to become his principal lyricist. Their father held a series of different jobs which meant that the family moved often in the boys’ early years. Once they had settled in Manhattan, their mother bought a piano so that Ira could take lessons,
but in the end it was George who showed a particular interest in music. His tastes were eclectic, ranging from classical music to popular songs, especially the rhythms of black American music. He left the High School of Commerce at the age of fifteen to become a “song plugger” at the Jerome H. Remick Music Publishing Company. A great admirer of
Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, George became a vaudeville accompanist and then rehearsal pianist for Kern and Victor Herbert’s Miss 1917. Two of his songs, You-oo, Just You and There’s more to the kiss than the X-X-X, brought him to the attention of publisher Max Dreyfus, who hired him as part of his regular team of composers.
In 1918 George and Ira wrote their first song together: The Real American Folk Song, which was interpolated into the Nora Bayes musical Ladies First. That same year, five other Gershwin songs were included in Half Past Eight, and a few months later, George’s first full score, La, La, Lucille, opened on Broadway. George’s first big hit song was Swanee (1919), first heard in Demi-Tasse at the Capitol Theatre and then taken up by Al Jolson for his travelling revue Sinbad. With these successes under his belt, Gershwin was commissioned to write the music for five editions of the annual George White’s Scandals. The score for the 1922 Scandals included the hit I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise, as well as a twenty-minute jazz opera entitled Blue Monday. This was cut after opening night, but it caught the ear of bandleader Paul Whiteman, who encouraged Gershwin to write a piece in classical structure but jazz style. The result was Rhapsody in Blue, first performed at the Aeolian Hall
in February 1924, with Whiteman on the podium and Gershwin himself at the piano.
From 1924 onwards the Gershwin brothers created hit after hit, winning praise from audiences and critics alike for shows such as Lady Be Good!, Tip Toes, Oh, Kay!, Funny Face, Girl Crazy, Strike Up the Band and Of Thee I Sing. George followed up the success of Rhapsody in Blue with several more major “classical” works: the Concerto in F (1925), An American in Paris (1928) and the Second Rhapsody (1930). In 1935, his opera Porgy and Bess had its
première in Boston. A year later, sensing that their days of Broadway hits might be numbered, the brothers turned to Hollywood, where some of their works had already been filmed. They wrote songs for, among other films, Shall we Dance?, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; A Damsel in Distress, another Astaire vehicle; and The Goldwyn Follies. It was while composing for this last film that the composer began to suffer from the symptoms of a brain tumour. George Gershwin died on 11 July 1937 in Beverly Hills, California.
Porgy and Bess, Concert Suite
Porgy and Bess was written to a libretto by Ira Gershwin and Edwin DuBose Heyward, based on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy (1925), which the author and his wife Dorothy had already adapted into a play in 1927 and which depicts the lives led by African-Americans in the fictitious neighbourhood of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, in
the early 1920s. The première took place in Boston on 30 September 1935, although it was only in the 1980s that the work was recognised as a legitimate opera: today it stands
as a classic of the American repertoire.
Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled beggar living in Charleston’s slum district, who tries to rescue Bess from the clutches of her husband, Crown, and save her from the advances of Sportin’ Life, a dope peddler. The Concert Suite for clarinet and strings recorded here comprises five movements. It conveys the opera’s main themes and follows the same chronology.
The first movement presents three episodes from Act I, Scene 1. First among these is the very opening, as the curtain rises on Catfish Row one summer’s evening: Jasbo Brown
is improvising on a honky tonk piano, then Clara sings a lullaby to her baby (Summertime) while the men prepare for a craps game. Her husband, Jake, also tries to lull the
baby (with A Woman is a Sometime Thing), but his singing has little effect.
The second movement brings together various passages from the second scene of Act I. The following night, the family and friends of Serena’s husband, Robbins, killed during a fight over the craps game, gather and sing a spiritual: Where is brudder Robbins?—He’s a-gone, gone, gone…A saucer is placed on the dead man’s chest to collect
money for his burial: Come on, sister—Overflow, oh fill up de saucer till it overflow. Then Serena gives way to her grief in My man’s gone now.
Movement three corresponds to Act II, Scene 1. In Catfish Row a month later Jake and the other fishermen are preparing to leave on a long and risky fishing trip: It take a
long pull to get there. Clara asks Jake not to go, and to come with her to a picnic instead, but he tells her they are in desperate need of the money. This pushes Porgy to sing
about his outlook on life in I got plenty o’ nuttin’. Sportin’ Life, meanwhile, is hanging about, trying to sell cocaine. While the other neighbours prepare for the picnic, Sportin’ Life asks Bess to go with him and start a new life in New York, but she refuses. Bess and Porgy are left alone and admit their love for one another in Bess, you is my woman now.
Movement four reflects Act II, Scene 2. On Kittiwah Island later the same day, the picnic is in full swing. The chorus sings I ain’t got no shame doin’ what I like to do!. Sportin’ Life then expresses his cynical take on the Bible in It ain’t necessarily so, leading Serena to chastise him. Crown arrives to talk to Bess and reminds her that her relationship with Porgy is only “temporary”. Bess wants to leave Crown for good (What you want wid Bess?), but Crown persuades her to go with him.
A cadenza for the solo clarinet featuring several motifs from the opera acts as a transition to the final movement, which covers firstly the introduction to Act Two, Scene
Three: Honey, dat’s all de breakfast I got time for, then an instrumental section from Act Three, Scene III, opening into Sleeping Negro, and finally Porgy’s theme, heard for the first time here: Porgy returns to Catfish Row with plenty of money, having won a craps game in jail with loaded dice. He brings presents for his friends and cannot understand why they all seem so unhappy. He sees Serena with Clara’s baby, for which Bess was caring after her friend’s death, and asks where she is: Oh, Bess, oh where’s my Bess?. He discovers she has left for New York with Sportin’ Life: Where Bess gone?—Noo York. Porgy throws down his crutches and sets off in search of her: Oh Lawd, I’m on my way.
I have taken great pains in my transcription to stay as close as possible to Gershwin’s original harmonies, melodies and orchestral colours. I chose the passages based on their
suitability for adaptation to this particular instrumental ensemble (solo clarinet and string orchestra), and brought them together in this purely instrumental format which I hope listeners will find convincing. I wanted to achieve as much variety as possible in the string writing, creating different textures by using divisi, solo sections, and so on. The
clarinet part, meanwhile, comes from a free combination of the opera’s vocal lines and elements of its instrumental parts.
Concerto in F (excerpt from Movement II)
The Concerto in F for piano and orchestra is closer to traditional concerto form than the earlier Rhapsody in Blue. It was written in 1925, the result of a commission from conductor Walter Damrosch. He had been in the audience at the première of the Rhapsody and the next day contacted Gershwin with a request for a large-scale work for the New York Symphony Orchestra. Under contract to write three Broadway musicals, Gershwin was only able to start work on the concerto in May 1925. The first movement was written in July, the second in August and the third in September, while the orchestration was completed by 10 November (this was the first work he had orchestrated himself). The première took place on 3 December 1925 at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Symphony conducted by Damrosch. As with the Rhapsody, Gershwin himself was the soloist.
The Concerto is cast in the traditional three movements: Allegro, Adagio–Andante con moto, Allegro agitato. There are major thematic similarities between the first and final movements, while the second shows the clearest jazz influences. It is the latter that features on this album, transcribed for clarinet and strings. The central Andante con moto has been cut, as it is too symphonic to be arranged for these instruments. My aim was to recreate a “mini” concerto for clarinet, all the while respecting as far as possible the spirit of the piano original.
An American in Paris (excerpt)
The symphonic poem An American in Paris, evoking the sights and sounds of life in 1920s Paris, was inspired by a trip Gershwin made to the French capital. It was first performed on 13 December 1928 at Carnegie Hall. In 1951 it was adapted for the cinema by director Vincente Minnelli, with choreography by Gene Kelly, and went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. Two years later the work caused a scandal at its European première in London: as well as the usual orchestral forces, Gershwin also calls for car horns to be played at certain points (the New York première had featured genuine Parisian taxi horns). An American in Paris is made up of three main sections. The first, starring the famous horns, takes us for a stroll around the city’s streets. The second, more relaxed and lyrical, transports us to a park, perhaps the Jardin du Luxembourg. The third picks up the various different themes elaborated throughout the work. It is the second, functioning as a standalone piece, that was transcribed for this recording.
Three Preludes for Piano
Gershwin’s original intention was to write 24 piano preludes, but he performed only six in public and only published three, in 1926.
Prelude No. 1 (Allegro ben ritmato e deciso) opens with an attention-grabbing five-note blues motif, which becomes the work’s main theme. Its syncopated rhythms and flattened sevenths give it definite jazz overtones.
In three-part form, the Second Prelude (Andante con moto e poco rubato) opens with a melancholy melody above a steady bass line. Here the harmonies and melodies are built around the blues scale’s major/minor duality. After a central section in which a new melody appears in the left hand, the opening section returns and a long-drawn-out
rising arpeggio brings the work to an end.
After a brief introduction, the main theme of Prelude No. 3 (Allegro ben ritmato e deciso) makes its entrance: two melodies representing a question and its response. The central section is highly syncopated and is followed by a reappearance of the main theme, this time in octaves.
The Preludes are presented here in a free instrumentation for clarinet and strings.
Translated by Susannah Howe
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