Three Lullabies by Gershwin

The lazy days of summer are here in the Northern Hemisphere. For many of us this is a time to rest and recharge, whether in the cool shade of a back yard hammock or the sun and sand of the beach. What music could be more appropriately relaxing and soothing than a lullaby, with its gentle rocking rhythm and simple repetitive melody?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Lullaby [/typography]

Barely out of his teenage years, George Gershwin wrote Lullaby in 1919 as a harmony exercise for his composition teacher. Even in this homework assignment, Gershwin’s distinct musical vocabulary seems fully formed. As you listen, consider what characteristics make the music sound distinctly “Gershwin.” Listen closely to the thick, shimmering inner voices under the melody. Notice that they often move in parallel motion. Do you hear anything that sounds like jazz or the French Impressionism of Debussy or Ravel? Pay attention to the harmony around 3:47-4:10 and 6:35-6:41. What kinds of emotions do you feel as you listen to the opening melody and the section beginning at 5:16?

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Prelude No. 2[/typography]

Now let’s listen to a piece that Gershwin described as “a sort of blues lullaby.” This is Prelude No. 2 for piano, performed by Arthur Rubinstein:

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Did you notice how Prelude No. 2, constructed on the blues scale, veers unexpectedly between minor and major? As the melody almost restlessly searches, there is something constant and unrelenting about the undulating chromatic harmony in the left hand. The tension between these two simultaneous musical personalities (one dreaming and striving, the other accepting reality) is resolved, only at the end of the phrase, as the impetuous top voice falls back in resignation. Despite its far flung adventures, the melody ends where it began (0:26). Notice that Gershwin never gives us a straightforward minor chord for these resolutions. It’s always a murky, crunching dissonance (1:10). Consider the overall mood of the music. Can you hear the deep sadness and yearning that characterizes the blues style? Did the last chord surprise you? Considering what came before, what is the significance of Gershwin’s choice to end this way?

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Summertime[/typography]

Finally, let’s listen to the most famous of the three lullabies, Summertime from Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess. Rob Kapilow provides a fascinating analysis in his What Makes It Great series. Can you feel the sultry, oppressive heat and humidity of the fictional Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina at the height of summer? How does the music create this atmosphere? Here is a clip from the opera:

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As a fun bonus, let’s finish up with the bigger than life swing of Gershwin’s Broadway side. Here is the Girl Crazy Overture. Please share your thoughts in the thread below. Tell us what you hear in the music of George Gershwin.

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

6 thoughts on “Three Lullabies by Gershwin

  1. Thank you for putting these three Gershwin pieces side by side and for your interpretation of them as lullabies. How I wish more parents would utilize this to lull their wee ones to sleep while exposing them to the world of George Gershwin, jazz, and America’s rich 20th century music.

  2. Picked out this thread because I’m near Richmond, NY, (as in North Yorkshire, England), but disappointment mitigated by a lovely ‘warm bath’ of great music. Thanks, Timothy … (just wish you were in this Richmond!)…
    …will keep for taming teenagers next year.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Lindsay. Richmond, Virginia got its name because the curve of the James River looked like Richmond on Thames. I hope all is well in Yorkshire.

  3. Wonderful! Thank you! I was looking for history of Gershwin’s Prelude #2 for my class. I have a string quartet arrangement of it that is stunning. Every time we perform it, audience members tell me that they have heard the melody somewhere else.

    This is a lovely introduction to Gershwin’s “lullabies”, and I will be sharing it with my class.

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