Adventures in Fourths: Music of Debussy, Bartók, and Gershwin

The Greek name for the interval of the perfect fourth was diatessaron. Translating as “across four,” it is a word which brings to mind Pythagorean harmonic ratios. Wide open sonorities that suggest neither major nor minor, perfect fourths and fifths became prevalent in the early medieval polyphony of composers such as Léonin and Pérotin. In the piano pieces below, we hear twentieth century composers exploiting the perfect fourth for purely expressive reasons. Here are three …

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Gershwin on Piano Roll: “Sweet and Lowdown” and “That Certain Feeling”

George Gershwin’s delirious foxtrot, Sweet and Lowdown, was written for the 1925 musical, Tip-Toes. With lyrics by Ira Gershwin, the farcical comedy centers around a three-member vaudeville act which, through duplicity, attempts to snare a wealthy millionaire. The melody exemplifies the high-flying euphoria of the Roaring Twenties, with jazz and blues harmonies and exuberant, tumbling rhythms. George Gershwin’s 1926 performance is preserved on piano roll: The song, That Certain Feeling, was also written for Tip-Toes. It’s …

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Gershwin’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” Art Tatum in 1949

Holding hands at midnight ‘Neath a starry sky Nice work if you can get it And you can get it if you try Ira Gershwin’s famous lyric is not about work in the occupational sense. The song’s verse rejects “the man who only lives for making money” and who “works for fame.” Instead, it is the more spiritually informed work of building a loving relationship. The song’s narrator seems to have all of …

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“I Got Rhythm”: Gershwin in 1931

Even in the midst of the Great Depression, George Gershwin’s 1931 piano performance of I Got Rhythm swings with youthful vitality and optimism. The melody, tossed off with sparkling virtuosity, displays an elegance comparable to the composer’s sleek, finely tailored suit. Gershwin remains eternally young in our collective imagination. Tragically, six years after the recording of this clip, he would succumb to brain cancer at the age of 38. Gershwin wrote I Got Rhythm for …

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Saying Goodbye to Summer with Gershwin’s “Summertime”

In observance of Labor Day and the unofficial end of summer, here is a landmark recording of George Gershwin’s Summertime, featuring Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. This is an excerpt from their 1957 jazz studio album, Porgy and Bess. The album popularized Summertime and other music from Gershwin’s 1935 opera. (Two years later, a film version of Porgy and Bess was released, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge). Fitzgerald was a longtime friend of the Gershwins. Ira Gershwin once …

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“There is No Music”: Ira Gershwin’s Poignant Remembrance?

George Gershwin passed away on this date (July 11) in 1937 at the age of 38. Doctors diagnosed brain cancer as the the cause of death. The songwriting team of George and Ira Gershwin produced over two dozen scores for Broadway and Hollywood. They are credited with elevating the sophistication of Broadway theater as an art form with shows such as Strike Up the Band, Of Thee I Sing, and Let ‘Em Eat Cake. Porgy …

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Eight Composers on Piano Roll

When you consider the piano roll, what kind of music comes to mind? Probably Scott Joplin’s elegant rags, or perhaps the exuberant swing of Tin Pan Alley. Interestingly, a number of less likely composers, from Mahler and Debussy to the 80-year-old Camille Saint-Saëns, were recorded on piano rolls in the early years of the twentieth century. In some cases, these are the only historical record of the composer’s playing. Additionally, they offer …

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