Picks and Pans Review: Gershwin

updated 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Edward Jablonski

During his rough-and-tumble childhood on New York's Lower East Side, George Gershwin (né Jacob Gershwine) gave no hint of musical genius. Until he was inspired by the example of a talented classmate, in fact, he was a street urchin who considered music study to be fit only for girls or boys of suspect masculinity. Jablonski's lucid, sympathic and evenhanded—if dry—biography limns Gershwin's career from his first piano lessons to his days on Tin Pan Alley. It examines his contributions to Broadway revues, his full-fledged shows, such as Lady, Be Good, Girl Crazy, Of Thee I Sing and Strike Up the Band, and his semiclassical music crossovers (Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, Porgy and Bess). "Nobody expected me to compose music; I just did," said the creator of How Long Has This Been Going On, They Can't Take That Away From Me and I Got Rhythm. In Jablonski's treatment Gershwin comes across as a supremely self-confident man who first accepted a commission to write a concerto, then decided to learn what the form really was. Gershwin's confidence wasn't always justified. Jablonski, a musicologist, notes that Gershwin's serious pieces were generally dismissed at best. (One critic called An American in Paris" nauseous claptrap...dull, patchy, thin, vulgar, long-winded and inane.") But for all Jablonski's careful detail about Gershwin as a musician and composer, his private life receives less than short shrift. There is little sense of his relationship with his brother and collaborator Ira, next to no mention of his romances. It would have been gratifying to have more along the lines of this account of Gershwin's meeting with Igor Stravinsky: "He told Stravinsky he wished to study with him. 'How much money do you make, Mr. Gershwin?' Off guard, Gershwin told him, a sum that ran into six figures. 'In that case,' Stravinsky told him, 'I should study with you.' " (Doubleday, $21.95)

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