DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
"Rhapsody in Blue" catapulted George Gershwin to stardom in 1924 and it is still perhaps the best known piece of American concert music. But Howard Pollack, who has written a new biography of George Gershwin, has a soft spot for another, much less known Gershwin work, the "Second Rhapsody. We've invited him in to talk to us about that piece. Thank you for being with us.
Mr. HOWARD POLLACK (Author): Thank you. Gershwin originally wrote the music for his very first movie musical, "Delicious."
ELLIOTT: Let's jump right in by hearing the "Second Rhapsody."
(Soundbite of "Second Rhapsody")
ELLIOTT: Now we should give the title of your book here. It's "George Gershwin: His Life and Work." It's 800 pages and you have chapter 26 devoted to the "Second Rhapsody." And tell me a little bit about how he became involved with Hollywood.
Mr. POLLACK: Well, when sound came to Hollywood, the studios were naturally interested in trying to lure America's most famous composer, George Gershwin. And Fox Studio finally lured Gershwin with a very lucrative contract. He received $70,000 in 1930 from the Fox Studios, which would be in today's dollars over $700,000. And this was in the Depression years, so that was a great windfall for Gershwin to go out to Hollywood. And because he was such a noted composer, Fox wanted to really feature not only songs that he wrote with his brother Ira, but also an instrumental piece, because he was the famous composer of the "Rhapsody in Blue" and so they commissioned an instrumental work and a work that would fit into the storyline of this particular film.
ELLIOTT: What was it about?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, it was a film for Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, two of Hollywood's biggest box office draws. And it was a story of immigrants coming to America and the - one of the immigrants is a composer, a Russian composer, who's name is Sasha. And Sasha writes this piece called the "New York Rhapsody." And this is the featured piece by Gershwin, which forms the climax of the film.
(Soundbite of "New York Rhapsody")
Mr. POLLACK: Gershwin originally had written about 15 minutes of music for this long sequence and the filmmakers cut it down to about seven minutes. So Gershwin naturally wanted to find another venue, a concert venue, for this piece for piano and orchestra. And the day after the film opened, he wrote to Serge Koussevitzky, who was the conductor of the Boston Symphony and said, would you be interested, and I'm going to be in Boston later this month, would you be interested in my premiering my new rhapsody? And Koussevitzky answered, yes, I'd be delighted to. And they wound up premiering that piece, actually in January of 1932.
ELLIOTT: Now describe for me this music. You're a professor of music; tell us what's happening in this piece.
Mr. POLLACK: Well, this very opening, with this repeated note figure is meant to depict riveters, and it was meant to give a landscape, an impression of a Russian composer coming to New York and seeing the construction of skyscrapers and the like. The heart and soul of the piece, however, is this long, beautiful slow section in which Gershwin writes one of his most beautiful melodies.
(Soundbite of "New York Rhapsody")
ELLIOTT: What did George Gershwin think of his experience in Hollywood?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, he commented that - because he had to write this large piece for orchestra and his brother Ira only had to write the lyrics for a few of the songs that were used in this film, that his brother enjoyed Hollywood a lot more than he did because his brother didn't have to work as hard as he did. He was also - he was not terribly impressed with Hollywood.
ELLIOTT: There's a passage from your chapter that I'd like for you to read. It's actually quite funny. It's a letter that George Gershwin had written to Ethel Merman, telling her all about Hollywood and how he was always being invited to these dinner parties. And he didn't seem to much care for the company. Can you read for us?
Mr. POLLACK: I'd be happy to.
Mr. POLLACK: And always the same routine. First cocktails, then picture talk. Dinner is served, starting with soup, which is immediately followed by picture talk, then fried fish or lobster that came on Newberg, immediately followed by some more picture talk, then a delicious steak with picture talk and onions. That continues until after dessert. And then demitasse is served in the living room and then the butler leans over a little and says, I'll tell you what's wrong with those musical talkies. One listens. Perhaps he's right about it after all. Who knows?
(Soundbite of "Second Rhapsody")
ELLIOTT: George Gershwin died at 38 from a brain tumor, so it's sort of hard to say this was a later work. But it did come seven years after he wrote "Rhapsody in Blue." What does this music tell you about how he was developing as a composer over that time?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, that's a very interesting question. He was very proud of this particular piece and he considered it an advance over what he had done before. And in technical terms, one sees an advance in terms of its harmonic language, which is more adventurous than anything he had done before. And the critics more or less agreed with that assessment, though many of them felt it was less inspired than the earlier rhapsody. And most people would probably say it's certainly a less fun piece, a less humorous piece. The "Second Rhapsody," I think, takes a little bit more time to warm up to.
ELLIOTT: Howard Pollack's new biography is called "George Gershwin: His Life and Work." Mr. Pollack is a professor of music at the University of Houston and he joined us from our member station there, KUHF. Thanks so much.
Mr. POLLACK: Thanks very much.
(Soundbite of song "Second Rhapsody")
ELLIOTT: And that recording of the "Second Rhapsody" was by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Now, a little bad news, saved for last. In case you were thinking you'd run right out to rent the film "Delicious" to hear the whole Gershwin score tonight, think again. The movie has not been released on DVD. You'll have to wait for the next Janet Gaynor film fest. But we did find a recording of the title song, "Delicious" and we leave you with it tonight.
(Soundbite of song "Delicious")
Ms. JANET GAYNOR (Actress): (Singing) You're so delicious and so carefreecious. I grow...
ELLIOTT: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.
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