Personalities of the musicians

The personality of George Gershwin

Isaac Goldberg, a friend of George Gershwin, described the composer’s personality:

HE was as simple, as unaffected, as modest, and as charming a youth as one could desire to meet.

There was nothing about him that was forbidding. He wore his unprecedented celebrity as lightly as if it were a cane – that cane which one heard swinging so jauntily in the opening rhythms of “An American in Paris”. If one did not fear a word that has been twisted in certain mouths, out of its originally robust meaning, one would say that he created immediately an impression of “wholesomeness”. It was, in fact, a genuine pleasure to discover this youngster moving easily, confidently, through the comfort and the affluence that he had won for himself. No affectations. No embarrassing habits that cling to one from earlier, more humble days and surroundings.

Simplicity, and even at moments an engaging naiveté. Above all, no desire to make an effect. The man and his music – and this, too, on his part was a form of honesty – were one.

The man had, too, that psychological rarity, the saving grace of self-knowledge. He was one of the most objective mentalities that I have encountered, and this in a young man whose success was so rapid, so phenomenal, is doubly rare.

I have heard him, when the mood was upon him, talk of his finest things in a manner surprisingly impersonal, and manifestly without the slightest trace of affectation. And to have heard him talk was to understand his music so much better.

He was not only modest, but he was intellectually nervous, keyed ever to concert pitch. The quality appeared almost at the very beginning of his career and remained with him in his greatest triumphs. It is the eagerness of a high-spirited steed. He was driven – there is no question about it – by some inner compulsion, and was protected by his demon against stagnation and mere self-repetition. There were moments when that demon was almost visible in his eyes. He will have been playing one of his songs, and have reached the end of the chorus. It is a moment that his familiar listeners have been waiting for. The pink of his cheeks became a little deeper. The end of his cigar gleamed like another eye. A smile – that questioning smile – lighted up his countenance and he launched into a series of variations that had all the excitement of improvisation. He attacked the keys with conscious power; his wrist, at will, was a hammer driving in spikes, or a brush tinting surfaces. His playing, which enlisted the accompaniment of his entire person, became a quasi-Nietzschean dance of arms and legs. This was not the specialized virtuosity of the concert player; it was a sort of intensified living.

He was fond of parties, and the longer they let him sing and play, the better he liked it. Hosts and hostesses have been known to take advantage of his generosity; George once told Behrman that his mother, a level-headed materfamilias, had cautioned him against overdoing it. “You see”, he added in extenuation, “the trouble is, when I don’t play I don’t have a good time”.

For the rest, the psychopathology of George’s every-day life was the sort that even the less gifted of us can match. He was generous, too generous, not only with his playing, but with his leisure. The veriest little tyro of a high-school girl from the most modest suburb could have a half-hour interview with him for her school paper. With the patience of a Job he sat down, asked her where to begin, and started off for the thousandth time: “I was born in Brooklyn on the His autograph was almost as free as his advice. The quotidian Gershwin was not enamored of card games, unless it be hearts. Poker failed to excite him. Pingpong, an occasional set of tennis, backgammon, golf . . . these, and especially the open air, seduced him from the more sober tasks of compositions.

His beard was heavy, and very early in the day threatened to take on the hue of Jed Harris’s blue patch. A three days’ growth and he looked like some hermit who has taken the vows.

You would usually find him dressed in blue or grey; one suit with a white pencil stripe has become famous in the photographs. In the matter of clothes he was not a patriot, preferring foreign makes. He had the chief nationalities timed. The English rhythm is 6/8; the Viennese, 3/4; New York is 4/4; and Russia (this, with a Tchaikovskian twinkle in his eye), 5/4.

London for quietude, Paris for beauty, and New York (of all places!) for work.

He was a man of mood rather than method. A definite contract stipulating a date of delivery acted as a spur; once thus stimulated, he could work hours on end without interruption. Outside of his scores he found it hard to be on time. Politics was a bore.

If he had not had a secretary, or that remarkably efficient brother, Ira, it is unlikely that he would ever have paid a bill or answered a letter. You wrote to him, you telegraphed, you even cabled. Yet, like Rhadames thrice questioned in the great fourth act of “Aida”, “he is silent”. Then, suddenly, a five- page, tight-packed missive. Something of the Hebrew-Christian morality clung to him, especially where women were concerned. In their presence, he was quite correct; for that matter, his conversation among men was masculine, but hardly Rabelaisian. He was known, before his sister Frances was married, to suggest in company that she pull her dresses down.

Ewen, David (ed.) Book of Modern Composers. Cited in: Nettl, Paul (1948) The Book of Musical Documents. New York: Philosophical Library, pp.348-351.

By Greg

Australian composer and pianist