Samuel Chotzinoff: “New York Symphony at Carnegie Hall” (1925)
Samuel Chotzinoff: “New York Symphony at Carnegie Hall” (1925)
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter presents the text of music critic Samuel Chotzinoff's review of George Gershwin's performance of his Concerto in F at the Carnegie Hall with the New York Symphony Orchestra (NYSI) in December 1925. Chotzinoff noted that the announcement of Gershwin's first attempt at symphonic form generated more anticipatory excitement than Deems Taylor's symphonic poem Jurgen. He also described the composition as one that cannot be explained with certainty.
Gershwin family friend Samuel “Chotzie” Chotzinoff wrote some of the best reviews of Gershwin’s music in the 1920s. His view of the first performance of the Concerto in F is among the best he wrote and among the best considerations of the work.1
The long and eagerly awaited Concerto in F by George Gershwin jammed Carnegie Hall to its capacity yesterday afternoon when it was presented for the first time by Mr. Damrosch and the Symphony Society. Mr. Gershwin’s concerto, like Deems Taylor’s symphonic poem “Jürgen,” was commissioned by the Symphony Society; but Mr. Taylor’s poem, except for the interest of its title, did not cause the anticipatory excitement that followed the announcement of the commissioning of Mr. Gershwin’s first attempt at symphonic form.
(p.83) Every day sees the presentation of some novelty and there are many organizations in New York for encouragement of new works; but so far, in spite of numerous alarms, nothing of any real value has emerged. Last year Mr. Gershwin came straight from Tin Pan Alley to a Whiteman concert of jazz at Aeolian Hall with a Rhapsody in Blue, which set everybody by the ears and gave to the future of American music an unexpected twist.
The excellence of the rhapsody was a bolt from the blue, for Mr. Gershwin was widely known as a good musical-comedy composer, a writer of fetching tunes and rhythms in the prevailing fashion. The piece was a lengthy flight compared to the composer’s musical-comedy numbers, but there were those, even among his admirers, who considered the rhapsody one of those accidents which happen once in a lifetime—something that cannot be explained and certainly cannot be repeated.
When Mr. Damrosch rashly ordered the concerto there was a great deal of headshaking and inquiries about where Mr. Gershwin would get the knowledge required for the handling of a symphonic work, what would be the nature of his material, &c; and, as a matter of fact, Mr. Gershwin himself modestly disclaimed any knowledge of musical form. But, after all, there was the Rhapsody in Blue, which was as big an advance over his previous work as the concerto would be over the rhapsody. Mr. Gershwin intimated that he would trust to luck.
But it was not luck that carried the composer of the rhapsody to success, and luck alone would never have created the Concerto in F heard yesterday afternoon. The truth is that George Gershwin is a genius—perhaps the only one of all the younger men who are trying with might and main to express the modern spirit. You may cite his deficiencies as evidenced by his latest work—they are obvious. He is not a master of form; he is audaciously irresponsible and writes down, apparently, whatever he feels, indiscriminately. He lacks depth, and it seems that because of his lifelong environment he never will be able to rid himself of jazz, no matter how he sublimates it.
But all his shortcomings are nothing in the face of the one thing he alone of all those writing the music of to-day possesses. He alone actually expresses us. He is the present, with all its audacity, impertinence, its feverish delight in its motion, its lapses into rhythmically exotic melancholy. He writes without the smallest hint of self-consciousness and with unabashed delight in the stridency, the gaucheries, the joy and excitement of life as it is lived right here and now. But that is not all, since every jazz band in every night club in America does just this.
And here is where his genius comes in, for George Gershwin is an instinctive artist who has that talent for the right manipulation of the crude material he starts out with that a life-long study of form and harmony and counterpoint and fugue never can give to one who is not born with it.
(p.84) The composition begins with a passage on the kettledrums exactly like the Beethoven violin concerto. But whereas Beethoven’s drums intone their four beats modestly, Mr. Gershwin’s drummers do not roast like sucking doves but smash away boldly and challengingly, as they should in this age. There follows a broad and insistent melody with shifting harmonies underneath it, and orchestra and piano break into a magnificent Charleston, and the Charleston, by the way, seemed last night as good and authentic material for symphonic treatment as anything that was ever used.
This first movement moved along almost always with broad fervor and genuine vitality, though at moments the composer’s powers for thematic development dropped to zero. But it is to Mr. Gershwin’s great credit that he didn’t resort in these crises to padding, but calmly began on something else, so that the composition never lagged, but was continually revitalized.
The slow movement, a Blues whose themes closely resembled the fine Negro improvisations of that name, notably the “St. Louis Gal,” is to my mind a masterpiece. I can recall nothing in modern music so beautiful, so haunting, so “kiddingly” melancholy In it Mr. Gershwin revealed a delicate imagination and a remarkable sense for mood. I am not quite sure of the enduring quality of the concerto as a whole, but it seems to me that the Andante of Mr. Gershwin’s concerto will remain beautiful for a very long time.
Mr. Gershwin played his concerto excellently and simply and disposed of its difficulties as if he had been a concert pianist all his life. He vitalizes his music with an inborn natural rhythm, and his flair for jazz playing and a peculiar languorous though rhythmic manner in the execution of Blues made his contribution to the performance a delight.
The same cannot be said of Mr. Damrosch and the Symphony Orchestra, who apparently didn’t know exactly what to do with the strange work. Mr. Damrosch should have visited “Connies” in Harlem to find out just how to play a Charleston, and the only resemblance of the trumpet played yesterday to the same instrument in a good jazz band (which would have played the music perfectly) was the derby hat which covered it.2
Altogether the orchestral portion of Mr. Gershwin’s work was hardly in the spirit of the composition. There was no finesse and a great deal of noise. Perhaps the right accompaniment could only have been supplied by Paul Whiteman, whose interpretative flair for just such music is akin to Mr. Gershwin’s.
SOURCE New York World (December 4, 1925): 16.
(1) For a well-wrought consideration of the work, see Charles Hamm’s thoughts on the second movement in his “A Blues for the Ages,” in Richard Crawford, R. Allen Lott, and Carol J. Oja, eds., A Celebration of American Music: Words and Music in Honor of H. Wiley Hitchcock (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 346–55.
(2) Connie’s Inn, at Seventh Avenue and 131st Street, was owned and operated by George and Connie Immerman during the 1920s. Considered one of the top clubs in Harlem, it presented top entertainers to an all-white clientele.