From Gershwin to Gomez

“Easy to listen to…” 

…were the words used to describe George Gershwin’s works in a 1949 piano faculty recital, according to the Manitou Messenger[1]. That evening, Prof. Joseph Running of St. Olaf College performed a piano concert consisting of all American works. He stated in his interview with The Mess that he is “desperately anxious to be a missionary for the contemporaries.” With this in mind, he programmed White Peacock and Sonata by Charles Griffes, Variations on a Bavarian Dance and The Camptown Races by Paul Nordoff, and the “easy to listen to” Three Preludes for Solo Piano by George Gershwin. (I found a recording of Gershwin, himself, playing them here!)

I took a listen to Gershwin’s Three Preludes, and what struck me is that while they may “easy to listen to” because they make us listeners want to tap our toe, they are not this way because of having a simple harmony or rhythm. In 1986, Leonard Pennario, the American pianist who performed Three Preludes on the LP recording I found in Halvorson Library’s Vinyl Collection, stated that,

“Gershwin’s music is very dear to my heart and is among the most beautiful music ever created.”[2]

People today find Gershwin’s Three Preludes just as beautiful and encapsulating of the American spirit as they did over 60 years ago. Nana Kwame, a Youtube user, commented,

“[They] just give you that ‘New York’ spirit.”[3]

Likewise, Dimitri A. commented on Youtube,

“Simply beautiful. Prelude #1 and #2 always give me the goosebumps. Gershwin was a genius.”[4]

As we’ve learned from readings and discussions in class, not all music that had its origins in Tin Pan Alley has had such long-lasting success. Each of the three movements of Gershwin’s piece are motif- or riff-driven: the first prelude is built upon a blue-note riff, the second is a blues-y lullaby, and the third combines these blues elements and sets them to a Caribbean beat. When I was listening to the LP and reading the YouTube and Mess reviews, I realized that Gershwin’s music contains a kind of “glue” that has influenced the American pop music genre: riffs. This riff-based inspiration is something that can be found in most any popular song to this day. Today’s #1 song on the USA pop charts is Selena Gomez’s Lose You to Love Me… a song that is based upon a riff that the piano opens with.

Because Gershwin’s innovations never departed from American pop music, his music has trained the American music consumer’s ear to find riff-based pieces… easy to listen to.


Primary Sources:

[1] “Running Is All-American In Last of Recital Series.” The Manitou Messenger, May 6, 1949. Accessed October 28, 2019.

[2] George Gershwins Song Book & Other Music for Piano Solo, 1986.

Secondary Sources:

[3] “George Gershwin: Three Preludes.” YouTube. YouTube, July 29, 2008. Accessed October 30, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

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