Monday, January 13, 2014

Summertime and the Worcester Account

By Chet Williamson 

He was one of Worcester’s finest writers and close friends with America’s most popular composer. S.N. Behrman was the scribe. George Gershwin was the tunesmith.

According to accompanying notes to his early biography, The Worcester Account, the writer was born Samuel Nathaniel Behrman (1893-1973), “the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants, was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and grew up in a triple-decker at #31 Providence Street. His father was a grocer and a Talmudic scholar who taught Hebrew to neighborhood children. In Worcester, Behrman attended Providence Street School, Classical High School, and Clark University.”

The writer earned degrees from Harvard and Columbia before embarking on a prolific and successful writing career that produced 30 plays, six books of fiction and non-fiction, more than 20 filmscripts, and countless newspaper and magazine articles.

Here’s the writer from The Worcester Account: “We lived, when I was a child and until I left Worcester, in a triple-decker tenement a quarter way up the long hill that was Providence Street. The street belonged to a few Irish, to a few Poles, and to us... . These triple-deckers, which straggled up our hill, were mostly sadly in need of paint jobs and their mass appearance was somewhat depressing. But in the many other respects they were not so bad. They had balconies, front and back, which we called piazzas.

The yards in the back had fruit trees – cherry and pear and apple. … Once, standing on our back piazza, I overheard my young cousin, then about eleven – my family, including my grandmother and two aunts, occupied three of the six flats at 31 – improvising an ode to one of the blossoming pear trees: ‘Oh, you elegant tree!’ she began. But then she caught my eye and the rhapsody was aborted. The contemplative and withdrawn could sit on the back piazzas and look at the fruit trees; the urban and the worldly could sit on the front piazza and survey the passing scene.”

Water Street, Worcester

Gershwin biographies are many. He was born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898, the second son of Russian immigrants. The 5-cent take on Gershwin's life is that he dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become a piano-playing song-plugger on Tin Pan Alley. According to biography.com, “Within a few years, he was one of the most sought after musicians in America. A composer of jazz, opera and popular songs for stage and screen, many of his works are now standards. Gershwin died immediately following brain surgery on July 11, 1937, at the age 38.”

Gershwin often spoke of the melting-pot-ideal of America. In 1927 he was quoted as saying, “Wherever I went I heard a concourse of sounds. Many of them were not audible to my companions, for I was hearing them in memory. Strains from the latest concert, the cracked tones of a hurdy-gurdy, the wail of a street singer to the obligato of a broken violin, past or present music, I was hearing within me. Old music and new music, forgotten melodies and the craze of the moments, bits of opera, Russian folk songs, Spanish ballads, chansons, ragtime ditties, combined in an inner chorus in my inner ear. And through and over it all, faint at first, loud and fast, the soul of this great America of ours.”

In the early part of the 20th century jazz was very much a part of that equation and Gershwin loved the music. “There had been so much chatter about the limitations of jazz,” he said in the wake of his masterpiece, Rhapsody in Blue, which opened the doors of concert halls to popular music. “I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. … No set plan was in my mind – no structure to which my music would conform. The rhapsody, as you see, began as a purpose, not as a plan.”

For more on Gershwin’s life see: www.biography.com/people/george-gershwin-9309643

Behrman first met Gershwin when the two men were both in their early twenties. David Ewen, in his book George Gershwin; His Journey to Greatness, states: “Among the new faces in the Gershwin circle in the early 1920s was S.N. Behrman – “Bernie” to his friends – who, in 1923, was writing for The New York Times Book Review and various magazines.

The Gershwin circle of friends. The composer is front and center. The writer is top and center.  

Behrman had been initiated into the theater in his youth when he appeared in a vaudeville sketch of his own writing. But it was not until 1927 that he emerged as a leading playwright of social comedy when the Theater Guild produced The Second Man. Thus Behrman and Gershwin – who were introduced to each other by Samuel Chotzinoff – became friends before either were famous. As each progressed from one triumph to another, each remained close to the other.”

Behrman wrote about his friend on several occasions. First was the writer’s debut as a “Profile” columnist for The New Yorker. The piece is called “Troubadour,” originally published in the May 25, 1929 edition of the magazine.

Among the many facts, insights, and tales Behrman relates to readers about his friend is his piano playing: “Because I have no authority to write about music, I have spoken with circumspection of Gershwin's achievements as a composer. I come now to a side of his talent of which I can speak because I have been under its spell—his immediate talent as a pianist, as an interpreter of his own songs.

Josef Hofmann says of Gershwin that he has 'a fine pianistic talent . . . firm, clear . . . good command over the keyboard.' To the layman it seems a positive domination. You get the sense of a complete mastery, a complete authority—the most satisfactory feeling any artist can give you. When he sits at the piano and plays his own songs in a roomful of people, the effect that he evokes is extraordinary. I have seen Kreisler, Zimbalist, Auer, and Heifetz caught up in the heady surf that inundates a room the moment he strikes a chord. It is a feat not only of technique but of sheer virtuosity of personality.”


Behrman wrote more extensively about Gershwin in his book, People in a Diary; A Memoir. In the chapter, “The Gershwin Years,” he expounds on the piano playing, saying, “I have read numberless pages of musical analysis of Gershwin songs and his more ambitious writings by experts – ‘diminished sevenths,’ ‘tonic triads,’ ‘broken chords.’

I don’t understand any of it as I know nothing about music. Gershwin’s originality, they all agree, came from his intuition for the dramatic and the colloquial. But when I first heard him, and subsequently, I found that I had an intuition of my own – as a listener. I felt on the instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor, above all the rush of the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it.”

In that same chapter, Behrman covers all things Gershwin, including, the man, the pianist, the composer, friendship, psychoanalysis, his brother, Ira; family, death and his legacy. “Thinking back on George’s career now,” he recalls, “I see that he lived all his life in youth. He was thirty-nine when he died. He was given no time for the middle years, for the era when you look back, when you reflect, when you regret. His rhythms were the pulsations of youth; he reanimated them in those much older than he was. He reanimates them still.”

Behrman never collaborated with Gershwin. He did however use one of the composer’s tunes in the play about his friend and the lost generation of the youth. The tune is called, “Hi-Ho,” an obscure song that Gershwin first introduced in the musical, Shall We Dance, but was cut.

According to Walter Rimler, “The song was first heard publicly in the late 1940s in an S.N. Behrman play, Let Me Hear the Melody, which was based on the author's memories of George Gershwin and F. Scott Fitzgerald. But the play and the song went nowhere. Publication did not come until 1967, when the composition was made part of an exhibition of Gershwin works at the Museum of the City of New York.”



The song has since been recorded by Tony Bennett. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rlzGyD3xBgI

It is not known whether or not Gershwin and Behrman were ever in this city at the same time. Gershwin did appear in town at the Worcester Memorial Auditorium with singer James Melton and the Leo Reisman Orchestra on Tuesday, January 16, 1934. 





The concert was reviewed by Dorothy Boyd Mattison for the Worcester Daily Telegram. “Chief attention doubtless centered upon Mr. Gershwin’s playing of his own ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ for which the current tour marks the 10th anniversary of its composition, his ‘Concerto in F,’ which opened the program, and his tone poem, ‘An American in Paris.’






Probably the most delightful moment of the program came at the very end when Mr. Melton and Mr. Gershwin, tossing aside the final scheduled number, ‘Wintergreen for President,’ and silencing the orchestra, got together at the piano. Mr. Gershwin played and Mr. Melton sang ‘Of Thee I Sing’ and a number from Mr. Gershwin’s ‘Oh, Kay!’ The informal, parlor-like atmosphere lent zest to the evening, and brought it to a beautiful climax.”

Behrman noted that after Gershwin died fellow friend, Fred Astaire said, “He wrote for feet.” The writer adds, “A Gershwin tune has a propulsive effect still, all over the world. 

He was perpetually in pursuit of new horizons; he was ambitious to write serious music. In youth there is always time for everything; we all aged; George remained young. His own tempo was as propulsive as those of his songs …."


Reflecting and ruminating further about his friend in his memoir, Behrman writes: “One can never know the truth about anyone – what their inmost motivations and feelings are, but George’s life was lived so out-of-doors, so in the public eye, and these activities so absorbed him that he was always ‘too busy,’ he said, for introspective agonies. 

"He told me once that he wanted to write for young girls sitting on fire escapes on hot summer nights in New York and dreaming of love. His memory is of a golden youth, of a young man who in a short time won all the rewards of acknowledged genius.”

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: chromatic@charter.net. Also see: www.worcestersongs.blogspot.com
Thank you.

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2 comments:

  1. Hello Chet,
    I found your blog when I Googled Walberg & Auge. I recently had a heating pipe burst that flooded my basement workshop where I had an old Ukulele I was planning to restore. It has a label indicating it was sold by Walberg & Auge of Worcester. I was researching the web to find its value (if any) when I saw your blog. Given your clear interest in Worcester's musical history, it occurred to me to offer you the label as a very small piece of that history. The label reads:
    The
    Musical Instrument House
    of The East
    Walberg & Auge,
    Mechanic & Mercantile Streets,
    Worcester, Mass.

    Wayne F. Rocheleau, DVM
    Jefferson, MA

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wayne,

      Thanks for your generosity. I appreciate it and thanks for checking out my blog. I think it would be a nice memento for a ukulele player. If you could send me a photo of it that would be nice.

      Best,

      Chet

      Delete