George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Scott Joplin (1868-1917)
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
George Lyons and Bob Yosco
Andrew Lloyd Webber (b. 1948)
Billy Joel (b. 1949)
Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930)
Total Playing Time 69:48
The real American folk song is a rag
Ira Gershwin, 1918
About the music:
With The Real American Folk Song is a Rag, the Gershwin brothers began their history making song writing collaboration. How appropriate that their very first song together not only makes a case for ragtime, but the piano accompaniment is filled with self-propelling rhythms, unique syncopations and Gershwin's trademark harmonic surprises. Although not written for solo piano, Gershwin's original piano accompaniment to this song is quite suitable as a solo piano piece.
Ragtime is perhaps the first uniquely American contribution to world music. In 1994 I was the first person to record a CD containing all Gershwin's published solo piano music (Rhapsody in Blue, Gershwin's Complete Solo Piano Music). In 1995 Warner Brothers published a new volume of sheet music containing previously unavailable "new" preludes by Gershwin, which made me want to go back to the recording studio immediately. It just so happened that these "new" preludes all seemed to fit into the category of ragtime and lullabies. At the same time, the solo piano version of Gershwin's Lullaby finally appeared in print and I certainly felt the combination of rags and lullabies would compliment each other nicely.
This CD is both an addendum to my first Gershwin CD, and a rather subjective and personal investigation of ragtime and lullabies from the end of the nineteenth century to the present.
Rialto Ripples (which follows Real American Folk Song without pause) was published in 1917 and written the previous year. It is George Gershwin's first published instrumental and his only piano rag. It has all the hallmarks of Gershwin's tricky piano style merging ragtime with the piano novelty number. Gershwin was hoping for a hit with the publication of this piece. It didn't happen. Ragtime's heyday was really at the turn of the century, and by 1917 the ragtime era had ended with the death, that year, of Scott Joplin.
Gershwin's Lullaby is a true ragtime lullaby, sweet, full now of faded memories, and filled with slow motion ragtime syncopations, comparable in many ways to Scott Joplin's Solace. It seems to have been written first as a piano piece around 1919, then transcribed by Gershwin for string quartet. A portion of the original piano version still survives. Using that and the string quartet version, Alicia Zizzo reconstructed the original solo piano version.
Gershwin had the idea of writing 24 Preludes - not unlike Chopin - and calling his series The Melting Pot. He never completed the series, but several charming Preludes from the series still exist. The original Three Preludes which I had recorded on my previous Gershwin CD are well known, loved by all pianists, and certainly have been a staple of the piano repertoire for decades. The "new" preludes recorded here, were performed by Gershwin himself in a concert on December 4, 1926. Richard Stokes, reviewing Gershwin's performance in the Evening World, called them "brief and glowing little vignettes of New York life." The Prelude January 1925 was clearly used as a basis for the finale of his piano concerto. Rubato and Sleepless Night are both wistful jazz studies and the Novelette in Fourths is a charming raggy period piece. This Gershwin sets ends with Summertime from Porgy and Bess - surely Gershwin's most well known lullaby.
Scott Joplin was the central and prime creative spirit of ragtime. A large segment of twentieth-century American music including jazz, bebop, big band, and the American popular song derived its shape and spirit from him. The complete history of the effects of ragtime on twentieth century music have yet to be fully explored. Rudi Blesh in his forward to the Complete Works of Scott Joplin wrote that at the turn of the century:
"...ragtime fared better in Europe than at home where its very name was an epithet, a scornful, belittling term with strong racial overtones. Conscious of this, Joplin himself called the appellation "scurrilous." America both accepted and rejected ragtime. Initially, emerging from the red-light districts it became a popular hit of unprecedented proportions. Quickly, then, it began to meet with fanatic opposition from an informal entente of moralistic prudes, the Europe-oriented culture snobs and an Academy that felt suddenly challenged. The real trouble with ragtime was not that it was no good but that is was too good, and it had, so to speak, been born out of wedlock, with at least a part of its parentage black."
Maple Leaf Rag (1899) is Joplin's keystone work. To play it always gives a feeling of irresistible exhilaration and joy. It contrasts wonderfully with Solace, a slow sweet ragtime lullaby. I mentioned earlier the comparison to Gershwin's Lullaby. It is important to be aware of tempo in Joplin's music. In many of his scores he wrote that ragtime is never to be played fast. He wrote this as a horrified reaction to many musicians who would mindlessly bang this music out as fast as they could. Joplin's admonition however, resulted in much confusion since the music actually needs to find its own tempo. The ragtime in this album thus has a variety of tempi and texture.
According to Robert Haven Schauffler in The Unknown Brahms, just before his death Brahms envisioned a ragtime project. Sadly, we don't have that music, but we do have from Brahms what is probably the best known lullaby in the world - a tune that has been used for everything from quaint music boxes to Bugs Bunny cartoons. Incidentally, Arthur Rubinstein made a delicious recording of this piece in 1947 and after hearing his performance I always wanted to record it myself.
At the turn of the century Americans cakewalked to ragtime. So did the French, though they called it le temps du chiffon. Every concert pianist knows Golliwog's Cakewalk from Debussy's Children's Corner suite. Gershwin certainly knew this music too, since he made a point of obtaining all the music of Debussy while visiting Paris. But even more striking is the similarity that Golliwog has to Gershwin's famous Third Prelude (from his original set of Three Preludes) including the very same chords in the opening bars. It's a wonderful example of the cross pollination of ragtime from America to Europe and back again via Gershwin to America. Debussy's Jimbo's Lullaby, also from Children's Corner is actually a reflection of his own rather individual brand of English. He insisted that his daughter Chouchou's toy elephant was Jimbo-not Jumbo. The elephant is being told a bedtime story, and surely this is the most gravity defying of all elephantine music.
Spaghetti Rag is a favorite of mine. Written in 1910, I can't help but think of Charlie Chaplin twirling his cane to the circular tune of this music. From there we move to the other end of the twentieth century and what may strike some as surprising choices of music to be recorded by a concert pianist. Root Beer Rag was written at the beginning of Billy Joel's career and I can only guess was used by him as his own virtuoso showpiece, which allowed him to stand out from the crowd. Lullaby (Goodnight My Angel) written in 1993 is a touching gift to his daughter. I decided to end this album with a piece I occasionally use as an encore at my own concerts - Send in the Clowns from A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim. It's a wonderful way to say goodnight and pleasant dreams!
--Paul Bisaccia, Provincetown, Massachusetts