“Summertime” by George Gershwin

Listening to Gershwin’s original composition of “Summertime” (i.e. not one of the countless covers done in the style of the popular jazz standard), I was struck by how masterfully Gershwin was able to blend together various musical genres. This deftness lies in subtlety of the composition. Being more familiar with the jazz version popularized by Billie Holiday, the rhythm of the original composition really stuck out to me in that it didn’t have that same march-like, syncopated rhythm. The tempo is slow enough that at times in vocal line it is almost impossible to feel the meter. However, there are moments where Gershwin gently incorporates the elements of African American musical styles of the late 19th/ early 20th century. For example, in the brief introduction a clarinet plays descending notes in a minor key before alternating between two notes that a sort of “pulse” for the piece. This pulse is accented in between the notes by some type of chime that creates a slow orchestral syncopation.  That same pulse plays into the lullaby effects of the piece. One can imagine gently rocking a baby to the beat.

The mixture of African American musical genres with operatic/orchestral forms reminds me of Die Walküre. Like Wagner, Gershwin bases the opera on something culturally relevant, in his case an African American folk tale. In doing this, he is able to create an opera that is characteristic of both time and place – America, in the early 20th century. He allows this setting to influence the music. In summertime we see this with the rhythm, as I discussed, but also in the vocal styling; the singer uses “blue notes,” and also syncopates rhythm at parts (like on the word “jumpin’”). Altogether, these elements come together in a very nuanced manner, creating a very distinct sound.

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