"Music," Gershwin once said, "must reflect the thoughts and aspirations of the people and the time. My people are American. My time is today." Gershwin's life, from his days as a "songplugger" in New York's Tin Pan Alley to fame and fortune with Broadway shows and symphonic composition, followed the evolution of American popular music. But he was as much an influence on his time as he was influenced by it. Charismatic, brilliant, and vastly egotistical, his struggle to be recognized as a serious composer was always at odds with the fame and money such songs as "Fascinating Rhythm" and "Lady Be Good" brought him.
While Greenberg's biography is serviceable as an introduction to the composer's life, his analysis of the music is what raises this elegantly short book to the realm of the exceptional. Gershwin's body of work is surprisingly small, considering its lasting influence, and this gives the author the opportunity to discuss at length not only such landmark works as Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess, but also minor pieces like "Lullaby" and "Someone to Watch Over Me." Indeed, Greenberg argues that Gershwin's gifts, like those of Cole Porter but also Chopin and Grieg, were best expressed through his shorter compositions, and while he never stopped working to achieve a significant work of length, it was his instinct for 32-bar and shorter pieces that ensured his place in musical history. --John Longenbaugh