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Gershwin and his brain tumor #411902
02/11/09 04:18 PM
02/11/09 04:18 PM
Joined: Aug 2008
Posts: 3,886
New York
Andromaque Offline OP
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Andromaque  Offline OP
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Joined: Aug 2008
Posts: 3,886
New York
So I was invited to a talk by psychiatrist and pianist Richard Kogan who spoke about Gershwin and the "impact" of his undiagnosed brain tumor.
I will preface this by saying that I am not a major Gershwin fan but do appreciate his piano music. I have no emotional connection to his songs.
The talk was interesting, except if you knew a lot about Gershwin's life. If so, skip the remaining parts of this post.
The speaker, fairly skilled at addressing and maintaining an audience's attention, went through a biography of Gershwin. Russian immigrant parents, hyperactive character traits, free-wheeling childhood and truancy until he happened to listen to a music performance. He was largely self-taught, exhibited significant arrogance and self-confidence (per Dr Kogan). Interesting anecdotes about Gershwin wanting to be taught by Maurice Ravel, who declined reportedly because Gershwin was already a major composer (" If I teach you you will become a minor Ravel"). When inquiring about lessons from Stravinsky he asked how much was the charge and Stravinsky said: that depends on your income. Gershwin was already publishing a lot of music and was doing well financially, which he acknowledged. Stravinsky then said: Can I take lessons from you?
Kogan went on to perform Swanee and Rhapsody in Blue (did not love the performance.. a bit forceful and some stuttering here and there).
About the brain tumor, well apparently Gershwin had a right temporal lobe primary brain tumor and was experiencing olfactory seizures. He would smell burning rubber when there wasn't any. He consulted some physicians but the diagnosis was missed. He collapsed several times and eventually got sick enough that he was hospitalized (? Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in California?). The diagnosis was made then. Interestingly, the local neurosurgeons were intimidated or did not want to operate on this high profile patient. So they looked for the most famous neurosurgeon at the time, Walter Dandy and could not locate him. This was in the thirties when neurosurgery and telecommunications were pretty primitive. So the White House got involved and the coast guard located Dr. Dandy sailing off the Chespaeake Bay (Maryland, Eastern coast of the US). It was felt that Dr Dandy could not reach Gershwin in time. Local neurosurgeons operated on him but he never recovered from a postoperative coma. He died the following day. The type of tumor he had (glioblastoma) is aggressive and even today average life expectancy from the time of diagnosis is one year.
As to the effect of the tumor on his music, well nothing convincing was demonstrated. Apparently he continued to compose until the day before he died. He was the richest composer ever apparently.
The speaker went on to play excerpts from Porgy and Bess. I got bored and left.So I may have missd some other tidbits.
It was fairly interesting, although not exceedingly so. It got me thinking though about how people plan their careers.
The speaker is a reasonably accomplished pianist (Mannes pre-college, a few competition wins, performances and reviews) and a practicing psychiatrist. Yet it is clear that he tries to carve a well-thought out niche for himself and to market his "product" under the auspices of "Music and Medicine". He has given talks in several places including at Davos. He clearly tailors his lectures to a particular audience and is attractive to a number of organizations as "high brow but not very demanding" entertainment (to quote the PW forum dwellers).. Then there is the curiosity factor. There were a lot of doctors and scientists, many of whom have probably dabbled more or less extensively into music and some instrument..
My opinion may have been different perhaps if I were a Gershwin devotee.

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Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411903
02/13/09 08:37 AM
02/13/09 08:37 AM
Joined: Oct 2007
Posts: 607
UK
Wood-demon Offline
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Wood-demon  Offline
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Joined: Oct 2007
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UK
An interesting post, but I'm not quite sure what sort of response is expected.
I read a theory once that Gershwin, who had started to lose his hair, caused (or exacerbated) the tumour by using a massaging device which was supposed to stimulate hair growth. Apparently the last intelligible word Gershwin uttered was the name, "Astaire."
Being a Gershwin devotee I recently purchased a budget 10 cd collection of performances by the man himself and also later performances. The cheap and cheerful packaging lists one of the tracks, performed by Mel Torme, as " A froggy day."....an offshoot of "An American in Paris" perhaps?

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411904
02/13/09 10:46 AM
02/13/09 10:46 AM
Joined: Oct 2008
Posts: 4,802
San Jose, CA
Jeff Clef Offline
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Jeff Clef  Offline
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San Jose, CA
It's good enough for me--- it's an interesting report, and my response is, "Thank you!" To both of you, actually.

Somehow the inner experience of people always fascinates me--- even the most ordinary-seeming person can be full of surprises--- and especially that of creative talents. I guess we don't know from this report what it was like, from the inside, for Gershwin to have a brain tumor... or to live in a time before rogaine, viagara, or cell phones, and I don't suppose we can know that. But many artists suffer one way or another, as well as expressing their inborn gifts, and they all die. Maybe knowing other peoples' experience doesn't really help, in truth, but somehow it seems like it might.

JClef


Clef

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411905
02/13/09 07:49 PM
02/13/09 07:49 PM
Joined: Aug 2008
Posts: 3,886
New York
Andromaque Offline OP
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Andromaque  Offline OP
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Joined: Aug 2008
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New York
I know what you both mean. I am not sure I expected a response. I just wanted to share I guess. I am also interested in the "inner experience" as Jeff says. I am fascinated by creative people / artists and how they experience the world. I realize that most of their lives are spent in the routines of daily living not much differently from the rest of us. But something about them is obviously different.
I should say that I was hoping for some interesting tidbit about the potential impact of this tumor on his music. It is in the non dominant part of the brain, whose functiopn is not very clear. One thing is for certain. Mortality from brain surgery at that time was very elevated. So he must have known that he was nearing the end..
He died awfully young. just 38!
ANyway, tahnks for commenting!
Wd, do you play much GErshwin? what exactly?

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411906
02/13/09 09:16 PM
02/13/09 09:16 PM
Joined: Mar 2005
Posts: 211
texas
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poulencfan Offline
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texas
Gershwin's brother, Ira, says that he and George used to roller-skate a lot as kids and roller-skated inside a deserted building once. George supposedly fell through a hole to the floor below. I used to wonder if that made an interesting change in his brain and his later ability to compose.

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411907
02/13/09 10:46 PM
02/13/09 10:46 PM
Joined: Nov 2006
Posts: 9,373
Pacific Northwest, US.
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argerichfan Offline
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Pacific Northwest, US.
Quote
Originally posted by Andromaque:
Wd, do you play much Gershwin? what exactly?
I play plenty of Gershwin, and for memory I can enjoy many of his songs. Why just the other day I was up to 'S Wonderful. Oh, how yummy.


Jason
Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411908
02/14/09 03:49 AM
02/14/09 03:49 AM
Joined: Oct 2007
Posts: 607
UK
Wood-demon Offline
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UK
Quote
Originally posted by Andromaque:
Wd, do you play much GErshwin? what exactly?
The first "Concerto" I ever played was the 2nd Rhapsody. I have also played the Concerto in F. I loved the Rhapsody in Blue as a youngster but I tired of it early so have never played the solo part, although I have conducted it. I once helped out by playing the taxi horns in "An American in Paris" and scraping the gourds (or whatever they were called!) in the Cuban Overture, too.
As for the solo works I've played the 3 Preludes, some of the song transcriptions and the Novelette.
At this very moment in time I'm taking a look at the delightful, early "Lullaby" in the arrangement by Alicia Zizzo. I wonder what Gershwin's teacher, Reuben Goldmark, a product of the Germanic tradition, thought of it?
As for your question about the impact on Gershwin's music, if any, of the tumour, I would have thought that it was unknowable. Certainly there was no deterioration in its quality if his last song, "Love walked in", is anything to go by. I recently watched a video of "The Goldwyn Follies" in which the song was first performed by the excellent Kenny Baker. Absolutely beautiful...it had me in tears!

P.S. You can find a clip of this here:
http://nathanson1947.multiply.com/video/item/18/Kenny_Baker_-_Love_Walked_In_

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411909
02/14/09 08:40 AM
02/14/09 08:40 AM
Joined: Oct 2008
Posts: 4,802
San Jose, CA
Jeff Clef Offline
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Jeff Clef  Offline
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Joined: Oct 2008
Posts: 4,802
San Jose, CA
Didn't know "Love Walked In" was his last--- my greatest favorite out of many Gershwin favorites. Years back I was a waiter in a place that had a strolling musician couple who played violin and accordion, and that was one of their numbers. They used to play it every time because they were very cool people and because they knew I loved it. Even on my feet working the room, it used to put a squeeze on my heart and a tear in my eye.

Clef


Clef

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411910
02/14/09 08:47 AM
02/14/09 08:47 AM
Joined: Aug 2008
Posts: 3,886
New York
Andromaque Offline OP
3000 Post Club Member
Andromaque  Offline OP
3000 Post Club Member

Joined: Aug 2008
Posts: 3,886
New York
I have a lot to learn when it comes to Gershwin I must admit. I do not know enough about the American music scene in those days, just movie tidbits. Interestingly my russian trained and raised piano teacher has introduced me to Gershwin's music. He did have a very multidimensional talent.
That was a beautiful song. Thanks for the link.

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411911
02/14/09 08:53 AM
02/14/09 08:53 AM
Joined: Oct 2007
Posts: 607
UK
Wood-demon Offline
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Wood-demon  Offline
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UK
Quote
Originally posted by Jeff Clef:
Didn't know "Love Walked In" was his last--- my greatest favorite out of many Gershwin favorites. Years back I was a waiter in a place that had a strolling musician couple who played violin and accordion, and that was one of their numbers. They used to play it every time because they were very cool people and because they knew I loved it. Even on my feet working the room, it used to put a squeeze on my heart and a tear in my eye.

Clef
That's what I've always understood, but I looked up a Wikipedia article which says that the song was written in 1930 but the lyrics not added until 1937. I'm not sure I understand that.
However, it might be appropriate to mention here the great contribution made, in the case of many of Gershwin's songs, by his brother, Ira, who supplied so many wonderful lyrics for George to work his magic upon.

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411912
02/14/09 08:58 AM
02/14/09 08:58 AM
Joined: Aug 2008
Posts: 3,886
New York
Andromaque Offline OP
3000 Post Club Member
Andromaque  Offline OP
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Joined: Aug 2008
Posts: 3,886
New York
The speaker I mentioned also said that Love walked in was the last song Gershwin worked on the day before his surgery. May be he completed / polished something..

Re: Gershwin and his brain tumor #411913
02/14/09 09:09 AM
02/14/09 09:09 AM
Joined: Oct 2007
Posts: 607
UK
Wood-demon Offline
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Wood-demon  Offline
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Joined: Oct 2007
Posts: 607
UK
Quote
Originally posted by Andromaque:
I have a lot to learn when it comes to Gershwin I must admit. I do not know enough about the American music scene in those days, just movie tidbits. Interestingly my russian trained and raised piano teacher has introduced me to Gershwin's music. He did have a very multidimensional talent.
That was a beautiful song. Thanks for the link.
There is, amazingly, still a lot of prejudice to be found, even to-day, against Gershwin's music.
Not too long ago I played the Concerto with an amateur orchestra and was confronted by an elderly gentleman from the viola section who told me he thought the concerto was "unclean" music! Furthermore,I have a friend who, whenever I mention the composer, pulls a face and says that the music reminds him of a sleazy clip-joint. I enjoy playing the "innocent ear" game with him and putting on a recording of a piece like the Cuban Overture or one of the "Madrigals" and watching him make a fool of himself as he identifies the work as being by a composer he admires.
The rather severe Hans Keller, who could usually be found giving lectures on the Haydn and Schoenberg quartets, was of the opinion that Gershwin was a genius, but that his genius was in greater evidence in his songs than in his large-scale works. As much as I love and admire Gershwin's music for the concert hall, I tend to agree with him.


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