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Guided by an unsung mentor, Gershwin blazes new trails

Evening Standard via Getty Images

On July 8, New Hampshire's Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music features players from its Young Artist Fellowship Program, performing, appropriately, a student piece: George Gershwin's "Lullaby" for string quartet, written in 1919 while Gershwin was taking theory lessons with Edward Kilenyi Sr. Gershwin's piano teacher, Charles Hambitzer, recommended Kilenyi, a fellow player in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel Orchestra. A violinist and composer, the Hungarian-born Kilenyi studied in Rome (with the opera composer Pietro Mascagni) before coming to New York. By aim or by accident, Hambitzer's matchmaking worked: Kilenyi was probably the best teacher Gershwin ever had.

Kilenyi appreciated popular song; he encouraged Gershwin to follow his own style, and didn't mind Gershwin disappearing from lessons for weeks at a time because of some new show. (Gainful employment, to Kilenyi, was no less valuable than theoretical study.) He could be strict, chiding Gershwin for his difficulty in completing exercises with simple triads, without jazzy sevenths and ninths. But he provided a solid grounding in part-writing, chromatic harmony, and basic orchestration that Gershwin would utilize in both the theater and the concert hall.


And Kilenyi was up-to-date, drawing on a cutting-edge textbook: Arnold Schoenberg's "Harmonielehre." Analyzing Gershwin's tutelage, musicologist Susan Neimoyer pointed out how much Kilenyi focused on a particular concept of Schoenberg's — "Stufenreichtum" ("scale-step enrichment"), progressions and passing harmonies created by the chromatic, step-by-step movement of individual parts — and how Gershwin worked the concept into his music, from "Rhapsody in Blue" to "Porgy and Bess." (An example turns up about three-quarters of the way through the "Lullaby.") Gershwin and Schoenberg were later tennis-playing friends in Beverly Hills; thanks to Kilenyi, they could have talked shop as well.

By 1923, Kilenyi thought Gershwin needed a formal composition teacher; he encouraged Gershwin to seek out composer Ernst Bloch, but the two never connected. (Gershwin spent the rest of his life quixotically approaching famous composers for lessons.) Most of what we know about Gershwin's education comes from two accounts, one published, one not, that Kilenyi set down in the 1950s and '60s. (Two of Gershwin's lesson notebooks also survived, preserved in the Library of Congress.) Kilenyi wanted to counter the perception that Gershwin's was a naive, specialized, limited talent. It was a perception Gershwin himself sometimes abetted, whether out of insecurity or the notion that the image of an unschooled genius would make for better publicity. But Gershwin knew more — and studied more — than he let on.


Matthew Guerrieri

The Apple Hill Fellowship Quartet plays music of Haydn, Puccini, Gershwin, and Shostakovich, July 8 at 7:30 p.m. in the Concert Barn at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, 410 Apple Hill Road, Nelson, N.H. Tickets $15-$30. 603-847-3371, www.applehill.org .

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.