Gershwin and 20th Century Change



George Gershwin lived in a century that brought change to the world of classical music. Whether or not this change was accepted, the American composer created new and bold music that would go against the standards set in pervious music eras. One of his works, in particular, with Ira Gershwin and other broadway novices, illustrates his going against the norm with a nontraditional musical: “Of Thee I Sing.” An in depth look at the musical score shows that the structure and musical elements, such as rhythm and tonality, are very different from what you would get from a “normal” or “classical” musical. Even the story line has a different approach, essentially being a stab at American politics and how it seemingly lacks reliability and integrity. As I was reading through Chapter 5 of Starr’s book, George Gershwin, I couldn’t help but wonder: why all these changes against a standard production of a musical?

Classical music has always had a reputation of being only for the elite, wealthy and upper class individuals. I see Gershwin’s changes in his composition for “Of Thee I Sing” as a statement that classical music is simply not for particular individuals, but for everyone. As stated above, the story line for “Of Thee I Sing” highlights the flaws in American politics, which is a topic almost all Americans can connect with. The connection between the musical and the audience is present with the fact that the production held 441 performances, the longest of any musical in the 1930s. To go even further with the success of “Of Thee I Sing,” the production received a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1932, making “Of Thee I Sing” first musical to receive this prestigious award.

The 20th century seemed to be a rough time for classical music. With the popular music taking the forefront, classical music was left out of the picture. Obviously, something needed to be done for classical music to have a fighting chance at survival. These nontraditional musical works were not only changed in terms of musical structure, but also a change in captivating the audience. I see these changes as an attempt to connect with more people and show that classical music is for everyone in many different ways. What’s a better way to connect people with classical music then to put relatable issues in their everyday lives as a musical? In terms of “Of Thee I Sing”, not only does the audience get to experience a form of classical music, but they also get comic relief with a funny twist on politics while enjoying some wine. (Wishful thinking?)

The perception of having to be a musician, or formally trained to relate or even like classical music is absurd. You don’t have to be a rich, wealthy, musically inclined person to enjoy this type of music. The more relatable music can be to someone, the chances of them liking it are probably going to be high. Gershwin is just one example of how change in music standards can benefit the longevity of classical music in the 20th century. Instead of having this negative look at the 20th century with all its musical changes, we should be looking at how this change can potentially be for the better and as a way for classical music to survive.


Botstein, Leon . “Music of a century: museum culture and the politic of subsidy.” In The  Cambridge History of Twentieth Century-Music, edited by Nicholas Cook and Anthony Pople, 40-66. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Oja, Carol J. “Gershwin and American Modernists of the 1920s.” The Musical Quarterly 78, no. 4 (1994): 646-68.

Starr, Larry. “Something Completely Different: Of Thee I Sing and the Musical as a “Work”.” In George Gershwin, 86-119. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.


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