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Chronicling a towering figure of American music

George Gershwin's mother believed that no woman was good enough for him. He agreed. As Gershwin was one of America's most eligible bachelors in the 1930s, he undoubtedly broke a lot of hearts when he pronounced marriage "a grand institution -- for those who enjoy that sort of thing. I don't."

Such a strange declaration to come out of the mouth of the man who wrote the music for "Our Love Is Here To Stay."

For the author of such warmhearted, sometimes smoldering music, Gershwin emerges in Howard Pollack's "George Gershwin: His Life And Work" as an oddly cold character. He dated Paulette Goddard for a while, and his sister later reflected, "That's the only time I saw him really have a crush on a woman as a woman."

Gershwin is a towering figure of American music -- a man who was essential, really, to our country finding its voice. The opening clarinet wail of "Rhapsody in Blue" took concert hall listeners to a place they had never been before. "Porgy and Bess" transcended barriers to fuse the tradition of classical music and what was problematically called jazz.

And it's impossible to overstate the impact Gershwin had through his first-rate songs. "The Man I Love," "Our Love Is Here To Stay," "Someone to Watch Over Me."

Still, this is one whopper of a tome. It's tough to wade through, and I couldn't help thinking a discussion of Gershwin's life called for a sassier style. (Just to illustrate what we're dealing with, the book is 800 pages long, and Gershwin dies on page 213.)

Buried in its depths, though, are priceless bits of information about Gershwin, his life and his work.

Luckily for us as well as Gershwin, the composer went through life surrounded by smart people. Most adored him, but Pollack's book suggests that he must have tried their patience sorely. Throughout Pollack's book, they weigh in with fascinating insights.

"Day turned into night and night turned into day when George was in the throes of creation," recalled James Warburg, whose wife, Kay Swift, had a 10-year-affair with the composer. "I found his visits stimulating but tiring."

Warburg added with insightful candor: "I liked Gershwin but resented the way in which our whole life was taken over by this completely self-centered but charming genius whose premature death was all too soon to end a brilliant career. I still consider him our most authentically American composer."

Gershwin's first known composition, dating to 1912 or 1913, was something called "Ragging the Traumerei." In other words, he took "Traumerei," the most affecting section of Schumann's "Scenes from Childhood," and put it to a raggy beat. A friend wrote the words. It's probably just as well that only the music survives.

As Pollack points out, "ragging" of classical music was all the rage in the last century's teens. But the idea of taking something as beautiful, as poignant as "Traumerei" and turning it into a popular song does suggest a certain emotional detachment.

Music came naturally to Gershwin, even if deep feelings may have been more difficult. Pollack writes how once, the composer left "two notebooks containing at least 40 tunes" in a hotel in Wilmington, Del. His brother Ira takes up the story: "After calling the hotel and learning the notebooks could not be located, he did not seem greatly perturbed. His attitude is that he can always write new ones."

He appears to have rejoiced in the natural, the unfussy and organic. "Don't ever take a singing lesson. It'll ruin you," he told Ethel Merman, the 21-year-old star of "Girl Crazy."

His involvement with his music was passionate and immediate. The cast of "Girl Crazy" rejoiced in his presence. "The cast was always elated when they knew George was in the pit," recalled Ginger Rogers. "There was a special zest when we performed with and for our composer."

Pollack does a good job of analyzing Gershwin's music in words most readers will understand. Intermediate string overflow Cannot justify line The story of "Rhapsody in Blue" has a special excitement. This was a moment that changed American music, fusing the piano concerto in the classical tradition (Pollack points out similarities with the Rhapsody's structure and Schubert's "Wanderer" Fantasy) and the unique idiom of jazz.

At the time he wrote it, Gershwin was still relatively unknown in the world of classical music. But the stars who attended the premiere by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra included -- no small thanks, Pollack notes, to Whiteman's publicity instincts -- Serge Rachmaninoff, Ernest Bloch, John Philip Sousa, Leopold Stokowski, Mischa Elman, Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, singers Mary Garden and John McCormack and pianist Leopold Godowsky (Gershwin's brother-in-law).

An equally fascinating chapter chronicles Gershwin's visit to the wilds of South Carolina to absorb the atmosphere as he writes "Porgy and Bess." By all accounts, he was fascinated by what he found, as well as characteristically confident. He shouted and stamped in rural religious gatherings and, when he visited black churches, joined joyously and uninhibitedly in with the singing and clapping. (One woman recalls Gershwin told her that an elderly man told him, "By God, you can sure beat out them rhythms, boy." Gershwin must have loved telling that story.

And Pollack must have loved telling this story. It's dense, and because of its sheer length, it's probably not for the casual Gershwin fan. But it gives a comprehensive look at one man who changed music.

Cool though he was, people loved Gershwin passionately. He was the center of excitement, a kind of live nerve, a reason for people to feel good and be together. For some people, he was even a reason for living. Pollack writes how after Gershwin died, "few suffered as keenly as Julia Van Norman, who had a psychotic breakdown and was removed to a state hospital where she remained until her death in 1997." Van Norman was a married woman who had been besotted with Gershwin.

Everyone who knew Gershwin, it seemed, treasured his or her little piece of him. To absorb his life and contemplate his work and the joy he took in it, is to understand his friend and sometime lover Kay Swift. "When George died, a great many people felt not only sad but bored."

Pollack quotes her as saying. "He loved every aspect of life, and made every aspect of life lovable. People thought they could never sense that special joy again."

Mary Kunz is the News' classical music critic.

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George Gershwin:His Life and Work

By Howard Pollack

University of California Press, 884 pages, $39.95

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