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November 20, 2016: Frank Huang, concertmaster; Sheryl Staples, principal associate concertmaster; Cynthia Phelps, viola; Carter Brey; cello

Sometime around 1919 George Gershwin worked on a short piece for string quartet in the course of his harmony and orchestration studies with Edward Kilenyi. Though popular with his friends, the piece was put aside after Gershwin siphoned off its main motive for an aria in the one-act opera Blue Monday, which was pulled from the stage after its premiere in 1922. The manuscript of the quartet lay forgotten on his brother Ira’s shelf for four decades until harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler reminded Ira of its existence. Adler obtained permission to arrange the piece for harmonica and string quartet, in which version the piece was introduced at the Edinburgh Festival in 1963. It was a short step for Adler, now with the help of Morton Gould, to make an arrangement for harmonica and string orchestra, but it was not until October 28, 1967, that the Lullaby was publicly performed in its original version for string quartet. Ira and Arthur (another brother) published the piece the following year, and it has had equal success with both string quartets and string orchestras.

George Gershwin’s ability to cross over between jazz and “art music” has always been considered one of his great claims to fame, and the Lullaby, written as a “classical” piece, enhances that claim. The Lullaby is designed in three main sections framed by a short introduction and coda. Softly sustained chords and violin harmonics lead to the first main section, which features a gently syncopated accompaniment. The central section itself contains three parts, marked Semplice, Recitativo, and Dolcissimo. The return to the main section is altered and shortened and the piece closes with a unifying return to the harmonics of the introduction with a little tossed-off pizzicato for impish finality.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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