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November 12, 2023: Angel Blue, soprano; Bryan Wagorn, piano

On Saturday afternoon, December 4, 1926, at the Hotel Roosevelt, Gershwin performed five preludes for piano on the first of several recitals with contralto Marguerite d’Alvarez. (For more about Gershwin’s background as a composer of songs and shows, see “American Songbook below.”) Two of these preludes had been published as Short Story, two “novelettes” for violin and piano, after violinist Samuel Dushkin had seen them in one of Gershwin’s notebooks marked “Preludes” and been given permission to make them into violin and piano pieces for a 1925 recital. Neither the five piano preludes nor the violin-piano arrangements attracted much attention.

The five preludes plus a sixth, which Gershwin performed when the recital was repeated in Boston the following month, formed part of a project he had had in mind for some time: a set of twenty-four piano preludes to be called The Melting Pot. (The sixth was never written down in final form.) Although he abandoned the larger project, he published three of the preludes as a set, which has since become an established part of the repertoire. He dedicated them to his friend composer-conductor-pianist-arranger Bill Daly.

This afternoon we hear the first two of the set, both heavily influenced by jazz. A bluesy syncopated five-note motive opens the first Prelude and serves as the building material for the piece’s jazzy rhythmic dance. Gershwin once called the second Prelude “a sort of blue lullaby,” and indeed it unfolds as a kind of nocturne over a repeating pattern. Following a new middle section with the melody in the bass, the languid opening returns.

—©Jane Vial Jaffe

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