George Gershwin is one of the most significant American composers and pianists of the 20th century. His compositions spanned both popular and classical genres including orchestral compositions, Broadway theatre works, film scores and American operas. Several of his compositions became jazz standards recorded in many variations. Countless celebrated singers and musicians have performed his songs as well.
I have had the pleasure and privilege of studying several of Gershwin’s challenging piano works with my instructors, Esther Lee Caplan of Juilliard, and Mario Feninger. Little did I know there was yet another genre composed by this musical genius.
In the 1990s, I had purchased a random CD collection of ragtime piano roll pieces by Scott Joplin and Jelly Roll Morton, performed on an authentic player piano or pianola. To my surprise and delight, pieces by George Gershwin were included as well. This was my introduction to his ragtime compositions for piano roll and player piano! (A piano roll is a continuous roll of paper with holes punched into it, triggering the keys of a player piano. See photos below.)
I had to learn more about these pieces. Luckily, I was able to locate and purchase Gershwin Plays Gershwin, Selections from The Piano Rolls for Solo Piano. This is no ordinary arrangement of Gershwin melodies! George Litterst, nationally known music educator, clinician, author, performer, and music software developer transcribed six of Gershwin’s piano roll pieces for this music book: Drifting Along with the Tide, Kickin’ the Clouds Away, So Am I, Swanee, Sweet and Low-Down and That Certain Feeling. Artis Wodehouse, pianist, scholar and specialist in historic sound recordings, edited and arranged these transcriptions. Playing these pieces is like walking in Gershwin’s footsteps.
Piano roll music transcriptions can be quite different from standard piano solo manuscripts. Often, two grand staves are stacked on top of each other. The top consists of two treble clef staves, and the bottom, two bass clef staves, ideal for playing piano duets. (See photo sample below.)
The CD, Gershwin Plays Gershwin, Selections from The Piano Rolls, is available for purchase on Amazon.com. The intermediate piano solo book is published by Warner Bros. Publications PF0941, and may be purchased at local sheet music stores or online sheet music distributors. To hear Sweet and Lowdown on Youtube, click the link.
Ragtime, piano rolls and George Gershwin are American musical treasures. It is my pleasure to share this unique piece of music history with you. I hope you enjoy and share it as well.
Linda Wehrli is the founder/instructor at Pastimes for a Lifetime Piano School and avid fan of George Gershwin’s compositions. To learn more, visit the school’s Facebook fan page and sign up for posts on local musical events and student concerts.