Three Preludes for Piano

The three piano preludes are among George Gershwin’s undisputed masterpieces. A number of researchers define them as a kind of peak in the “classical” work of the composer. First performed at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York in 1926, these short piano pieces are dedicated to Bill Daly, a friend and musical advisor of the composer.

Each of the preludes is a typical well-known example of early-20th-century American classical music, as influenced by jazz. The two final preludes marked Allegro ben rimato e deciso, are at a quick pace and each of them lasts no more than a minute, and the middle is a slow three-minute blues.

In fact, Gershwin originally planned to compose 24 preludes for this group of works. The process of its creation took three years – from 1923 to 1926. The number was reduced to seven in manuscript form, and then reduced to five in public performance. They were further decreased to THREE when first published in 1926. Two of the remaining preludes not published were rearranged for solo violin and piano and published as Short Story. Of the other two, the Prelude in G was eliminated by the publisher because somewhat similar music had already appeared in Gershwin’s Concerto in F. The other was excluded for unknown reasons.

Written in B flat major, The First prelude is a melody of jerky, syncopated rhythm influenced by Brazilian dance music. These give the piece a strong jazz feel, and although these sounds are far from adventurous by modern standards, to the audiences of the late 1920s they were almost unheard of. The second prelude in C-sharp minor also has the distinct flavour of jazz. The piece begins with a subdued melody winding its way above a smooth, steady baseline. The harmonies and melodies of this piece emphasize the major/minor duality of the blues scale. Gershwin himself referred to the piece as “a sort of blues lullaby.” The third prelude – in E flat minor – is called “Spanish” by Gershwin and was probably perceived as such by his first listeners, but modern ears may find such a definition puzzling. After a brief and dramatic introduction, the main theme is revealed: two melodies that together form a question-and-answer pair. This theme is used throughout to provide harmonic structure. The “question” is harmonized using E-flat minor chords, the “answer” by E-flat major chords. After a brief, highly syncopated middle section, the melodic pair returns assertively in octaves. Major wins and the piece concludes with a flourish.

The Three Preludes is Gershwin’s only known solo piano concerto published in his lifetime. On September 8th , 1937, they were performed in Hollywood Bowl in memory of the composer, who died suddenly in July that same year. And in 1942, the world-famous violinist Jascha Heifetz transcribed them for violin and piano, and made them a permanent part of the performers’ repertoire. There are also other prelude arrangements for various instruments, small ensembles and piano.

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