Definitive book on Gershwin should come with comfy chair

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Grab your coffee mug, intrepid readers of Howard Pollack’s “George Gershwin: His Life and Work.”

This exhaustive — and exhausting — study weighs almost three and a half pounds and occupies more than 900 pages. The notes alone fill 117 pages; the index 59 pages; the bibliography, seven pages.

Clearly, this is the definitive work on George Gershwin. It’s hard to imagine there could be anything to add to the Gershwin canon beyond what is covered in Pollack’s biography. Pollack is a professor of music at the University of Houston who previously published books on composers Aaron Copland and John Alden Carpenter.

Pollack divides the material into two parts, each of which could have made a separate book. The first section, “Life,” contains 11 chapters that deal with Gershwin’s family, musical education, relationship to popular music, work as a pianist, career in the theater, working methods, life style and character. “Work,” the longer second section, is a detailed analysis of Gershwin’s compositions, music, shows, recordings and critical writings.

Pollack’s comprehensive survey begins with Gershwin’s first work and ends with the pieces brought forth posthumously by Gershwin’s brother and lyricist, Ira. The presentation makes use of archival material, including manuscripts discovered in a Warner Brothers warehouse in 1982, 45 years after Gershwin’s death.

Pollack’s discussion of Gershwin’s Jewish identity and its reflection in his music is equivocal. On the one hand, he says Gershwin was “elusive about Jewish music.” On the other, Gershwin asserted that writing music requires “feeling a quality possessed to a great degree by the Jewish people.”

But Gershwin certainly was influenced by the Yiddish theater, and several commentators claim that the themes and the style of his music owe a good deal to Jewish culture. To a greater degree, Gershwin and the leading songwriters of the era were influenced by black music — to the point that jazz of the 1920s was said to be “Africanized Jewish music.”

Although Gershwin had many love affairs, he never married, in part because he “wanted a Jewish wife.” His mother, who ran an Orthodox home but didn’t attend synagogue or observe Jewish holidays, felt that “no woman was good enough for him.” Growing up on the Lower East Side, however, meant that Gershwin was raised in the midst of a vibrant Jewish community.

Unlike the second section of the book, which is presented chronologically, the biographical material is presented thematically, making for some repetition. But it thoroughly examines Gershwin’s tragically short life before he died of a brain tumor in 1937, at age 38.

Pollack examines the accusations that Gershwin was misdiagnosed, especially by his psychiatrist, Gregory Zilboorg, and suggests that an earlier diagnosis might have led to surgery before the tumor progressed. The discussion is inconclusive.

In “Work,” Pollak offers detailed documentation of Gershwin’s entire output, with a minute dissection of each piece and plot summaries of Gershwin’s Broadway shows. Music buffs are likely to find the section enlightening and interesting.

In all, the authoritative, well-researched book is an encyclopedic study of the man whose genius left a timeless mark on American music. Pollock is to be congratulated for his significant contribution to our understanding George Gershwin, the man and the musician.

“George Gershwin: His Life and Work” by Howard Pollack (909 pages, University of California Press, $39.95