Gershwin: Three Preludes

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Gershwin’s Three Preludes for solo piano have been a staple of the American piano repertoire since their first publication in 1927.

Like many, I have long relied upon the 1992 Boosey & Hawkes edition, so I was intrigued to receive a new edition by Brendan Fox and Richard Walters, recently published by Hal Leonard.

Interest piqued, it wasn’t long before I found myself won over…

Three Preludes

When George Gershwin (1898-1937) composed these Three Preludes in 1926, he was already well-known as a composer of popular songs and broadway musicals, but his career had just reached dizzying new heights following the successes of the Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and Concerto in F (1925), trailblazing compositions that successfully fused jazz idioms with large scale concert works.

Now he planned to compose a series of 24 Preludes for piano, provisionally entitled The Melting Pot, and including one piece in each key following the template of Bach and Chopin.

An admirer of the composer, writing in Vanity Fair, exclaimed:

“Some of Gershwin’s finest inspirations have not as yet been either published or publicly performed. It is probable that the production of his twenty-four preludes … will award him a still higher rank in the army of contemporary composers.”

Alas, the cycle remained incomplete due to his intense activity on other projects and early death. However, by December 4th 1926 he had composed the first five pieces in the series, which he premiered at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City.

The following year he selected three of the five for publication, and they quickly established themselves as another huge success, remaining popular to this day. And while each can be played in isolation, together they make a perfectly formed set.

The Fox & Walters Edition

For their new edition, Fox and Walters have used the original 1927 ‘New World Edition’ as primary source, noting that since Gershwin himself oversaw and approved this first edition it represents the most authentic complete score.

However, they also consulted manuscript sources at the Library of Congress, as well as listening to the composer’s revelatory recordings of 1928 and 1932, and considered the recent Maurice Hinson edition (Alfred Music, 2006) and Norbert Gertsch urtext edition (Henle Verlag, 2008).

Here’s the 1928 recording:

While this comprehensive approach has perhaps not yielded hugely significant variant readings, their detailed examination of the sources results in a four page ‘Notes’ section at the start of the book, outlining the plethora of minor discrepancies they found, which are certainly worth consulting.

They have also included sensible and helpful fingerings throughout, while retaining Gershwin’s few original suggestions in italics. Fox and Walters’ other editorial suggestions appear in brackets throughout, so are clearly distinguished.

The Publication

The book itself arrives in a tasteful cover on gloss card:

Within there’s a full-page black-and-white photograph of the composer and a helpful Preface by the editors. A further page is devoted to detailing their Sources, leading to the ‘Notes’ section already mentioned.

The scores for the three pieces take up the remainder of this 24 page book, and are more generously engraved here than elsewhere.

The music font is far more contemporary and easier on the eye than that of my old Boosey & Hawkes edition, while the spacing is more spread out here than in either that or the recent (and more expensive) Henle Urtext version.

After the Second Prelude, there’s one of those “this page is left blank notices, the result of which is that the four-page Third Prelude only entails one awkward page-turn, rather than the two I am used to. Happy times!

To Conclude …

Prior to receiving the review copy for this new edition, I hadn’t particularly felt I was losing out with my trusty old copy of the Three Preludes … but what a difference!

It seems to me that this is a good case study in how paying extra attention to detail can have a huge impact on the quality and usefulness of an edition. In this case, the helpful introductory notes and inclusion of (in all but name) a critical commentary already sets this edition apart.

But the super clear engraving, spacious presentation, and the addition of uniformly good editorial fingering clinches the deal. Factor in the low price, and the new Fox & Walters edition from Hal Leonard is decisively now the one to go for.

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, published author and composer based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs a successful private teaching studio.

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