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October 8, 2009

Beach Boy Brian Wilson to complete unfinished Gershwin songs

Here's an idea straight from La-La Land, figuratively and literally. Brian Wilson, of Beach Boys fame, has been authorized by the estate of George Gershwin to create songs out of fragments left by the iconic American composer of "Rhapsody in Blue," "American in Paris" and "Porgy and Bess." Turns out that Wilson is working on an album of Gershwin songs, a project that will now likely include a couple of his realizations of what Gershwin left behind.

Is it just me, or does this sound like a terrible idea? No disrespect to Wilson, but he doesn't strike me as the most logical choice to take on such a project -- assuming the very notion of choosing anyone to do such a thing is logical. But, according to a story in the LA Times,


Todd Gershwin, George's great-nephew and a trustee of the George Gershwin family trusts, said, "George for his time was a visionary. He certainly crossed genres and musical lines, tried things that hadn't been done before and Brian Wilson has done exactly the same thing."

For his part, Wilson, 67, described himself Tuesday as "thrilled to death." "I'm proud to be able to do it," he said in an interview. "Hopefully I'll be able to do them justice."

Todd Gershwin said a collection of several dozen song fragments, ranging from "a few bars to some almost finished songs and everything in between" had been sitting virtually untouched for more than seven decades. He and other trustees began reaching out in the last year or two to find contemporary artists who might be interested in completing those musical bits and pieces.

Oh, well. I suppose it could be even stranger -- a hip-hopper, or Country-Western star, for example. But maybe Wilson will surprise everybody with music that manages to retain and imaginatively expand upon the essence of whatever kernels of melody, harmony and fascinating rhythm Gershwin left behind. On the other hand, maybe someone will declare, "Let's call the whole thing off."



Posted by Tim Smith at 10:52 AM | | Comments (13)


I'm not sure how familiar you are with Brian Wilson's music, but if you consider what he wrote for the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" album, and his own recently completed "Smile," the idea isn't really that far fetched. Brian Wilson is actually more of a true composer, like Gershwin, than you might realize.

If your impression of Brian Wilson, understandably, is "surfer music" and "Help Me Rhonda," than I can see why you'd be shocked by this. But there's more to Brian Wilson than that.

Then again, you might already know that and still think it's a bad idea! Just wanted to point it out.

Thanks for commenting. I should have acknowledged right away that there's more to Wilson than surfer hits. I'm probably just bothered with the idea of anyone trying to finish Gershwin songs. I'm all for outside-the-box thinking, but I guess I'd be more inclined to look for someone deeply immersed in the traditions of 1920s and '30s American songs. That said, I really am curious to hearthe results of Wilson's efforts. TIM


Brian plays Rhapsody in Blue by ear - a partial recording can be found on his 2005 dvd, "Brian Wilson Presents Smile". Playing Rhapsody in Blue isn't easy for an accomplished pianist, and playing it by ear, having not studied or read the music is pretty good. I would think choosing Brian is a perfect way to attempt to finish what could be some magnificent music. Brian's favorite composer is Gershwin and his ear is unparalleled in music today. You might acquaint yourself with some of his compositions, especially from 1966-73. It is devoid of the "beach music" feel and completely sophisticated, however not symphonic. Give him a chance, and it is hardly strange. Strange is a music critic who is not familiar with an important American composer.

Thanks for the response, Ted. As I mentioned to the previous commenter, I just don't I really buy the need to finish Gershwin's fragments. I know that there's much more to Wilson than the Beach Boys (since I'm a classical music critic, I hope you won't find it too "strange" that I'm not as familiar with his work as I am with Mahler's), and I'm certainly willing to give him a chance. But it's surely not so odd for some folks to feel a little initial skepticism. TIM

What great news!
there is no one else around that would have suited this project previous posters have said...listen to his catalog of work.
I know this will be damn good..I hope there is a tour.

This could be really interesting. Wilson is an old man, finishing work done by a younger man. Of course he's already done that when he finished the Smile album after 38 years. But that was his own music, not someone else's. But if you listen to Smile you can hear the various forms of American music that influenced it, so there is a connection.
Also, I've read that a compilation album of artists finishing Gershwin songs is in the works.

You should be more respectful of Brian Wilson. Unless you're familiar with his later compositions like "Good Vibrations", "Wild Honey" and "Heroes and Villains", then you could easily dismiss him as a minor pop composer. But his arrangements and studio production were truly revolutionary. Both Gershwin and Wilson were visionary geniuses in their time. Brian Wilson is a perfect choice for the assignment.

Well, let's add one more comment about Brian Wilson. Part of Gershwin's greatness and the greatness of that generation was the ability to combine lyrics with music as a single musical form, not unlike madrigal music, one of the roots of rock 'n roll. His lyrics from one of the early Beach Boys songs, In My Room, is one of the most touching set of lyrics to come out of the whole rock era. If he can not only complete the musical score, but also add the lyrics, ... . He might prove to be an excellent choice.

Thanks for writing. TIM

No doubt some of the more public figureheads of American classical music these days (i.e. MTT, etc) would have loved this project for themselves. But perhaps this is a better choice -- someone who is familiar with the mindset of a popular songwriter such as Gershwin was in his time, but also respectful of the authentic fragments.

How will the copyright play out when Wilson uses his own artistic work with Gershwin's?

p.s. Congrats, your blog (and it's auto-profiling sidebar advertisements from the SUN) made headlines on the Cereal List!

Thanks for the comments. I rather imagine Michael Feinstein isn't too thrilled, either. It sure will be interesting to see how all this plays out. TIM

One listen to "Don't Talk" or "God Only Knows" from Pet Sounds definitely shows he can do this. Even more so, take a listen to the original vision of Surf's Up.
i think it just shows he's perfect for something like this.

This is the letter I sent to Adam Gershwin of the George Gershwin Family Trust when I read the story about Brian Wilson completing some of Gershwin's songs.


Dear Mr. Gershwin:

In today’s Los Angeles Times, I read Randy Lewis’ story about Brian Wilson being authorized to complete some unfinished songs left behind by your uncle, George Gershwin. I’m writing to ask if, during your family’s deliberation of hiring Wilson, you considered another gifted arranger, composer and orchestrator for this prestigious position. I’m referring to Don Rose.

Kay Swift wrote the following about Rose’s work in her liner notes that were included in the CBS Masterworks Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue (1925 Piano Roll); An American in Paris; Broadway Overtures album directed by Michael Tilson Thomas:

The six overtures by George Gershwin presented in this album had never been previously recorded as a group. Each was composed for a separate musical comedy. None was scored for a larger orchestra than used in theaters, which meant that the players numbered from eighteen to twenty-two.

Here, however, gifted arranger Don Rose has given these overtures a full symphonic treatment, which has heightened their impact as well as bringing to listeners a fuller appreciation of the importance of this music. Those of us who heard the shows during the composer’s lifetime are convinced that he would have been pleased with the result of Don Rose’s intensive study, over a period of years, of Gershwin’s own orchestrations in such symphonic works as An American in Paris, the Second Rhapsody, the Variations on “I Got Rhythm” and Porgy and Bess. Ira Gershwin’s comment was “Just like George—just like George.”

Since reading Miss Swift’s notes, I have learned that, when listening to these overtures, Ira admitted he could not tell where George left off and where Rose began; Rose’s work was that seamless. In addition, according to Adam Harvey’s The Soundtracks of Woody Allen, these same arrangements by Rose inspired what has been called Allen’s magnum opus film, Manhattan.

If you have not heard these arrangements by Rose, I would encourage you to listen to them, because they are excellent. In my professional opinion, Don Rose is the artist who can take the collection of song fragments by your uncle that have been untouched for decades and complete them to both Gershwins’, that is, George’s and Ira’s, satisfaction.

Sincerely yours,

Louis Pine
Historian of Joseph Schillinger's life and work [Historian]

Thanks for sharing this. Good luck, TIM

Though it would be interesting to hear his intepretations, Brian Wilson may not be the best man for this job. For that matter, open it up to wide variety of musicians and arrangers. I would love to hear what Danger Mouse would do with the material. Brian Wilson operates in a narrow band of pop music. He's not musically pithy or nimble enough. As for the orchestrations and arrangements referenced to by other commentors, most were done by Van Dyke Parks, who also contributed to the original compositions. Park is nimble enough for this job and has a wide-ranging knowledge and love of the American song book and pop music throughout American history.

Also, remember the delightful Red Hot + Blue with pop renditions of Gershwin classics from Annie Lennox, the Jungle Bros, Erasure, Tom Waits, etc. There's a lot of room for innovation and play in those songs.

Oops, those were Cole Porter songs. Never mind.


Thanks for keeping us informed. I agree that Wilson's choice is on the surface strange and success is unlikely.
Many who commented make the case that Wilson is an accomplished, innovative, creative (etc) composer. That is beside the point. There are many many others who also have these qualities and maybe are closer to the Gershwin gestalt.
However, it seems that nobody else has been interested enough - in the last 70 years -
to complete the songs. I wonder why?


My guess is the answer lies with the folks handling the estate. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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