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Commentary: The divine’s influence on George Gershwin’s genius is present in every note

This is a Sept. 20, 1935, portrait of George Gershwin, composer of “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Porgy and Bess.”
(Associated Press)

Has there ever been a musical score so pulsating — and so sublime — as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue?”

I think not.

Written in 1924, it’s said to be the most-performed and most-recorded orchestral composition of the 20th century. Gershwin was nothing less than an American genius. His works spanned classical and popular boundaries, and “Rhapsody in Blue” was a highlight of his career.

Spoiler alert: Unmusical as one can possibly be, I’m completely out of my element here. I know almost nothing of creating music, yet I sally forth.


Gershwin seems to me to have been especially gifted and wired for brilliance. What, I wonder, went on in his head as he composed his seminal work? What, for that matter, were Ludwig van Beethoven, Albert Einstein and Martin Luther contemplating in their moments of creative triumph? Clearly, they were activated by divine inspiration.

Whatever their triggers were, they exceeded my humble achievements by light years. Their brains were such that they’d have required Diocletian’s Palace for lodging. My gray matter would probably fit snugly into a diminutive flower pot meant for a Gerbera daisy.

So, this is my treatise on genius: I’ve never actually been touched by such a gift (except having a granddaughter who’ll attend Harvard in the fall). Maybe that’s why genius so intrigues me.

It’s said that geniuses possess exceptional intellectual abilities (duh!), a Pacific Ocean of creative juices and a horizonless imagination. Historian and novelist Paul Maier, himself a genius, makes an appropriate distinction for Mr. Non-Genius Everyman in his book, “The Flames of Rome,” writing, “No man is ever a complete failure. He can always serve as a horrible example.”


I’m covered!

Revered in the United States and Europe, Gershwin died in 1937 at the age of 38 — half a century too soon. Irony of ironies, he died of a tumor that ravaged his remarkable brain. Western Culture is poorer today for that malignancy.

Over the decades, educators and critics alike have speculated as to what might have happened had the euphonious supernova lived an additional 50 years. I believe he’d have created masterpieces second-to-none in the second half of the 20th century and forever altered America’s musical landscape.

My initial exposure to “Rhapsody in Blue,” save listening as a teen to my father’s 78 rpm records, took place during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when 84 grand pianos played the piece in opening ceremonies at the Coliseum. It was electrifying.

With my above assertions, I’m sure readers will label me churlish and naïve. Not so. I have a bent for judging whether a thing is luminescent or not (the exception being anything Picasso). I know genius when I see it … and so, I aver, do you.

Remember God asking Job a series of questions to settle who’s in charge in the grand scheme of things? The short answer is: It ain’t us.

Even persons gilded of knowledge and tongue are speechless in the presence of true perfection.

Genius is genius, but works of genius can oft be identified and appreciated by plebeians like myself. I don’t have to be a basketball backboard to know Stephen Curry is an exceptional player. I’m also permitted to treasure God’s starry vault without understanding it.


My thoughts – though simple and flawed – appreciate profundity.

“Rhapsody in Blue” conveys giftedness and stands as perhaps America’s greatest piece of music. Brilliance is sometimes in the eye of the beholder, true, but God’s creation is never to be underestimated. The grandeur of it is cooked into our DNA.

This world’s creator is magnificent beyond description. Ten thousand Tolstoys can’t establish his boundaries or plot his proportions. We daily pay homage — whether we admit it or not — to his standards.

Purpose can be seen in everything.

The good news is this: The Supreme Genius behind a billion swirling galaxies delights in us, whether we’re geniuses or not.

Jim Carnett, a former Daily Pilot columnist, lives in Costa Mesa.