Life of an Editor: Working on Gershwin’s Three Preludes

Every once in a while I get to work on a project that’s really exciting, and the recently released new edition of George Gershwin’s Three Preludes, which I co-edited with Richard Walters, sits definitively in that camp. I’ve always loved the music of Gershwin, and any new edition of a piece means some heavy-lifting editorial work, so in the months of production work I became very familiar with this music.

So what does it take to make a new edition of a super-popular piano work? Well, first we examined all available published editions, noting editorial choices and additions, levels of scholarship, etc. A 1996 Alfred edition of the “complete preludes” included some other pieces that Gershwin had premiered with the Three Preludes set, and some fragments. These give a glimpse of Gershwin’s plans for a full 24-key prelude cycle, and are described in-depth in Howard Pollack’s excellent Gershwin biography.

The next step was fun, as I reached out to the Library of Congress to obtain scans of manuscripts held in the George and Ira Gershwin Collection. I ordered every source for the preludes, including the aforementioned extra preludes and fragments. Looking over the manuscripts was a real treat. The third prelude had multiple drafts and I could clearly see steps in the compositional process.

Audio recordings provided a final resource for musical content. Gershwin had recorded Three Preludes in 1928, and then had performed Prelude II separately in a 1932 radio broadcast. These were enlightening in terms of tempos, rhythmic variation, and other choices in a live performance setting.

I would have supported publication of a full volume of preludes minus the fragments (one of which became part of Gershwin’s Concerto in F), but the choice was ultimately made to retain the usual three-prelude set.

To keep track of all the sources now floating around, and to compare content differences between them, I marked up printouts of the Library of Congress copyist manuscript, color-coding for details in different sources. I essentially proofread the music seven times before we even did any engraving! I typed up a report on my findings and had meetings with Richard Walters to discuss every musical event. We added bracketed editorial marks resulting from our study of the sources. The engraving and proofreading process went smoothly, and the final steps involved preparing a textual commentary addressing the largest content topics from the source comparisons and defending our choices as they appeared in the final music.

As with any publication not part of an existing series, there was an element of art and design. We were pleased with the classy design from our art department that outlines the New York skyline.

After months of looking at Gershwin’s Three Preludes up close and playing through them countless times, and absorbing all the minutiae of their history, I feel like some kind of scholar on the music. I could at least probably teach a university class session. And that feels like an accomplishment. I hope pianists and music lovers enjoy this fresh look at these beloved pieces.

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