Gershwin’s Summertime

The South’s melting summertime humidity finds its musical counterpart in George Gershwin’s 1935 song “Summertime.” It’s a languid lullaby in the style of an early-1900s African American spiritual. Though the song’s legacy is so potent that over 25,000 artists have recorded it, “Summertime” originally cast its spell as an aria within Gershwin’s self-described folk opera Porgy and Bess (lyrics by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin). Today we feature our own arrangement of the song to celebrate George Gershwin’s 120th birthday!

As you watch and listen to this performance by Randall Faber, notice how the introduction meanders like a stream—no rich, grounding harmonies here—eventually thinning to a skeletal and oscillating E-F#. Enter the melody: floating, buoyed by a slowly moving, gently rocking harmonic foundation that depicts the swaying motion of a mother singing her young child to sleep. The melody itself is entirely pentatonic, utilizing only the pitches G-A-C-D-E. Exactly the type of scale one expects from a folk song or spiritual. Combined with the ambling blues-structured bass line, Gershwin delivers an original and authentic evocation of the African American spiritual. At the second iteration of the melody, our arrangement lets loose a bit with improvisatory, blues-scale-derived ornamentation in the right hand. Try it out…play with it a bit.  Then experiment with your own ornamentation (explore blues improvisation further in Discover Blues Improvisation). You’ll find this piece an engaging springboard for teaching creative improvisation!

Find this arrangement of “Summertime” by Nancy and Randall Faber in Piano Adventures Level 5 Popular Repertoire.