The Composer and his Muse: George Gershwin and Kay Swift


Kay Swift was the first woman to compose an entire Broadway score. The show was Fine and Dandy, a confection tailored to the talents of a little remembered comic named Joe Cook. During the 1930-31 theater season, Fine and Dandy ran neck and neck with the Gershwins' hit Girl Crazy. Swift wrote a handful of songs (such as "Can This Be Love?," "Whistling in the Dark," and "Can't We Be Friends?") that are familiar from recordings, cabaret interpretations, and the waves of Muzak that form the soundtrack for contemporary urban life. Despite all of this, Kay Swift isn't a household name. For posterity, she's linked to the Gershwins, but the link isn't Girl Crazy or anything musical; it's her long love affair with the elusive bachelor George Gershwin.

Born into a well-educated family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Katharine Swift was surrounded from early childhood by artists and their art. Her father, a music critic, took her regularly to the concerts that he covered, and she prowled the backstage corridors of the old Metropolitan Opera House with a close comrade whose mother was one of the company's stars. At the Institute of Musical Art (subsequently Juilliard), Swift received a rigorous musical education and made contacts that would serve her well for years to come. Soon after graduation, she married James Paul Warburg, scion of the German-American banking family that controlled M.M. Warburg in Europe and Kuhn, Loeb in the United States. The newlyweds were conspicuous in Manhattan's Jazz Age society, socializing with the Irving Berlins, the Cole Porters, and the Algonquin wits. At their homes in New York City and Greenwich, Connecticut, Katharine and James threw Gatsby-scale parties that made them catnip for the gossip columns.

Defying social position and maternal obligations, Swift became a Broadway
Kay and George
rehearsal pianist and professional composer. She understood implicitly the conventions of both classical and popular music. Endlessly inventive, she had a knack for experimenting with rhythm, harmony, and melody that made all of her songs arresting and the best of them unpredictable. With her taste for leopard print clothes and zebra skin décor, Swift had personal flair, as well. If she was an anomaly in the Warburgs' world, her husband was, too; beneath a bland banker's exterior, James Paul Warburg concealed a poetic sensibility and a gift for rhyme. Using the nom de plume Paul James, he served his wife as lyricist on Fine and Dandy and a number of popular songs.

Both Swift's marriage to Warburg and her professional momentum appear to have been in jeopardy from the moment she crossed paths with George Gershwin; when the two met at a party in 1925, their attraction was, reportedly, immediate and evident to all in the room.

For Swift, Gershwin may have offered a jaunty, rough-edged contrast to Warburg's Harvard-honed suavity. She coached him in etiquette and how to dress for mixing with the upper crust. Because Gershwin's formal musical education had been modest, she tutored him in counterpoint and orchestration. Together, they studied advanced music theory. Adept at taking musical dictation, Kay notated Gershwin's compositions as they flowed from his exuberant imagination. To her this must have seemed like peeking into the inner reaches of his creativity. As though to suggest that they'd come to view the world from the same perspective, she gave him a watch fob shaped like a dove, with gems as its eyes -- one a sapphire, George's birthstone; the other a diamond, which was Kay's. Gershwin wore it as a talisman when he performed in public.



Kay and George Gershwin at Kay’s home, Bydale, in Greenwich, CT.

There are many ways in which one might assemble the puzzle pieces of this relationship. But, to quote a Paul James lyric from Swift's most famous song, "this is how the story ends": Swift subordinated her creativity to the service of Gershwin's genius, functioning as his amanuensis and writing little or nothing of her own for the four years that followed the premiere of Fine and Dandy. Despite the magnitude of that sacrifice, she didn't succeed in her apparent plan to meld her life to his. Oscar Levant, well-acquainted with Gershwin's wandering eye and his wariness to commit, quipped: "Ah, look! Here comes George Gershwin with the future Miss Kay Swift!" Gershwin was known to find married women safer bets than single ones. Perhaps Swift's availability after she divorced Warburg made her less attractive and more intimidating to him, or perhaps they both were astute enough to figure the lousy odds of Gershwin curbing his well-known yen for variety. Whatever the reason, Kay and George went their separate ways when the Gershwin brothers left for Hollywood in the summer of 1936. Less than a year later, at age 38, George died of a brain tumor.

After Gershwin's death in 1937, Ira Gershwin collaborated with Swift to complete and arrange some of his unpublished works. He said that she knew almost all of George's music, "had taken down sketches as he composed and had total musical recall."

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The Story Behind Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."



At age 25, took only three weeks to compose one of the most enduring pieces of American music. Used for the film score to Woody Allen's Manhattan, the episodic and jazzy one-movement piano concerto evokes the hustle and bustle of New York's grand metropolitan aura.

NPR's Jeff Lunden tells the story of Gershwin's most identifiable masterpiece.


This is what Mozart's own violin actually sounds like


Oh, not much to see here, just the violin that Mozart composed countless works of genius with...

This is the holy grail of violins

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart liked to have a good number of instruments lying around his music room and owned a number of violins. We're interested in this one, made by the Klotz family of luthiers in southern Germany around 1700. Today, it lives in the Salzburg Mozarteum under lock and key.

Back in 2013, the violin got a special treat: its first trip to the USA. For its New York debut, the Klotz violin was played by composer, violinist and all-round Mozart fanboy David Fulmer.

Here he is, giving it an affectionate pat on the bottom:

He had a few things to say about the Klotz violin: firstly, it's in great condition and is essentially a window into the past. “It’s incredible to think that Mozart not only used this as a performer, but also as a composer - and on this very violin he wrote and played his five violin concerti and the monumental masterpiece of the Sinfonia Concertante K364.”

It’s quieter than modern instruments, apparently. Here's Fulmer playing an excerpt of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in C K296:




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Creating Harmony: How Music Can Support Social Emotional Development

Music class

Making music with your child can be so much fun for both of you, whether you’re singing along to the radio in the car, jamming on plastic bowl “drums,” or dancing to songs on your iPod.  Plus, music-making helps your child’s development in many important ways. The best part? You don’t have to have a great singing voice or play a musical instrument to have an impact. The simple and enjoyable act of making music with your child naturally fosters important social and emotional skills, such as self-regulation, self-confidence, leadership skills, social skills, and socio-emotional intelligence.

In fact, recent research[i] has found that preschoolers who engaged in participatory group music and movement activities showed greater group cohesion, cooperation, and prosocial behavior when compared to children who did not engage in the same music activities. Singing and dancing together led to increased empathy (the ability to understand and even share in the feelings of others) for the children with whom they were making music. Even in infancy,[ii] adult-child music and movement interactions can lead to better communication and increased emotional and social coordination and connection, both rhythmically and emotionally, between the adult and the child. Researchers propose this might support infants’ earliest abilities to engage in positive social interactions with others.

So, you can have fun making music with your whole family and know that you are also supporting your child’s social and emotional growth. Here are some ideas for music activities you can try at home to specifically support several areas of socio-emotional learning.
Self-control and Self-regulation

Singing a song like “BINGO,” where you are challenged to incrementally leave out a phrase in the song, is a fun way for children to practice the crucial skill of impulse control in daily life. You can try this technique with any song you and your children know. As you sing a familiar tune, ask your child to leave out one of the words in the next lyric/phrase. During this game, children exercise self-control and self-regulation and experience what it feels like to resist doing something. It’s the same concept at work in the popular backyard game “Red Light, Green Light!”
Self-confidence and Leadership Skills

Ask your child to lead YOU in a favorite song, maybe one she learned at school. Just follow your child’s lead whether she gets the lyrics or melody “right” or not. This simple activity gives her a chance to be the leader—and supports her self-confidence as she experiences that her way of interpreting the song is accepted and embraced by you. Similarly, songs that ask children to come up with their own word or sound also support self-confidence and leadership skills. For example, in “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” children can choose an animal to sing about and imitate its sound in their own way.
Social Skills and Socio-emotional Intelligence

Whether making music with just you or with the whole family, group music-making challenges children to work with others as an “ensemble.” They learn the importance of respecting others’ space and how they express themselves. They also get to practice working together towards a common goal (e.g., when holding hands while dancing). Respect, collaboration, and working as a team are all important social skills for your child to develop.
Empathy Development

Making music in a group also challenges children to watch the people around them for subtle cues to timing, volume, and expressiveness—the same cues that we use for reading expressions and moods on people’s faces. Being able to perceive and understand people’s feelings is a basis for empathy and moral development. 

Actively making music with your child is a fun and easy way to support your child's socio-emotional learning, helping them to develop self-regulation, self-confidence, leadership skills, social skills, and much more! So, the next time you sing with your child, try some of the activities suggested here. And remember, it doesn’t matter whether you consider yourself “musical.” Your joyful participation and enjoyment is what is most important!









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[i] Kirschner, S. & Tomasello, M. (2010). Joint music-making promotes prosocial behavior in 4-year-old children. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 354-364.

[ii] Gerry, D., Unrau, A., & Trainor, L. J. (2012). Active music classes in infancy enhance musical, communicative and social development. Developmental Science, 15(3), 398-407.

About the Author
Lauren Guilmartin
Music Together LLC Director of Early Learning

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Music Education For Creativity, Not A Tool For Test Scores


Many schools these days face a difficult question. How can they improve student test scores while also cutting budgets? In some cases, it's music education that gets the ax and advocates argue that learning music comes with lots of academic upside, including improved grades and attendance. They're mounting a new effort to spread their message that the real virtues of music cannot be tested.

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